Some years ago I read through all 38 of the plays by William Shakespeare. I chose one night per week, drank lots of coffee, and used an edition that explained his archaic words and allusions. The first few weeks it seemed like homework, but soon I found myself swept up in the plays, which were both witty and profound—and oddly up to date.

His use of the English language struck me first. Computer studies reveal that Shakespeare used 17,677 different words in his writings, less than the typical modern person’s vocabulary. Yet, always searching for variety, he used half of those words only once in his work. And 1700 of them appear in print for the first time in his writings; he actually helped invent modern English. Both Samuel Johnson’s dictionary and the later Oxford English Dictionary quote him more than any other author.

Scores of phrases invented by Shakespeare made their way into common usage, many of which we still use today:  as luck would have it; bated breath; the be-all and the end-all; break the ice; brave new world; cold comfort; dead as a doornail; the dogs of war; faint-hearted; for goodness sake; foregone conclusion; good riddance; kill with kindness; laughing stock; one fell swoop; wear my heart upon my sleeve; wild-goose chase.

While a master of originality in language, Shakespeare happily borrowed plots from history, Greek myths, the Bible, fables, and legends. The words were the thing. As he wrote about the creative process:

…as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

As a journalist, I’m always seeking new experiences to write about. True creative genius, however, takes place in the mind. I think of Emily Dickinson, who rarely ventured outside her home; or J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, who traveled little and wrote their fantasies in book-lined Oxford offices. Shakespeare led a rather provincial life, splitting his time between bustling London and the sleepy village of Stratford-upon-Avon. His lively mind, however, made up for whatever experiences he might have missed.

Though he never traveled widely, somehow Shakespeare had an unmatched grasp of human nature.  Reading his plays again, I found myself immersed in a world dominated by ambition, jealousy, pride, violence, honor, sacrifice, love, and betrayal. Shakespeare presented life as it actually is, with no provision for politically-correct “trigger warnings” and no sociological or psychological explanations for human behavior.

In modern portrayals, rioters riot because economic forces impel them, teens get pregnant because their hormones overpower them, pro-choice women choose abortion because they “have no choice.” The message is clear: we are products of our genes, our families, and our circumstances, nothing more. In striking contrast, Shakespeare’s characters stride like giants across the stage, exuding a sense of personal destiny. They are not automatons or victims, but free individuals making moral choices, some destructive and some noble, for which they bear the consequences.

In an oft-quoted line, Macbeth describes life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Shakespeare’s own plays serve as a refutation of that modern-style nihilism. Their author had known obscurity and fame, poverty and wealth. Like other great writers—Tolstoy and Dickens come to mind—he rendered paupers and miscreants with as much care as the rich and powerful. In every life, no matter how small, he found meaning and significance.

Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice shows the perceptive way Shakespeare viewed the marginalized of his day:

Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?  Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die, and if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

As I reviewed the 38 plays recently, I realized anew why Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest writer in English. He stuck to the universals. As a result, his works have been translated into every major language, and have inspired thousands of paintings and some 20,000 pieces of music.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” says the character Jacques in As You Like It. He goes on to describe the seven stages we pass through: first the infant, “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms,” then the “whining schoolboy…creeping like snail unwillingly to school,” followed by the lover, soldier, career person, and declining adult. Finally, the time comes for letting go: “Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Living in a religious era that spanned Queen Elizabeth and King James, Shakespeare understood that we live out our days under God’s providence, advancing toward a final reckoning. Scholars debate the details of his religious views, especially whether he was Protestant or crypto-Catholic (at a time when the latter would have been dangerous).

His last will and testament contains the clearest statement of his beliefs:
In the name of God, Amen.  I, William Shakespeare… in perfect health and memory, God be praised, do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following. That is to say, first, I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting, and my body to the earth whereof it is made.

He died just shy of his 52nd birthday, time enough to compile a collection of plays that would still be performed all over the world, some four centuries later.

