The 1,700+ Words Invented by Shakespeare*

One of the favorite reference books on my shelves isn’t a style guide or dictionary but a collection of insults. And not just any collection of insults, but Shakespeare’s Insults for Teachers, an illustrated guide through the playwright’s barbs and put-downs, designed to offer comic relief to the beleaguered educator. (Books and websites about Shakespeare’s insults almost constitute a genre in themselves.) I refer to this slim, humorous hardback every time discussions of Shakespeare get too ponderous, to remind myself at a glance that what readers and audiences have always valued in his work is its lightning-fast wit and inventiveness.

While perusing any curated selection of Shakespeare’s insults, one can’t help but notice that, amidst the puns and bawdy references to body parts, so many of his wisecracks are about language itself—about certain characters’ lack of clarity or odd ways of speaking. From Much Ado About Nothing there’s the colorful, “His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes.” From The Merchant of Venice, the sarcastic, “Goodly Lord, what a wit-snapper you are!” From Troilus and Cressida, the derisive, “There’s a stewed phrase indeed!” And from Hamlet the subtle shade of “This is the very coinage of your brain.”




Indeed, it can often seem that Shakespeare—if we grant his historicity and authorship—is often writing self-deprecating notes about himself. “It is often said,” writes Fraser McAlpine at BBC America, that Shakespeare “invented a lot of what we currently call the English language…. Something like 1700 [words], all told,” which would mean that “out of every ten words," in his plays, "one will either have been new to his audience, new to his actors, or will have been passingly familiar, but never written down before.” It's no wonder so much of his dialogue seems to carry on a meta-commentary about the strangeness of its language.

We have enough trouble understanding Shakespeare today. The question McAlpine asks is how his contemporary audiences could understand him, given that so much of his diction was “the very coinage” of his brain. Lists of words first used by Shakespeare can be found aplently. There’s this catalog from the exhaustive multi-volume literary reference The Oxford English Dictionary, which lists such now-everyday words as “accessible,” “accommodation,” and “addiction” as making their first appearance in the plays. These “were not all invented by Shakespeare,” the list disclaims, “but the earliest citations for them in the OED” are from his work, meaning that the dictionary’s editors could find no earlier appearance in historical written sources in English.

Another shorter list links to an excerpt from Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Shakespeare Key, showing how the author, “with the right and might of a true poet… minted several words” that are now current, or “deserve” to be, such as the verb “articulate,” which we do use, and the noun “co-mart”—meaning “joint bargains”—which we could and maybe should. At ELLO, or English Language and Linguistics Online, we find a short tutorial on how Shakespeare formed new words, by borrowing them from other languages, or adapting them from other parts of speech, turning verbs into nouns, for example, or vice versa, and adding new endings to existing words.

“Whether you are ‘fashionable’ or ‘sanctimonious,’” writes National Geographic, “thank Shakespeare, who likely coined the terms.” He also apparently invented several phrases we now use in common speech, like “full circle,” “one fell swoop,” “strange bedfellows,” and “method in the madness.” (In another BBC America article, McAlpine lists 45 such phrases.) The online sources for Shakespeare’s original vocabulary are multitude, but we should note that many of them do not meet scholarly standards. As linguists and Shakespeare experts David and Ben Crystal write in Shakespeare’s Words, “we found very little that might be classed as ‘high-quality Shakespearean lexicography’” online.

So, there are reasons to be skeptical about claims that Shakespeare is responsible for the 1700 or more words for which he’s given sole credit. (Hence the asterisk in our title.) As noted, a great many of those words already existed in different forms, and many of them may have existed as non-literary colloquialisms before he raised their profile to the Elizabethan stage. Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that the Bard coined or first used hundreds of words, writes McAlpine, "with no obvious precedent to the listener, unless you were schooled in Latin or Greek.” The question, then, remains: “what on Earth did Shakespeare’s [mostly] uneducated audience make of this influx of newly-minted language into their entertainment?”

