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Words, words, words

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. To celebrate his 450th birthday this month, we asked seven scholars and novelists what writers can learn from reading the Bard.

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“Shakespeare’s language models precision and efficiency. Consider the terse expressiveness of the Duke of York’s rebuke of a flattering nephew: ‘Uncle me no uncles!’ In addition to such snappy dialogue, Shakespeare teaches us that a kind of music occurs when long, Latinate words are set next to short, hard Anglo-Saxon ones, as when Hamlet speaks of his father’s ‘canonized bones.’ Long to short, abstract to earthy, spirit to bone. That’s Shakespeare’s rhythm.”
—Grace Tiffany, novelist and professor of Shakespeare at Western Michigan University

“The fulfillment of writing is not the page of words itself, but its performance – on a stage or in the reader’s head. Shakespeare’s poems and plays still connect with audiences who are many centuries and cultures removed from his life and times. He cared about his audience, because his livelihood depended on them. A true writer writes not for herself, but for an audience. Strive to be read.”
—Lisa Klein, Love Disguised

“Shakespeare teaches us that the music of language matters. What you have to say is important, but if you want it to have impact, how you say it makes all the difference. There are only three original plots in all of Shakespeare’s plays, but his distillation of human experience into lyrical verse and prose is why his work endures. ‘The play’s the thing,’ but it’s crafted from the ‘words, words, words.’”
—Christopher Moore, The Serpent of Venice

“Love language and use your imagination.”
—Stephen Greenblatt, literary critic and Harvard University professor of the humanities


“To learn to write as powerfully and as elegantly as Will did, we need to understand the structure of the English language, as Will surely did. To do that, I suggest we go back to learning to diagram sentences. It’s an excellent tool.”
—Carolyn Meyer, Loving Will Shakespeare

“For me the most important lessons of Shakespeare for the writer are about process as much as product. He unabashedly used predecessors’ works as templates. Judging by the multiple versions of Hamlet, Lear, Shrew, and others, he was an obsessive reviser of his own work; and his sheer volume of output suggests he spent his time in the chair. How much have YOU written today?”
—Jess Winfield, co-founder of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and author of My Name is Will

“Reading Shakespeare gives you a visceral experience of how expansive the imaginative possibilities of language can be.  But at the same time, the precision of the language is as remarkable as the range, amplitude and inventiveness. I think what’s commonly referred to as Shakespeare’s universality comes down to how the element of precision – linguistic and psychological – centers the verbal virtuosity.”
—Yu Jin Ko, professor of English at Wellesley College

Originally Published