(Next month: what Shakespeare has to say about love and power)




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29 responses to “What Makes Shakespeare Great? (Part I)”

  1. ofelia R claudio says:

    I venture to agree with you, Philip, that Shakespeare was most likely Anglican. I grew up Catholic (not anymore). We had no assurance of salvation, always living in uncertainty (and fear) of where we were going after death. And it was purgatory, most likely, because we were always committing “venial” sins (as opposed to “mortal” sins which, if unconfessed before one dies, would take us to hell). We tried to work ourselves OUT of purgatory for those venial sins by earning indulgences from such practices as completing attendance at mass for 9 consecutive First Fridays in honor of the Sacred Heart, believing that, if we died after that, we skip purgatory! If we didn’t, we might want to try another set of 9. Thank God for opening my eyes to bible truth! I LOVE Shakespeare’s statement of his beliefs in his last will and testament. It tells he truly was saved! He trusted in Jesus Christ alone. Solo Christo!

  2. David Cullis says:

    Never mind the plays … what about the verse and the sonnets he churned out. If any man embodies genius, then Shakespeare does in spades.

  3. Angie says:

    Thank-you for this, you just got me inspired to start reading Shakespeare again! An excellent post! Sharing with all my teacher friends too!

  4. Avenel Grace says:

    Here’s one a lot might not know.
    When Icicles hang by the wall
    And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
    And Tom bears logs into the hall
    And milk comes frozen home in pail;
    When blood is nipped and ways be foul
    Then nightly sings the staring owl
    Too-Whit Too-Whoo a merry note.
    While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

    When all around the wind doth blow
    And coughing drowns the Parson’s saw,
    And birds sit brooding in the snow
    And Marion’s nose looks red and raw,
    When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl
    Then nightly sings the staring owl
    too-Whit Too-Whoo a merry note,
    While greasy joan doth keel the pot.

  5. Betty Milroy says:

    Hello, Philip,
    My husband, Michael, is the proud owner of a mug which is covered in insults from the Bard’s wonderful plays: “Clod of wayward marl”: “Bolting hutch of beastliness”; “Beetle-headed, flap-eared knave”; “Poisonous, bunch-backed toad”…… wouldn’t it be nice if writers of screenplays for our current films could refrain from constant use of the f-word, and give their characters such creative ways to verbally injure each other? (or is it “one another’??

  6. Cheryle Free says:

    Shakespeare was definitely an avid student of the Bible as revealed through the language of his work. In much of it he stops just short of outright plagiarism & perhaps not short of it….

  7. Carla Vornheder says:

    Attempting to reply to Barbara Larson (above): When I studied Romeo and Juliet in the 9th grade, it was a real turning point for me. One of the assignments was to watch West Side Story and compare Romeo and Juliet to it. I enjoyed a comment by my teacher about my comparison of the song “Something’s Coming” to Romeo’s anticipation. I remember that the teacher put my paper on a billboard. I had never been praised for anything I had written. The opportunity to examine and analyze literature opened a door. I’ve learned from other experiences in college that, for me, looking critically at good literature makes me really appreciate it.

  8. Carla Vornheder says:

    Mr. Yancey, you’ve inspired me. I’ve always wanted to read all of Shakespeare’s works. I liked what you said about his characters being given no psychological or sociological excuses for their behavior. I believe those excuses are not invalid but must be tempered by an understanding of personal responsibility. I’ve been spending a lot of my time watching TV; it’s hard to watch TV a lot and not be infected by its commentary on society. Something another commenter wrote above reminded me of George Orwell and an essay by him about language. I read that in school in a Norton Anthology. I asked Google for a list of the books you must read before you die. Now, I’m excited. I want to make my own list, combining all of Shakespeare’s works with other books I’ve always wanted to read. Then I’ll spend my time working down that list, instead of watching TV.

  9. Jay Conroy says:

    Shakespeare and Yancy in one swoop– what a treat today.
    As a principal in a great little Catholic High School in Eugene, OR (Marist) I had the good fortune to watch a wonderful ‘young-at-heart’ deeply Catholic English teacher (Mrs. Yocum) expose 9th graders to Romeo and Juliet. It was absolutely thrilling– she had boys (and girls) who prided themselves as future tough Friday night football stars hanging on the real depth and meaning of each lesson. Her magic and enthusiasm were totally contagious.
    Looking forward to your next essay with bated breath.
    Jay Conroy (Ok to publish)

  10. John Brock says:

    I must tell you that this essay, this particular day, is God’s sign to me in the midst of despair. I have been blessed to have seen most of the plays, some several times but never the same play twice. Macbeth has served for marriage counseling and Romeo and Juliet for help in dealing with a teenager. It is a little startling to realize I have outlived him by 28 years. I better get writing. God bless you and your and his writing.