McAlpine brings those potentially stupefied Elizabethans into the present by comparing watching a Shakespeare play to watching “a three-hour long, open air rap battle. One in which you have no idea what any of the slang means.” A good deal would go over your head, “you’d maybe get the gist, but not the full impact,” but all the same, “it would all seem terribly important and dramatic.” (Costuming, props, and staging, of course, helped a lot, and still do.) The analogy works not only because of the amount of slang deployed in the plays, but also because of the intensity and regularity of the boasts and put-downs, which makes even more interesting one data scientist’s attempt to compare Shakespeare’s vocabulary with that of modern rappers, whose language is, just as often, the very coinage of their brains.

Related Content:

Do Rappers Have a Bigger Vocabulary Than Shakespeare?: A Data Scientist Maps Out the Answer

Hear 55 Hours of Shakespeare’s Plays: The Tragedies, Comedies & Histories Performed by Vanessa Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud, Ralph Fiennes & Many More

What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like, and How We Know It

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Hear Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight Read in Their Original Old and Middle English by an MIT Medievalist

Many a mocking critique floats around pointing out that some people who tell their multilingual neighbors to “speak English” seem to have a lot of trouble with the language themselves. I must confess, I find the observation more sad than funny. I’ve met many English speakers who struggle with understanding the peculiarities of the language and do not know its history. Increasingly, such things are not taught to those who don’t devote themselves to language study.

When people do learn how the language evolved, they can be shocked that for much of its history, English was unrecognizable to modern ears. Indeed, the study of Old English—or Anglo-Saxon, the language of Beowulf—satisfies foreign language requirements in many English departments. Originally written in runic before it incorporated the Latin alphabet (and retaining some of those early symbols afterward), this Germanic language slowly became more Latinate, and gave way among the reading classes in Britain to Anglo-Norman, a Germanic-French cousin, for a few centuries after 1066.




That's the very short version. These strains and more eventually commingled to form Middle English, the language of Chaucer, which also sounds to modern ears like another tongue, though we recognize more of it. In the video above, Medievalist and MIT professor Arthur Bahr gives us demonstrations of both Old and Middle English in readings of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as part of his 2014 course, “Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf." (You can still visit the course site, read the syllabus and download course materials.)

Bahr reads the first 20 lines of the ancient epic poem, which begins:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, 
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. 

“Besides being the language of Rohan in the novels of Tolkien,” he writes, “Old English is a language of long, cold, and lonely winters; of haunting beauty found in unexpected places; and of unshakable resolve in the face of insurmountable odds.” For all its distance from us, we can still recognize quite a lot in Old English if we listen closely. Much of its vocabulary and inflections survive, unchanged but for pronunciation and spelling, in modern English, including many of the language’s most basic words, like "the," “in” and “are,” and most common, like "god," “name,” “me,” “hand,” and even “old.”

After the Viking and Norman invasions, Old English became “the third language in its own country,” notes Luke Mastin at his History of English site. More spoken than written, it “effectively sank to the level of a patois or creole," with several distinct regional variants. English seemed at one time “in dire peril” of dying out but “showed its resilience once again, and, two hundred years after the Norman Conquest, it was English not French that emerged as the language of England," though it remained a diffuse collection of dialects. As you’ll hear in Bahr’s Middle English reading, it was also an English entirely transformed by the languages around it, as it would be once again a few hundred years later, when we get to the English of Shakespeare.

via Laughing Squid

Related Content:

Hear Beowulf Read In the Original Old English: How Many Words Do You Recognize?

1,000-Year-Old Manuscript of Beowulf Digitized and Now Online

Seamus Heaney Reads His Exquisite Translation of Beowulf and His Memorable 1995 Nobel Lecture

Hear What Shakespeare Sounded Like in the Original Pronunciation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear 48 Hours of Lectures by Joseph Campbell on Comparative Mythology and the Hero’s Journey

What does it mean to “grow up”? Every culture has its way of defining adulthood, whether it’s surviving an initiation ritual or filing your first tax return. I’m only being a little facetious—people in the U.S. have long felt dissatisfaction with the ways we are ushered into adulthood, from learning how to fill out IRS forms to learning how to fill out student loan and credit card applications, our culture wants us to understand our place in the great machine. All other pressing life concerns are secondary.

