We recently went to see a production of Macbeth by the National Youth Theatre, with the lead rôle taken by Sam Edge, the young son of a friend of ours.
Actually, the production was called Salford Macbeth and set in that city in 1983. It introduced some specially written text by a local poet, but, essentially, it preserved Shakespeare's text, although heavily cut. It's actually a ridiculously long time since I last saw Macbeth: the last one was, I think, with the late Paul Scofield at Stratford back in nineteen-hundred-and-frozen-to death, as Arthur Askey used to say. I don't really know the play all that well, so it came as a surprise to hear the new king hope that the murder of Duncan would be the 'be-all an end-all' of the affair. At the time, I sort of assumed that was a phrase introduced along with the additional text. So, it came as a surprise, when I checked, to find it is in the original. It has changed its meaning a little in modern times, but it remains entirely familiar language to a modern audience. It always seemed so contemporary in its tone, and I wondered where he got it from. Well, it turns out he was the first to use it. And it got me thinking — how much of our modern language do we owe to Shakespeare? Did he introduce any other words into English?
It turns out that we can identify over 200 words that see their first known use in the works of Shakespeare, from abstemious to zany. Macbeth alone accounts for at least five of them. Apart from be-all and end-all itself, it also introduced 'drug' as a verb (Lady Macbeth`:'I have drugged their possets'), 'cow' as a verb (Act V, scene viii), 'stealthy' as an adjective (Macbeth in the 'dagger of the mind’ speech in Act II; stealth as a noun had been know since the fourteenth century), and 'unreal' as an adjective (Macbeth to Banquo's ghost in III iv). And there are many others which are striking and memorable. Just some of the other words and phrases introduced for the first time by Shakespeare: Love letter — Two Gentlemen of Verona; What the dickens — Merry Wives of Windsor: 'I cannot tell what the dickens his name is', III,ii. So it would appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with Charles Dickens, a popularly quoted derivation; Manager (as a noun) — Love's Labours Lost: Don Armado in I, ii; Puke (as a verb) — Jacques' Seven Ages of Man speech in As you Like It, II, vii; Swagger — A Midsummer Night's Dream, III, i; Wild Goose Chase — Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio in II, iv.
Shakespeare's capacity for innovation appears to have been boundless, and he must have well understood the necessity for language to evolve in order to survive. If only those who now whine about changing standards in our language today understood the same.