William Shakespeare played a major role in the transformation of the English language. Many words and phrases were first written down in his plays.

'Elbow room' (King John), 'heart of gold' (Henry V), 'tower of strength' (Richard III) and 'Wild-goose chase' (Romeo and Juliet) - just a handful of the many well-known English phrases that we've learnt from Shakespeare and use in our day to day lives more than 400 years later.

The male lovers in Love's Labour's Lost
Shakespeare's early play, Love's Labour's Lost, is known for its elaborate wordplay and puns. (Gregory Doran production, 2008)
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

The early modern English language was less than 100 years old in 1590 when Shakespeare was writing. No dictionaries had yet been written and most documents were still written in Latin. He contributed 1,700 words to the English language because he was the first to write them down.

As well as inventing completely new words, he used existing words in inventive ways, for example he was the first person to use 'friend' as a verb, as well as 'unfriended’ (Twelfth Night) and from 'gloom' he invented the word 'gloomy' (Titus Andronicus).

Iambic pentameter

This is the rhythm that Shakespeare uses in his plays. The rhythm of iambic pentameter is like a heartbeat, with one soft beat and one strong beat repeated five times. In the video below, RSC Voice Practitioner Nia Lynn defines what we mean by Iambic Pentameter and explores, together with RSC actors, what it can reveal about characters and their emotions.

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Listen to Michael Pennington, an actor who has played some of Shakespeare's most linguistically demanding roles, talking to Jonathan Bate about how the 'nuts and bolts' of Shakespeare's poetic language work from the actor's point of view.