  11. Ron Fraser says:

    Wonderful essay, Philip! At first “homework, but soon I found myself swept up in the plays…” Your recollection prompted my own, an introductory English class featuring Chaucer, that nearly caused me to swear off, and at, English. But neither happened, thanks to a kind tutor who explained old English in terms of personal meanings. I need no convincing of the truth of Paulo Freire’s (‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’) notion that personal meaning triggers literacy.

    Thanks for always including yourself in your writing!!

  12. Brad Robertson says:

    Wonderful, how full of wonder you have driven my thoughts. At once I must flee for procurement finally to consume his writings ✍️
    You have challenged me my audacious rhapsodist and my appetite must be assuaged 😄
    🙏🏽Thank you sir

  13. Peter W Knapp says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay. It reminded me of several things. While at Houghton College in the 60’s I took two semesters of drama. We read all the tragedies one semester and then all the comedies…1 per class/seminar. It was wonderful! After experiencing long drawn out and painful dissections of his plays in high school this was a delight! Later in my life as a director of humanities in a public high school we assigned a minimum of 1 Shakespeare play each year at every grade level for every ability level student. It was one of the core curriculum commitments that made our program the envy of many. Looking forward to next installment.

  14. Jana Walczuk says:

    Your eloquence is not too shabby either! Makes me want to grab my Shakespeare up and dig in. However, I think I really need a word guide like you used.

    Love you

  15. J.C Bottrell says:

    I wonder if he originated these words in his last will and testament, or if this was a common form of words used in wills of the time from someone of his status. Is there anything in history to indicate either way?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      From what I have read, the preamble reflects a common pattern of the day. The phrasing “through the only merits of Jesus Christ” may well indicate Anglican, rather than Catholic, influence.

  16. Pattie Freeman says:

    March, be not sluggish in marching forward—For I wait impatiently for Part 2 on Love and Power!

  17. Barbara Larson2 says:

    P.S. Please identify the names and locations of the statues that appear in your letter. I love the one depicting the seven ages of man!

  18. David Delauter says:

    Outstanding! I’ve always felt Shakespeare had such an incredible grasp of the human psyche, if you will. A deep knowledge of the heart and soul. So appreciate your ability to put this into words. Thank you.

  19. William Switzer says:

    I had seen a large thick book stating that it contained the complete works of Shakespeare and so it did – in print so small it seemed like microfiche (reminded me of an analogy you used regarding the OED and how you needed a magnifying glass to read it. Anyway, would you supply the reference work you used to do your studying of Shakespeare?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I used the “Complete Works of Shakespeare” in a six-volume Bantam Books paperback edition, edited by David Bevington.

  20. Barbara Larson says:

    Dear Philip,
    When I was a rookie 9th grade English teacher, I dreaded the Romeo and Juliet unit. As I re-read it, I was sure the students would hate it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were more attentive than they’d ever been. I was shocked as I looked around the room at students engrossed in the play. One of the assignments was to memorize at least 10 lines from the play and present it to the class. Again, I expected an outcry, and again, I was gratefully surprised by the students’ enthusiasm and performances. (These students were considered “Basic,” which translated “Don’t care about school.”) I’ll always remember one student’s written comment about the project, which caused me to tear up and thank God for Shakespeare. He said he really enjoyed the assignment because he “never realized he could talk like that.” And that’s why teaching Shakespeare in modern English is against the law; if it isn’t, it should be.
    Barbara Larson
    Wilmington, NC

  21. Teresa King says:

    Thank you for this! My daughter in 9th grade is struggling with Shakespeare. I am printing this out now for her. In very few words, it puts Shakespear into a perspective that will have meaning for her. I loved reading his last will and testament at the end of the article!

  22. Interesting indeed…
    Would love to know what people would write about my simple writings in say a 100yrs from now..😂

  23. Rick Jebb says:

    Wow, Phil! Though realizing I am prone to be caught up in the moment, what a great moment reading this powerful work! This strikes me as one of the best essay’s I have ever read. Subject matter aside, you masterfully validate and breathe life into your description of a remarkable soul who no doubt wrote like an angel, likely a mortal who received “power from on high” and drank from those promised “living waters.” An immortal who likely received the same grace of our Lord and Savior poured out with His blood for all who receive.

  24. Jesus Dawal Jr. says:

    Oh wow. This has got me looking forward to next month! Brilliant, honest, and humble, as always!

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