It has come to light that an American showman, P T Barnum, tried to buy the 16th century Stratford-upon-Avon House of Shakespeare and ship it, brick by brick, to New York sometime in the 1840s. He, however, was stopped from doing so by Charles Dickens and others who set up the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and bought the house in 1847. It may appear to be one of the eccentricities of Barnum which the showman was known for. But it could also be his attempt to pay tribute to probably the greatest literary showman of the 16th and the early 17th centuries.
Shakespeare has been reviled and praised in equal measure by his contemporaries and those who read his works after his death. However, what remains a fact is that his contribution to English language has been more than any other individual’s.
In speeches, writings, acting, day-to-day conversations, allusions to Shakespeare is a measure of one’s expertise over the language. His words and phrases are so much a part of everyday speech that we may call them clichés. If one looks closely, one will be astonished to find how many ordinary expressions most people never think of as being Shakespearean have flowed in fact from his pen.
Sample a few phrases that you never thought you owed to Shakespeare: I’ll tell the world (from Measure for Measure); It was Greek to me (Julius Caesar); Bag and baggage (As You Like It); something in the wind (The Comedy of Errors); At one fell swoop (Macbeth).
The bulk of Shakespeare’s creative excellence came during the 16th century, a time when the English vocabulary underwent an explosive growth with borrowings from Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and Italian. More than any poet or playwright of his time, Shakespeare reveled in this linguistic enrichment.
One of the ways in which Shakespeare’s literary excellence has remained unsurpassed is best-known speeches by his characters. To be, or not to be: that is the question (Hamlet); Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears (Julius Caesar); All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely actors (As You Like It) are some of the oft repeated Shakespearean allusions. Then there are most recognizable passages such as: As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport (King Lear).
There are some best-loved passages which represent private conversations with the poet and the reader through the magic of the language: Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day… Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops (Romeo and Juliet).
Barnum’s bid, though unsuccessful, goes on to show that the Bard of Avon cast his charm far and wide.