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Interactive image: the life and language of Shakespeare

For many of us, most of our knowledge of Shakespeare comes from what we were taught at school. But how much can you remember, other than the odd quotation (‘is this a dagger I see before me’ sticks in my mind)?

Even if you didn’t do much Shakespeare at school, or it was too long ago to remember, celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday by exploring the life and language of Britain’s most famous bard. Discover where and when he was born, learn about his contribution to the Oxford English Dictionary, and find out how Shakespearean your English is.

Simply click on the numbers or arrows below to work your way through the images. Click on the images and some fascinating facts will appear below.

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Shakespeare the man
Where it all began…
All the world’s a stage
Shakespeare and the OED
Shakespeare and the OED: night owl
Shakespeare and the OED: green-eyed monster
Shakespeare and the OED: pound of flesh
How Shakespearean are you?
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Despite his status as the nation’s most-loved poet, the life of Shakespeare himself has been subject to some controversy and much theorizing over the years.

We know that William Shakespeare was baptized on 26 April 1564. He was probably born between 21 and 23 April but the exact date is unclear. The traditional celebration on 23 April can be traced back to the scholar George Steevens who adopted that date in his 1773 edition of Shakespeare’s works. It seems that it was more convenient to assume that Shakespeare was born on St George’s day, so that England’s patron saint and the birth of the ‘Bard of Avon’ could be celebrated on the same day.

Information about Shakespeare’s early life in Stratford and formative years in London as an actor and aspiring playwright is also fairly sparse. This lack of evidence, combined with his fairly humble background, has led many to doubt the authorship of his plays. Some have suggested that portions of his work, or even whole plays, were written by anonymous writers. There are claims that Shakespeare plagiarized the work of others, that he was illiterate, or that ‘Shakespeare’ was simply a pseudonym used by another writer. Various candidates have been put forward as the so-called ‘real Shakespeare’ including, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford, and even Queen Elizabeth herself!

Word Fact: the word ‘plagiarism’ meaning ‘someone who copies the work of another and passes it off as their own’ comes from the classical Latin plagiarius meaning ‘a person who abducts a child or slave belonging to someone else’.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography; A Dictionary of Shakespeare.

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In 1564, when Shakespeare was born, his parents appear to have been living in Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, in the part of the building now known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace (above).

The name ‘Stratford-upon-Avon’ comes from ‘ford on a Roman road’ (Old English strǣt + ford) and Avon, a Celtic river-name meaning simply ‘river’. Earlier versions include Stretfordæ (c.700) and Stradforde 1086 (as recorded in the Domesday Book). For many years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, Stratford remained a small Warwickshire market town. The event which put it on the map was David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 which, though nearly washed away by rain, attracted great attention.

Today, it’s the international centre for Shakespeare studies as well as the headquarters of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and a major tourist attraction. Stratford’s famous Royal Shakespeare Theatre, originally named the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, mainly stages the works of Shakespeare; the adjacent Swan Theatre presents a range of classical and contemporary work, and the nearby The Other Place – the third Stratford base for the RSC – has a repertoire of more experimental work. Stratford also boasts a library, a conference centre, and the Shakespeare Institute, all dedicated to the celebrated dramatist.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography; A Dictionary of British History; A Dictionary of British Place Names; The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre.

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The sixteenth-century Globe Theatre where Shakespeare staged many of his plays has inspired several later Globe Theatres, including ones in Oregon and San Diego. The Globe Theatre in London, pictured here, was built in 1996. Situated on the south bank of the Thames next to the Tate Modern art gallery, and close to the site of the original theatre, it seats 1,500, is polygonal and was built according to traditional methods. It is lime-washed, timbered, open to the sky, and thatched – the first thatched building to be permitted in London since the Great Fire of 1666. It has an education centre and presents plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, as well as those of the Bard.

The word theatre came into late Middle English via Old French from Latin theatrum, from Greek theatron, from theasthai ‘behold’. The earliest recorded English forms, c1380, are theatre and teatre; from c1550 to 1700, or later, the prevalent spelling was theater, but theatre is seen in Milton, Dryden, and Pope’s writing. Then, between 1720 and 1750, theater was dropped in Britain, but has been retained or possibly revived in the United States.

Sources: The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre; The Oxford English Dictionary

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William Shakespeare has had a huge influence on the English language, coining hundreds of new words and phrases in his poems and plays, many of which are still used today, almost 400 years after their publication. Shakespeare is the second most quoted source in the Oxford English Dictionary, with over 30,000 quotations. The Bard’s work at present provides the first evidence of 1,600 words, from ‘admired’ and ‘airless’ to ‘watch-dog’ and ‘young-eyed’.

He is currently cited as the earliest user of both ‘hot-blooded’ in the sense of ‘inclined to powerful emotion, passionate; hot-tempered’ and ‘cold-hearted’ (‘wanting in sensibility, cordiality, or natural affection’). Both adjectives are still widely used in today’s English.

However, not all of Shakespeare’s coinages have had such a long shelf life. It would be quite surprising if someone slipped ‘flirt-gill’ (meaning ‘a woman of light or loose behaviour’) into a conversation. And there can’t be many occasions when ‘fishify’ (meaning ‘to turn (flesh) into fish’) would pop up in everyday communications. Although perhaps some Shakespearean words and expressions would be worth bringing back into common usage, such as the wonderfully evocative ‘chop-fallen’ (‘dejected, dispirited, miserable, crest-fallen’).

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The first known citation of night owl in the sense of ‘a person who is up or active late at night’ is from Shakespeare’s narrative poem the Rape of Lucrece (1594): ‘The doue sleeps fast that this night Owle will catch’. The poem was published at the time when theatres were closed because of the plague and the OED includes 521 quotations from it, including the first quotation for ‘drum’ when applied to the strong beating of the heart and ‘froth’ with the sense of ‘unsubstantial or of little worth’.

According to the OED, the owl has featured in many different English proverbial comparisons, although it seems our opinion of the owl is somewhat confused. You can be as ‘malycious as an owle’, ‘drunk as an owl’, stupid as an owl’, but also ‘wise as an owl’.

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The first recorded quotation in the OED of the phrase ‘green-eyed monster’ meaning ‘jealousy’ is from Shakespeare’s Othello: ‘O beware ielousie. It is the greene eyd monster’. This continues to be a popular phrase today – in the Oxford English Corpus, our database of 21st-century English which is continually monitoring real English usage, one-third of the examples of green-eyed adjective found form this phrase.

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Another phrase for which one of William Shakespeare’s plays provides the first recorded quotation in the OED is pound of flesh in the sense of ‘something strictly or legally due, but which it is ruthless or inhuman to demand’. Appearing in the Merchant of Venice – ‘The pound of flesh which I demaund of him is deerely bought, as mine and I will haue it’ – this figurative phrase has continued to feature in the English language ever since. The OED‘s example quotations range from Byron’s Age of Bronze in 1823, to a quote from Frasier, the American sitcom, in 1999: ‘Roz. Would you calm down? Frasier. Not until I have exacted my pound of flesh’.

Use our innovative widget to discover how the language you use today compares to that used by the Bard in the sixteenth century. Simply enter some English text in the box and click the button to discover what percentage of the words you have included also featured in Shakespeare’s famous works. Do the waters of Avon lap at your feet or is it not to be?

Find out how Shakespearean you are now >>

You can also discover more about which words were apparently coined by Shakespeare, from ‘abstemious’ to ‘frugal’, and discover how big Shakespeare’s vocabulary really was in our blog post: Incony questrists: Shakespeare’s ‘rare ornaments’ of the English language