The lasting impact of Shakespeare and his work

Published 6:06 pm Friday, April 29, 2022

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The end of April each year can conjure up a number of different ideas and feelings.

It’s that point of the year where April showers start to bring May flowers. It’s the time where students start dreaming of summer vacation as the school year starts wrapping up. It’s when baseball and softball get into full swing at all levels, bringing proud parents and happy fans to ballparks across the country.

But for me, an unashamed English nerd, the end of April always makes me think of William Shakespeare and his contribution to English literature. The last week in April marks the anniversaries of both his birth and death. No one knows his exact day of birth, but he was baptized on April 26, 1564 and he died on April 23, 1616.

His impact on our language and literature today, made through his plays and sonnets written over 400 years ago, is almost unfathomable. I’ve written columns before on this subject, detailing how modern works draw inspiration from his own, which common phrases he penned and popularized, and even the best silly insults Shakespeare came up with. It’s really astounding how often we quote or engage with Shakespeare’s work without even realizing it.

Here are a few examples of works inspired by Shakespeare’s plays:

Have you ever seen the 2006 comedy film “She’s the Man”? It stars Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum, and tells the story of Viola, an aspiring soccer player who enrolls in place of her brother at a fancy prep school and pretends to be a boy to play on their soccer team. A confusing, comedic love triangle ensues with her new classmates. The story is actually an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” play, a tale of shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian who get separated, and Viola ends up disguising herself as a man. Again, a confusing, comedic love triangle ensues with the new people she meets.

Any modern story featuring a pair of forbidden lovers probably destined for heartbreak is often described as a version of Shakespeare’s famous “Romeo and Juliet” tragedy. And who can blame them? The tale of “star-crossed lovers” from feuding families is a pretty easy plot to adapt to almost any setting.

And plenty of people have argued over the years that the plot of Disney’s “Lion King” movie was inspired by “Hamlet.” You got to admit, the plot point about the king being betrayed by his evil brother is a pretty strong parallel in both stories. (Simba even gets to see a ghost version of his father at one point like Hamlet does.) But other than that? It might be a bit of a stretch. I’ll leave this one up to you to decide.

Here are a few examples of common phrases we can thank Shakespeare for:

We often use the phrase “green-eyed monster” to describe jealousy. Shakespeare penned that phrase in his play “Othello” when Iago warns the titular character “beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

When you get annoyed with someone or something, do you say “good riddance” when it’s gone? Shakespeare’s responsible for that one too. Patroclus from the play “Troilus and Cressida” says this once a character he doesn’t like exits the stage.

Some of my other favorites include “dead as a doornail” (from Henry VI Part II), “It’s Greek to me” (from Julius Caesar), and “in a pickle” (from The Tempest).

Here are a few examples of Shakespeare’s swears that you can use to spice up your complaints:

A character in “As You Like It” declares “your brain is as dry as the remainder biscuit after voyage.” Use this one whenever you want to say someone’s head is only filled with dry, stale biscuits.

I particularly like this one from the play “All’s Well That Ends Well” because the character speaking basically starts with the equivalent of “no offense but…” and follows up with “he’s a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise-breaker, the owner of no one good quality.” Surely, some offense was meant there.

My favorite, however, is simply “You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian!” from “Henry IV, Part 2.” Fun words to say, right? Scullion is a person who does grunt work in the kitchen, rampallian means something like a scoundrel, and fustilarian is a clumsy person.

These are all interesting tidbits about Shakespeare’s work, but this week I also dug up some random facts about the man himself, courtesy of the website

His hometown was a place in England named Stratford-upon-Avon. (Sidenote: I think England’s hyphenated town names are delightful.) His father was a glove maker.

Shakespeare got married when he was 18 years old to 26-year-old Anne Hathaway (not to be confused, of course, with the modern actress with the same name). In his will, Shakespeare left most of his belongings to one of his daughters, and only bequeathed his wife “the second best bed.”

He was secretly Catholic, something that was illegal in England at the time. Along with writing his plays, he reportedly acted in them sometimes too. His theater company got to perform for the highest royalty, including Queen Elizabeth I and later, James I.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits him for introducing almost 3,000 words into English, which I suppose isn’t all that surprising for someone who was so good at playing around with language.

But perhaps my favorite fun detail is that he never actually spelled his name “William Shakespeare” as we call him today. Consistent spelling during that time period was not really a high priority, so there’s over 80 different recorded versions of his name. Those include “Willm Shaksp” and “William Shakspere” and “Wm Shakspe.” A lot of them look like he was just too busy to write out his whole name.

Hm… I wonder how well it’d go if I started shortening my own name to “Hol Talr”

Well, I’m no Shakespeare after all. But I do enjoy reading about him and his work each year!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.