It’s little wonder, then, that gurus and cultural father figures of all types have found ready audiences among America’s youth. Such figures have left lasting legacies for decades, and not all of them positive. But one public intellectual from the recent past is still seen as a wise old master whose far-reaching influence remains with us and will for the foreseeable future. Joseph Campbell’s obsessive, erudite books and lectures on world mythologies and traditions have made certain that ancient adulthood rituals have entered our narrative DNA.




When Campbell was awarded the National Arts Club Gold Medal in Literature in 1985, psychologist James Hillman stated that “no one in our century—not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Levi-Strauss—has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness.” Whatever examples Hillman may have had in mind, we might rest our case on the fact that without Campbell there would likely be no Star Wars. For all its success as a megamarketing phenomenon, the sci-fi franchise has also produced enduringly relatable role models, examples of achieving independence and standing up to imperialists, even if they be your own family members in masks.

In the video interviews above from 1987, Campbell professes himself no more than an “underliner” who learned everything he knows from books. Like the contemporary comparative mythologist Mircea Eliade, Campbell did not conduct his own anthropological research—he acquired a vast amount of knowledge by studying the sacred texts, artifacts, and rituals of world cultures. This study gave him insight into stories and images that continue to shape our world and feature centrally in huge pop cultural productions like The Last Jedi and Black Panther.

Campbell describes ritual entries into adulthood that viewers of these films will instantly recognize: Defeating idols in masks and taking on their power; burial enactments that kill the “infantile ego” (academics, he says with a straight face, sometimes never leave this stage). These kinds of edge experiences are at the very heart of the classic hero’s journey, an archetype Campbell wrote about in his bestselling The Hero with a Thousand Faces and popularized on PBS in The Power of Myth, a series of conversations with Bill Moyers.

In the many lectures just above—48 hours of audio in which Campbell expounds his theories of the mythological—the engaging, accessible writer and teacher lays out the patterns and symbols of mythologies worldwide, with special focus on the hero’s journey, as important to his project as dying and rising god myths to James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the inspiration for so many modernist writers. Campbell himself is more apt to reference James Joyce, Carl Jung, Pablo Picasso, or Richard Wagner than science fiction, fantasy, or comic books (though he did break down Star Wars in his Moyers interviews). Nonetheless, we have him to thank for inspiring the likes of George Lucas and becoming a “patron saint of superheroes” and space operas.

We will find some of Campbell’s methods flawed and terminology outdated (no one uses “Orient” and “Occident” anymore)—and modern heroes can just as well be women as men, passing through the same kinds of symbolic trials in their origin stories. But Campbell’s ideas are as resonant as ever, offering to the wider culture a coherent means of understanding the archetypal stages of coming of age. As Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler said in 1985, after recommending The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for screenwriters, Campbell’s work “can be used to tell the simplest comic story or the most sophisticated drama”—a sweeping vision of human cultural history and its meaning for our individual journeys.

You can access the 48 hours of Joseph Campbell lectures above, or directly on Spotify.

Related Content:

Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers Break Down Star Wars as an Epic, Universal Myth

A 12-Hour Eastern Spirituality Playlist: Features Lectures & Readings by Joseph Campbell, Christopher Isherwood, the Dalai Lama & Others

The Complete Star Wars “Filmumentary”: A 6-Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Documentary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Commentary

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Ira Aldridge Became the First Black Actor to Perform Shakespeare in England (1824)

The ways that Othello, Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus, and Shylock from The Merchant of Venice—Shakespeare’s “explicitly racialized characters,” as George Washington University’s Ayanna Thompson puts it—have been interpreted over the centuries may have less to do with the author’s intentions and more with contemporary ideas about race, the actors cast in the roles, and the directorial choices made in a production. To a great degree, these characters have been played as though their identities were like the costumes put on by actors who darkened their faces or wore stereotypical markers of ethnic or religious Judaism (including “an obnoxiously large nose”).

