King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world


The size and richness of Shakespeare’s vocabulary have long been celebrated; not only do his published works contain over 31,000 different words, but they also bear witness to the fecund creativity of his linguistic genius, turning words to novel uses, employing words newly added to the English vocabulary and occasionally perhaps coining new words. In this respect, as Albert C Baugh and Thomas Cable observe in their History of the English language, Shakespeare mirrored the spirit of the age:

It was in language, as in many other respects, an age with the characteristics of youth – vigor, a willingness to venture, and a disposition to attempt the untried.

The Renaissance rediscovery of the writings of classical Greece and Rome and the subsequent efforts to translate them adequately into the vernacular;  the explosion of religious debate ignited by the Reformation; developments in scientific learning; the increase in travel and trade both within Europe and beyond its boundaries;  rising levels of literacy, assisted by the printing press and the growth of the middle class – all these factors combined to swell the vocabulary of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.  

This enrichment of the language was not without its critics; obscure Latinate neologisms were derisively labelled ‘ink-horn’ terms and their bookish exponents accused of ‘ink-hornism’ (Shakespeare provides a gently mocking portrayal of an ‘ink-horner’ in the character of Holofernes, the schoolmaster in Love’s labour’s lost). But on the whole contemporary literary opinion was in favour of the new words; they met a need, enabling new concepts and discoveries to be discussed, they gave the writer a rich store of subtly different synonyms from which to choose and they fed a growing pride in the English language as one capable of beauty and complexity.

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer with his family treePortrait of Geoffrey Chaucer with his family treeAlthough most new words entering the English language in Shakespeare’s time were derived from Latin or other Romance languages, the period also witnessed a new enthusiasm – literary, antiquarian and patriotic – for the older forms of English itself and the revival of a number of words that had fallen into disuse. The works of Geoffrey Chaucer were a rich source for such words, which thus became known as ‘Chaucerisms’.

Thomas Speght’s 1602 edition of Chaucer’s works treated the medieval poet as an author of equal stature to those of the classical past, meriting an extensive appendage of notes, biographical sketch and portrait. He also included a glossary of ‘the old and obscure words … also caracters showing from what tongue or dialect they be derived’. That such a glossary was needed indicates that by 1602 many Middle English words were not easily comprehensible to a contemporary readership, but its presence also reflects a growing interest in the history and development of the English language.

Speght (d 1621) was a Cambridge contemporary of the poet Edmund Spenser (1552?-99), whose Faerie queene is the most extensive embodiment of Elizabethan medievalism. Some of the medieval words revived by Spenser and his contemporaries are not widely used today; mickle, for example, meaning large or great (‘Tomorrow I shall die with mickle age’, Henry V), survives now only in regional dialect. Others, like astound, doom and gloomy, have become part of the standard English vocabulary.

In this exhibition

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