Happy birthday to William Shakespeare, who was born 452 years ago this Saturday and died 400 years ago, also this Saturday. (The guy always had great timing.)
As the old joke goes, Shakespeare used a lot of clichés – the joke being that they became clichés when other writers started ripping them off. It's amazing how many phrases he coined are still a part of our everyday language 400 years later. They number in the thousands.
To list just a tiny sample: "Knock knock! Who’s there?" (Macbeth), "Kill with kindness" (The Taming of the Shrew), "Laughing stock" (The Merry Wives of Windsor), "Love is blind" (The Merchant of Venice), "Good riddance" (Troilus and Cressida), "Milk of human kindness" (Macbeth), "Play fast and loose" (King John), "One fell swoop" (Macbeth), "Break the ice" (The Taming of the Shrew), "Refuse to budge an inch" (Measure for Measure), "Cold comfort" (The Taming of the Shrew), "Dead as a doornail" (Henry VI Part II), "Give the devil his due" (Henry IV Part I), "Eaten me out of house and home" (Henry IV Part II), "For goodness’ sake" (Henry VIII), "Foregone conclusion" (Othello), "Jealousy is the green-eyed monster" (Othello), "Heart of gold" (Henry V), and "Wild-goose chase" (Romeo and Juliet).
For the first few hundred years after he died, nobody questioned whether he wrote those great plays and sonnets. But lately, poor Will has become like Rodney Dangerfield: He just can't get no respect.
People as diverse as Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Helen Keller Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw have suggested that someone else must have written them and used Shakespeare as a front man. Among the candidates: Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Essex, Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the current favorite, Edward de Vere, 7th Earl of Oxford.
Their argument is sheer snobbery: How could a country bumpkin from Stratford, who never made it past grammar school, possibly have written such sophisticated plays with such a huge vocabulary and such a great insight into human nature?
But Shakespeare's school, the King's New School in Stratford, wasn't like the grammar schools of today. The students learned Latin and Greek, and they had a thorough grounding in the classics.
Besides, Shakespeare was an auto-didact. His real teacher was himself. He consumed literature like a vacuum cleaner, and it all came out in his writing.
Another auto-didact was Abraham Lincoln, who had even less formal schooling than Shakespeare - a total of less than one year in "blab school," where the students shouted versus from McGuffey's Reader in unison at the top of their lungs. And Lincoln wrote some pretty good speeches, too.
As for the Bard's huge vocabulary, there's a simple reason why he knew so many words: He invented them.
Shakespeare's language is so sublime, it has transcended the enormous gap of four centuries and still speaks to us today. He even has the best description of our current presidential candidates.
When they campaign: "His promises fly so beyond his state/That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes/For every word."
And after they're elected: "His promises were, as he then was, mighty;/But his performance, as he is now, nothing."