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 over 3,000 words to the English language because he was the first author to write them down. Of this number more than one tenth or 1,700 were used for the first time.

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Audio file: Michael Pennington and Jonathan Bate on language

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.