illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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What are Shakespeare's contributions to English literature?

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One of William Shakespeare's contributions to English literature was that he added about 1,700 words to the English language by invention or combination and by borrowing roots from other languages. In his plays, he created highly complex characters with rich interiority and constructed enduring plots that have become touchstones for much of English literature since. He helped to popularize the English sonnet form, which is also known as the Shakespearean sonnet because of his fame and influence.

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William Shakespeare's contributions to English literature are so numerous that it would be difficult to discuss them fully in a single eNotes post. Therefore, some highlights of his many contributions include promoting British literature globally, galvanizing a developing London theater scene and broadening access to the theater to a growing public that likely also contributed to the rise of theater cultures in many other countries, and staging well-known stories so that a broad audience could enjoy them and understand them better.

In terms of promoting British literature, Shakespeare is among the most widely translated authors on record. His works are read and performed in a myriad of international places and translated into more than 100 other languages, according to the British Council.

While Shakespeare did not create the public theater scene in London, his work as a playwright and in constructing the famous Globe Theater where his plays premiered likely helped to galvanize a developing theater culture and contribute to the rise of public theater in many other places. Prior to Shakespeare and a handful of other playwrights immediately preceding him, theater was largely performed only at royal courts, where the monarch could command a constant flow of entertainment for the courtiers of royal and aristocratic heritage. The general public had limited access to theater. As Shakespeare and his contemporaries, including Marlowe, worked to make theater accessible to both the crown and the masses, the theater evolved into a respected form of entertainment that could also be educational.

Shakespeare’s plays were educational not only because of his astute and deep understanding of human nature that he was able to capture in the written and spoken word, but also because many of his plays were based on historical and well-known stories. For example, by creating plays based on Roman rulers and British kings (Julius Caesar, Henry V, and Richard III, among others), he brought these stories to life so vividly that it enabled a broad audience to better understand their historical context. Of course, in some cases, his views of history were colored by current events.

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Shakespeare has had an enormous influence on English literature. Shakespeare, who was never afraid to innovate, contributed more than 1,700 words to the English language. More importantly, he innovated with character. For example, Hamlet has been called the first modern play because of the intense interiority of its title character. Hamlet is always thinking, and the audience is allowed to hear those thoughts through his many soliloquies. 

Because Shakespeare had a deep understanding of people from all walks of life and created deeply imagined, well-rounded characters, so human they can seem nonfictional, the subjects of his plays sank deeply into the psyches of many great writers, as well as into the hearts of anyone else who experienced his work. His plots were also very well known, and by the late eighteenth century, he was revered even though he broke all the rules of Classical drama. Thus, writers frequently allude to him, to the point that unfamiliarity with Shakespeare can rob readers of much of the allusive richness of English literature.

A contemporary parallel to Shakespeare's influence would be The Wizard of Oz. This work has so permeated the American consciousness that most Americans understand immediately what such allusions as "we're not in Kansas anymore" or "the witch is dead" mean without needing them explained or told where they come from.

Likewise, allusions to Shakespeare show up everywhere in English literature, high literature and low. For example, in Jane Austen's Emma, considered one of the great novels in English, Emma quotes A Midsummer's Night Dream. In popular literature, Agatha Christie's mysteries, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes, allude to Shakespeare. One could make a pastime of locating Shakespeare allusions in English literature and find them all over.

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Shakespeare made many contributions to English Literature and one of the ones that affects us every day is his contribution to the English language.  In fact, Shakespeare actually frequently made up his own words, which still live on in the English language today. Scholars point out that Shakespeare is responsible for coining about 1,700 of the English words found in our 25,000 word-long English vocabulary. The article "Words Shakespeare Invented" by Amanda Mabillard contains a list of a few words Shakespeare coined.

One word Shakespeare is known to have coined is the word accused. He took the Greek prefix acou-, acous-, acouso-, or acoust-, meaning "denotes hearing," which was already being used in Late Middle English, and combined it with the past tense ending -ed to refer to those who are on trial are those who need a hearing to determine their guilt or innocence (Prefix Dictionary, Oxford Dictionaries Online). Shakespeare first coined the word accused in the play Richard II, Act I, Scene I, when, speaking of those who are being formally charged of treason, King Richard II says:

Then call them to our presence; face to face,
And frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear
The accuser and the accused freely speak. (I.i.16-18)

The word unreal was also coined by Shakespeare. He took the Latin prefix un- meaning "not" or "deprived of" and combined it with the Latin word realis being used in Late Middle English as a word in legal terminology meaning "relating to things, especially real property" (Prefix Dictionary; Oxford Dictionaries Online). The word unreal first appears in Macbeth in Act III, Scene IV when Macbeth exclaims of the ghost of Banquo, "Hence, horrible shadow! / Unreal mockery, hence!" (III.iv. 106-07).

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What are the contributions of William Shakespeare?

Other than making some great phrases and creative insults, two contributions come immediately to mind.

His first contribution would be the sonnet form he used. Sonnets originated in Italy and were popularized by poet Francesco Petrarca, more commonly known as Petrarch, and were initially brought to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Though they both had translated Petrarch’s sonnets, Wyatt used the form in his own original work.

The problem is Petrarchan sonnets, as a form, are more suited to a romance language like Italian. The rhyme scheme is abbaabbacdcdcd and is difficult for a germanic language like English.

Shakespeare used the form ababcdcdefefgg. This rhyme scheme was much easier and was used by other famous poets such as Charlotte Smith, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Shakespeare also added many words to the English language. "Bedroom" first appeared in 1600 in Act II Scene ii of Midsummer Night’s Dream, "bloodstained" in 1594 in Act II Scene iii of Titus Andronicus, and the list goes on.  Where these were likely words he may have overheard, they were not put into print until the manuscripts were all together in the 1623 quarto.

For more information on his wordplay, see Shakespeare’s Wordplay.

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What are the contributions of William Shakespeare?

Shakespeare's largest contribution, in my view, is his popularization of the language of the English language Bible, particularly in that he borrowed liberally from the first Bible printed particularly for study and scholarship, the Geneva Bible (the version that just predated the 1611 King James Bible -- the Bible eventually compiled for regular use for common people).  Shakespeare's use of language, his imagery, metaphors, and HUGE vocabulary, when seen and heard in action on the stage, connected people to words and their possibilities. Shakespeare knew he would make that connection even easier when he used phrases already familiar to his audiences, phrases they would have heard in church or at home from the only book that would likely have been in a home at that time before the printing press and before literacy was at all commonplace. 

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