Wednesday 28 September 2016

Shakespeare not responsible for all those bon mots, claims scholar

Jonathan Pearlman

Published 06/09/2016 | 02:30

Dr David McInnis said online searches of old texts had helped to uncover pre-Shakespeare uses for many words and phrases that are frequently credited to him
Dr David McInnis said online searches of old texts had helped to uncover pre-Shakespeare uses for many words and phrases that are frequently credited to him

An Australian expert on William Shakespeare claims the bard did not invent many of the words and phrases attributed to him, saying the mistake is due to the 'Oxford English Dictionary's' "bias" towards citing literary examples of early usages.

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Noting examples such as "it was Greek to me" and "wild goose chase", Dr David McInnis, from Melbourne University, said online searches of old texts had helped to uncover pre-Shakespeare uses for many words and phrases that are frequently credited to him.

"Did Shakespeare really invent all these words and phrases?" he wrote in an article for the university's online magazine.

"The short answer is no. His audiences had to understand at least the gist of what he meant, so his words were mostly in circulation already or were logical combinations of pre-existing concepts."

Dr McInnis, a lecturer in Shakespeare studies, said the 'Oxford English Dictionary' contains more than 33,000 quotations from Shakespeare, including about 1,500 listed as the first evidence of a word's existence. A further 7,500 are listed as the first evidence of a particular usage or meaning.

"But the OED is biased," Dr McInnis wrote. "Especially in the early days, it preferred literary examples, and famous ones at that. 'The Complete Works of Shakespeare' was frequently raided for early examples of word use, even though words or phrases might have been used earlier, by less famous or less literary people."

According to Dr McInnis, the phrase "it's Greek to me" is often thought to derive from Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar', which is believed to have been written in 1599. But internet-based resources have helped to uncover at least one earlier use.

Dr McInnis wrote: "Fellow playwright Robert Greene's 'The Scottish History of James the Fourth' was printed in 1598 but possibly written as early as 1590. In it, a lord asks a lady if she'll love him, and she replies ambiguously: 'I cannot hate.' He presses the point … at which point she pretends not to understand him at all: ''Tis Greek to me, my Lord' is her final reply." (© Daily Telegraph London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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