Such portrayals risk turning complex characters into caricatures, validating much of what we might see as overt and implicit racism in the text. But there are those, Thompson says, who think such roles are actually “about racial impersonation.” Othello, for example, is “a role written by a white man, intended for a white actor in black makeup.”




For centuries, that is what most audiences fully expected to see. The tradition continued in Britain until the 19th century, when the Shakespearean color line, so to speak, was first crossed by Ira Aldridge, an American actor born in New York City in 1807.

"Educated at the African Free School,” notes the Folger Shakespeare Library, Aldridge "was able to see Shakespeare plays at the Park Theatre and the African Grove Theatre.” He took on roles like Romeo with the African Company, but “New York was generally not a welcoming place for black actors… some white theatergoers even attempted to prevent black companies from performing Shakespeare at all.” As Tony Howard, an English professor at the University of Warwick, tells PRI, “he was beaten up in the streets.” And so Aldridge left for England in 1824, where he played Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent-Garden, at only 17 years old, the first black actor to play a Shakespearean role in Britain.

He later began performing under the name Keene, “a homonym,” notes the site Black History 365, “for the then popular British actor, Edmund Kean.” Aldridge’s big break came after he met Kean and his son Charles, also an actor, in 1831, and both became supporters of his career. When the elder Kean collapsed onstage in 1833, then died, Aldridge took over his role as Othello at London's Royalty Theatre in two performances. “Critics objected,” the Folger writes, “to his race, his youth, and his inexperience.” As Howard tells it, this characterization is a gross understatement:

There were those who said this is a very interesting and extraordinary young actor. And the fact that he's a black actor makes it more interesting and fascinating. But for many people, it was an insult because this is still a society where there is a great deal of slavery in the British Empire. And in order to combat the idea of increasing abolition, performers like Ira had to be stopped. And so there was a great deal of violent aggression. Not physical violence this time, but violence in the press.

Some of that verbal violence included comparing Aldridge to “performing horses” and “performing dogs.” Many London critics saw his entry on the Shakespearean stage as an affront to English literary tradition. Performing the bard’s works was “a kind of violation,” Howard summarizes, “he has no right to do that, not even to play Othello.”

Photo via the Folger Library

From his beginnings in Coventry to his experience in London, Aldridge made the once-blackface role his own, perhaps increasingly drawing “on his own experience and his own feeling.” He also portrayed Aaron in Titus, and as he persevered through negative press and prejudice, he took on other starring roles, including Richard III, Shylock, Iago, King Lear, and Macbeth. He “toured the English provinces extensively,” the BBC writes, “and stayed in Coventry for a few months, during which time he gave a number of speeches on the evils of slavery. When he left, people inspired by his speeches went to the county hall and petitioned for its abolition.”

By the end of the 1840s, however, Aldridge felt he had gone as far as he could go in England and left to tour the Continent in what had become his signature role, Othello. While first touring with an English company, he “later began to work with local theater troupes,” the Folger writes, “performing in English while the rest of the cast would perform in German, Swedish, etc. Despite the language barrier, Aldridge’s performances in Europe were highly acclaimed, a testament to his acting skills.” (See a playbill further up from a Bonn performance.) After winning great fame in Europe and Russia, the actor returned in triumph to London in 1855, and this time was very well-received.

Aldridge died in 1867. And though he was the subject of many portraits of the period—like that by James Northcote at the top of the post, portraying the 19-year-old Aldridge as Othello, and this 1830 painting by Henry Perronet Briggs—he was “largely forgotten by theater historians.” (See him above in an 1858 drawing by Ukranian artist Taras Shevchenko.) But his legacy has been revived in recent years. Aldridge was the subject of two recent plays, Black Othello, by Cecilia Sidenbladh, and Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. And last year, he was honored in Coventry by a plaque on the site of the theater where he first achieved fame.

