At no other time does it strike us as much literal how universal Shakespeare is as on 23 April when his birthday is celebrated universe-wide. With the pompous solemn march through Henley Street to the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthday is as much a revelation outside his motherland. The Bard is a household name permeating virtually every nation and every walk of life. Why Shakespeare is still relevant today has more than one answer. Jonathan Bate says Shakespeare is always our contemporary and singles out his performability, aspectuality and the frequent lack of motif in his plots as the chief credits for his undying adaptability throughout ages.
Whatever literary and theatrical reasons there may be to account for Shakespeare's unlimitedness, the power of his language must top them all! It is through his verbal art that Shakespeare managed to breathe eternity into the old stories of his sources. Strip off the language and little is left, you will hear oft.
But there is the other extreme. Shakespeare's language has been moaned about by many people - native and non-native alike. Expressions like "struggle one's way through Shakespeare's language" are not rare in online forums and offline. His language has been overstated as difficult, incomprehensible and impenetrable and this resulted in modernisation, abridgement and translation of his works. The dull and dire experience of learning Shakespeare at school that dominated the past decades must have added to the off-putting ill-fame of Shakespeare's tongue.
It is all very well that Shakespeare is translated in 80 languages and performed in diverse tongues, as the Globe to Globe project showed. But understanding his works in *his English* is crucial in appreciating the effect of Shakespeare's theatricality. No paraphrase, synonym or translation will convey exactly what Kated, unsex, Englished or unhopefullest do so directly! Strip off the language, and little Shakespeare is left.
The misconception of Shakespeare's language as too highbrow to be up an "ordinary" reader's street has played its part in the rising of the frivolous authorship controversy. You will have heard misunderstood pronouncements in the vein of "How could a glover's son with a mere grammar schooling use such an elaborate language?!"
But you think of the ease of all those snappy lines that we like to quote, the idioms that have become mundane, the bombast curses and complex insults we easily memorise and use when the occasion calls on! Of course, there is also an amount of not so easily penetrable language in Shakespeare but that's a tiny part! According to the expert on Shakespeare's language, David Crystal, only 5-10% of Shakespeare's language is in a way different from modern English. Those are the False Friends - the deceptive words that we think we know but actually have a different sense in Shakespeare, and some of the Williamisms - David Crystal's term for Shakespeare's lexical innovations, first recorded usages in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are about 1700 Williamisms, among them bedroom, compulsative, assassination, exceptless, eye glass, unshrubbed, uneducated etc.
Some "unknown" words come up very frequently, like thou (and its forms), hast, tarry, wast, meet (suitable) etc. - so you will remember them willy-nilly! In total, there are 2000 or so "unknown words" in Shakespeare, as counted by David Crystal. As the phrase "unknown words" suggests, these can be learned in the same way you learn unknown words in a foreign language. With a major difference - Shakespeare is NOT a foreign language. There are more differences between Chaucer's and Shakespeare's Englishes than between Shakespeare's English and modern English.
Going back to today's universal occasion, here are some handy tips to talk like Shakespeare on the Bard's birthday! Talk Like Shakespeare Day is a petition to have Shakespearean English added as a Facebook "language". A quest akin to Pirate English, there has to be enough supporters to persuade the FB administration to allow Bardising Facebook.
"Language" sounds alienating but in fact the daily fun of engaging with Shakespearean English on a populated social networking website like Facebook will familiarise many with Shakespeare's fascinating tongue. Using Facebook in Shakespearean English should be fun for academics, students, novices and for everyone who loves the Bard alike. And the educative benefit of it all is fairly transparent!
The quest has already attracted many Shakespeare lovers. Go get thee thither so that we can talk in the gibberish of Shakespeare's dulcet tongue on a Bardised Facebook next April 23!
We are used to reading Shakespeare, hearing him on stage, sung and recited - the 21st century makes it possible for us to engage in an even more intimate interaction with a language as simple and complex as to have shuffled the canon we love through 400 years.