In spite of the four centuries that loom between the writing of his plays and the modern scholars who analyze and enjoy them, William Shakespeare’s works remain the subject of much study and even more speculation. Writers throughout the centuries have longed for his way with words, and scholars have taken his lines apart and remarked upon the many words he invented that are still in use today. Shakespeare used many ingenious techniques and devices in his work, and scarcely one of them has escaped being declared the root of his genius at one time or another. Now, new research points to Shakespeare’s unique and masterful use of grammar as the key to both his contemporary success and his lasting place in literature.
According to researcher Jonathan Hope of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, what sets Shakespeare apart from the rest is his use of grammar. Grammar and the way he used words illustrate his genius as a writer, rather than the words themselves. Hope analyzed the great playwright’s works within the context of other work of the period, as well as within the context of the history of the English language.
One of Hope’s findings is that although Shakespeare has long been admired for having used more words, and introduced more words into the language, than other writers of his time, he may not actually have stood apart from his peers in that respect. Hope suggests that because so much of Shakespeare’s work remains in print while that of other writers of the period have been lost, what was likely only a an above-average vocabulary appears to be an exceptional one.
Instead, Hope believes that it is Shakespeare’s grammar and the particular way he ordered his words that made him stand out from other playwrights of his own day and account for his continued position of honor in literature.
In a chapter in a new book on the English language, “English in the World: History, Diversity, Change,” Hope takes an in-depth look at the Shakespeare’s use of words, grammar and syntax. He determines that it is these elements that make Shakespeare’s work stand out from that of his contemporaries. Hope points out that in spite of his great influence on the subsequent literature, no one else has written like Shakespeare.
According to Hope, contrary to what many imagine, a large vocabulary was not necessarily an asset to Elizabethan playwrights. Contemporary audiences may not have found the use of unfamiliar language charming; in fact, when Shakespeare did toss in one of the new Latin-inspired words that were popular with scholars of the day, he frequently incorporated a simple explanation of their meaning into his lines. Hope believes that Shakespeare’s vocabulary cannot fully explain his ability to turn words into memorable lines.
“However, his grammatical skill shows even more dexterity with language. He wrote during a transitional period for English grammar when there was a range of grammatical options open to writers- much of the grammar he chose now seems old-fashioned but it lends poetry to commonplace words and, significantly, while his spelling is often updated, his grammar is not,” writes Hope.