While he succeeded in becoming an all-around great Shakespearean actor, Aldridge’s legacy rests especially in the way he helped transform roles performed as “racial impersonation” for a few hundred years into the provenance of talented black actors who bring new depth, complexity, and authenticity to characters often played as stock ethnic villains. While white actors like Orson Welles and Lawrence Olivier continued to play Othello well into the 20th century, these days such casting can be seen as "ridiculous," as Hugh Muir writes at The Guardian, especially if that actor "blacks up" for the role.

via the British Library

Related Content:

What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like, and How We Know It

3,000 Illustrations of Shakespeare’s Complete Works from Victorian England, Neatly Presented in a New Digital Archive

Young Orson Welles Directs “Voodoo Macbeth,” the First Shakespeare Production With An All-Black Cast: Footage from 1936

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

H.P. Lovecraft Writes “Waste Paper: A Poem of Profound Insignificance,” a Devastating Parody of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1923)

Image by Lucius B. Truesdell and Lady Morrell, via Wikimedia Commons

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, as his ever-growing fan base knows, seldom spared his characters — or at least their sanity — from the vast, unspeakable horrors lurking beneath his imagined reality. Not that he showed much more mercy as a critic either, as his assessment of "The Waste Land" (1922) reveals. Though now near-universally respected, T.S. Eliot's best-known poem failed to impress Lovecraft, who, in his journal The Conservative, wrote in 1923 that

We here behold a practically meaningless collection of phrases, learned allusions, quotations, slang, and scraps in general; offered to the public (whether or not as a hoax) as something justified by our modern mind with its recent comprehension of its own chaotic triviality and disorganisation. And we behold that public, or a considerable part of it, receiving this hilarious melange as something vital and typical; as “a poem of profound significance”, to quote its sponsors.

Eliot's work, Lovecraft argued, simply couldn't hold up in the modern world, where "man has suddenly discovered that all his high sentiments, values, and aspirations are mere illusions caused by physiological processes within himself, and of no significance whatsoever in an infinite and purposeless cosmos." Science, in his view, has made nonsense of tradition and "a rag-bag of unrelated odds and ends" of the soul. A poet like Eliot, it seems, "does not know what to do about it; but compromises on a literature of analysis, chaos, and ironic contrast."




Looking on even this hatchet job, Lovecraft must have felt he'd failed to slay the beast, and so he composed a parody of "The Waste Land" entitled "Waste Paper" in late 1922 or early 1923. This "Poem of Profound Insignificance," which Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi calls the writer's "best satirical poem," begins thus:

Out of the reaches of illimitable light
The blazing planet grew, and forc’d to life
Unending cycles of progressive strife
And strange mutations of undying light
And boresome books, than hell’s own self more trite
And thoughts repeated and become a blight,
And cheap rum-hounds with moonshine hootch made tight,
And quite contrite to see the flight of fright so bright

You can read the whole thing, including its probably apocryphal half-epigraph from the Greek poet Glycon, at the H.P. Lovecraft Archive. "In many parts of this quite lengthy poem," Joshi writes, "he has quite faithfully parodied the insularity of modern poetry — its ability to be understood only by a small coterie of readers who are aware of intimate facts about the poet."

