How did William Shakespeare influence the Renaissance?

By | April 9, 2021

Shakespeare’s Stage

At the time of his death in 1616, Shakespeare had written at least 37 characters, 38 counting Henry VIII. A contingency of scholars claims that he co-authored as many as four plays, which would make the total number as high as 42. But Shakespeare’s impact on the Renaissance was not just a matter of his astonishing volume of dramatic production. While he, like his contemporaries, found inspiration for his plays in earlier English writings, especially stories and medieval drama, Italian romances and classical literature, he still succeeded in innovation. His games left an indelible mark during the period due to their complex characterization, seen in characters such as Iago and Edmund, who were far more than flat villains and their rich language, seen in Hamlet’s musings and Othello’s poetic self-defense. No wonder Harold Bloom mentioned his 1998 study of Shakespeare’s canon, ‘The Invention of Man’, given how central the individual’s situation and progress in the secular world were to both his games and Renaissance humanism as a philosophy.

Shakespeare sonnets

In addition to his views, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, published in Quarto 1609. With a few exceptions, they follow the English, rather than the Italian form Petrarch, with three consecutive four-line squadrons followed by a clutch. Together they represent another dimension of Shakespeare’s colossal literary contribution to the English Renaissance. Their themes of beauty, youth, age, birth, death, immortality and, of course, love underline the Renaissance world, which mainly concerned the individual being, the material world and the liberal arts. Their densely compressed language and multivalent metaphors both attracted and puzzled readers then and now. The sonnets, however, gave little concrete insight into the Shakespeare man. Until now, they remain puzzled in mystery, because no one knows for sure who the young man or the dark lady addressed in it was.

Shakespeare’s lexicon

The Renaissance was basically about rebirth, growth and progress, and this had profound consequences for language and lexicography in England and abroad. Although the movement in Italy and other parts of Europe deepened the movement in England by several decades, during the combined period, from about 1450 to 1600, efforts to identify, record and define words flourished. This is confirmed by the number of monolingual, bilingual and specialized dictionaries published during this time – as many as 16 according to researcher Ian Lancashire. As much as any Renaissance lexicographer, Shakespeare played an integral part in extending and documenting the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Shakespeare contributed almost 3,000 words to the English language; on Shakespeare’s neologisms, the earliest two entries in the ‘green-eyed’ OED in relation to jealousy are from the Merchant of Venice (1596) and Othello (1604), respectively.