Lovecraft also tried his hand at non-parodic poetry, though history remembers him much less for that than for striking a more primal chord with his sui generis "weird fiction," whose parameters he was determining at the same time he was savaging his contemporary Eliot. And though scientific progress has marched much farther on since the 1920s, especially as regards the understanding of the human mind and whatever now passes for a soul, both men's bodies of work have only gained in resonance.

via Dangerous Minds

Related Content:

H.P. Lovecraft’s Classic Horror Stories Free Online: Download Audio Books, eBooks & More

H.P. Lovecraft’s Monster Drawings: Cthulhu & Other Creatures from the “Boundless and Hideous Unknown”

H.P. Lovecraft Gives Five Tips for Writing a Horror Story, or Any Piece of “Weird Fiction”

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (Free Documentary)

T.S. Eliot Reads His Modernist Masterpieces “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear 55 Hours of Shakespeare’s Plays: The Tragedies, Comedies & Histories Performed by Vanessa Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud, Ralph Fiennes & Many More

The so-called “Great Vowel Shift” was a very unusual occurrence. During the period between around 1500 to around 1700, the English language “lost the purer vowel sounds of most European languages, as well as the phonetic pairing between long and short vowel sounds,” writes the site The History of English. Such radical linguistic change seems a "sudden and dramatic shift" historically, and “a peculiarly English phenomenon…. contemporary and neighboring languages like French, German and Spanish were entirely unaffected.” Over a period of around 200 years, in other words, English completely morphed from Chaucer’s melodic, nearly incomprehensible Middle English into the sounds we hear in Damian Lewis’s speech as Antony in Julius Caesar, above.

Shakespeare’s English sounded like neither of these, but somewhat like both. English became more distinctive precisely during the time it became more cosmopolitan, philosophical, and, eventually, global.




It was a period of “a large intake of loanwords from the Romance languages of Europe…, which required a different kind of pronunciation”—and of a great flood of Latinate words from scientific, legal, and medical discourse. “Latin loanwords in Old and Middle English are a mere trickle,” writes Charles Barber in The English Language, “but in Early Modern English,” Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English, “the trickle becomes a river, and by 1600 it is a deluge.”

The English Renaissance sits smack in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift, its literary productions reflecting a riotous and thrilling confluence of speech, a wild field of linguistic play and experimentation, novelty, ingenuity, and controversy. The scholars and writers of the time were themselves very aware of these changes. One “Elizabethan headmaster,” notes Barber, “commented in 1582 on the large number of foreign words being borrowed daily by the English language.” (Emphasis mine.)

Shakespeare’s language revels in such borrowing, and coining, of words, while often preserving the pronunciation and the syntax, of earlier forms of English from all over the UK. All other arguments for reading and listening to Shakespeare aside—and they are too numerous—the richness of the language may be the most robust for centuries to come. As long as there is something called English—though a thousand years hence, our version may sound as alien as the language of Beowulf does today—Shakespeare will still represent some of the wittiest, most adventurous expressions of the most fertile and creative moment in the language’s history.

Luckily for those future English speakers, writers, and appreciators, Shakespeare has also been the most widely adapted, recorded, and performed writer in the English language, and there will never be a shortage of his work in any format. Original Pronunciation Shakespeare has only recently left the academy and made it to regular performances on the stage, giving us a taste of just how different the verbal music of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet sounded to their first audiences. But what’s remarkable is how Shakespeare seems to work in any accent and any setting... almost.

As far as American actors go, Brando may have been more up to the task of playing Mark Antony than Charlton Heston was, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have both, and hundreds more besides. I would argue that there’s no such thing as too much Shakespeare in too many different voices. His plays needn’t be the greatest ever written to nonetheless contain some of the greatest speeches ever performed on any stage. That very much includes the speeches in lesser-known tragedies like Coriolanus, which an ensemble cast of Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Elan Eshkeri, and Gerard Butler turned into a 21st-century political barnburner of a movie.

The music and dialogue from that 2011 film adaptation open the playlist of Shakespeare’s tragedies, further up, which also includes a performance from Sir John Gielgud in Hamlet and a recorded performance of American composer Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, a 1966 opera with a libretto by Franco Zeffirelli based exclusively on Shakespeare’s text. This work premiered as “one of the great operatic disasters of all time,” according to one critic who was in its first audience, “at one point the soprano Leontyne Price… found herself trapped inside a pyramid.” The idiosyncratic delivery in these various performances all stress the flexibility of Shakespeare’s language, which can still mesmerize, even under Spinal Tap-like conditions of performance anxiety.

After you’ve worked your way through 18 hours of Shakespeare’s tragedies, listen further up to 19 hours of Comedies, 13 hours of Histories, and, just above, to something we may not have enough of—5 hours of readings of Shakespeare’s poetry, by actors like Gielgud and Sir Anthony Quayle, Richard Burton, Emma Topping, and many more. Another great vowel shift may be coming, along with other world historical changes. These copious recordings preserve for the future the diverse sounds of Late Modern English, speaking the richest literary language of its Early Modern ancestor.

If you need Spotify's free software, download it here.

Related Content:

A 68 Hour Playlist of Shakespeare’s Plays Being Performed by Great Actors: Gielgud, McKellen & More

Hear What Shakespeare Sounded Like in the Original Pronunciation

Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour Sings Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

Hear Beowulf Read In the Original Old English: How Many Words Do You Recognize?

Hear What Shakespeare Sounded Like in the Original Pronunciation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Elton John Proves He Can Turn any Text into a Song: Watch Him Improvise with Lines from Henrik Ibsen’s Play, Peer Gynt

I'm not a lyric writer. I get all my inspiration from looking at the written page. - Elton John

Inspiration is one thing. Acting on it is another. Sir Elton’s output seems to go beyond his magical combination of talent, work ethic, and training. He claims to have taken all of 30 minutes to complete "Your Song." In his 2005 appearance on Inside the Actor's Studio, excerpted above, he passed his genius off as something akin to a party trick, calling on the audience to pass up a book—any book—as source material for an insta-song.

Given the number of student actors in the audience, it’s really not so surprising that the first volume to hit the stage was Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 verse play Peer Gynt.




Magicians heighten the drama by demanding absolute silence prior to a difficult trick.

John swings the other way. The resulting improvised tune is all the more impressive for his off the cuff, raunchy text-based patter. It's hard to imagine Ibsen playing so fast and loose with lines like:

Everything spites me with a vengeance

Sky and water and those wicked mountains

Fog pouring out of the sky to confound him

The water hurling in to drown him

The mountains pointing their rocks to fall-

And those people, all of them out for the kill!

Oh no, not to die!

I mustn’t lose him. The lout!

Why’s the devil have to tease him?

What might Metallica or Iron Maiden have conjured from such material? In John’s hands, it becomes a lush, emotionally charged ballad, the mountains and fog apt metaphors.

In his book Inside Inside, host James Lipton names this as one of “the two most astounding improvisations in the history of Inside the Actors Studio.” The other was Robin Williams making merry with a pink pashmina shawl.

In a 2012 interview with NPR, John went into the nature of his collaboration with his longtime word man, Bernie Taupin. Unlike other lyricists, Taupin does not think in terms of verse and chorus, leaving it to John to free the song from a wall of text:

It’s just a blank—well, not a blank, but it's a piece of paper. In the old days, it was handwritten. Then it got typed. Then it got faxed. Now it gets emailed. And it's no suggestions, nothing. And we've never written in the same room. I don't know if people know that. But he gives me the lyric, and I go away and write the song, and then come back and play it to him. And I've never lost the enjoyment or the thrill of playing him the song that I've just written to his lyric.

If you’d like to finish what John started by further musicalizing Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, the complete script can be read here. Or listen to the 1946 radio adaptation starring Ralph Richardson as Peer Gynt and Laurence Olivier as the Troll King and a button-moulder, below. Also above, you can watch John turn instructions for using an oven (yes, that daily appliance) into song.

via metafilter

Related Content:

Elton John Sings His Classic Hit ‘Your Song’ Through the Years

Tom Petty Takes You Inside His Songwriting Craft

Enjoy a Bluegrass Performance of Elton John’s 1972 Hit, “Rocket Man”

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

« Go BackMore in this category... »
Quantcast