I’m constantly torn between the concept of “Words have meanings” and “Words are meaningless”. Because on the one hand you shouldn’t use the word “emaciated” when you mean “emancipated”, but then there’s this tweet:

Which is also very true. What humans have done with language is an interesting quirk of our species, but I want to take a look at one particular word in honor of today:


The OED has two definitions for “Shakespearean” (though they use “Shakespearian” because England). We’ll get to those in a second, but first let’s discuss what it doesn’t mean. Shakespearean does not mean “Elizabethan”. Queen Elizabeth was great, and she defined a very important era in English history, but she was not the only reigning monarch while Shakespeare was writing. The Romance Plays (PericlesCymbelineThe Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest) are all speculated to have been written and performed while under the reign of King Jacob. Shakespearean is also not a form of the English language, it’s just early modern English, guys. Aside from a few choice words, we still talk like this– hell, if your Bible is KJV, you can still read like this.

So, with that out of the way, what does it mean?

A. adj. Of or pertaining to, or having the characteristics of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) or his dramatic and poetical productions.

A sonnet can be Shakespearean. In fact, that is a particular form of sonnet that usually is written in iambic pentameter, with the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. A show can be described as Shakespearean. House of Cards, with its asides to the audience and general plot of a scheming politician that attempts to grab power for himself, is very Shakespearean.  Hamilton, a show that uses contemporary language and verse forms as its main form of communication and a show based on history that plays with the history in order to create a narratively resonant story, could be considered Shakespearean (though Lin-Manuel Miranda is far closer to the facts than Shakespeare ever was). Stuff like The Lion King (Hamlet and both Henry IV plays), Game of Thrones (the histories based on the Wars of the Roses), or even Tim Burton’s Batman (Macbeth) can all be described as Shakespearian– and that’s not even getting into the direct adaptations. But this is the far more straight-forward definition. The easier one. The second definition has a few parts.

B. n. An authority on or student of the writings of Shakespeare; a Shakespearian scholar.

This one is a bit tricky, because it equates “authority” with “student”, which is not something that most people do. In this context, they do mean the same thing– like a doctor still “practices” medicine, even after they’ve been a doctor for 30+ years and have probably gotten pretty good at it, but there’s always something new to learn. Even if you did spend 30 years of your life studying the plays, because of the richness and the density of some of the passages, there’s always something new to learn. Hell, we’ve spent 400 years studying him, and we still don’t know everything. And you don’t necessarily have to be an Ivory Tower Academic(TM) to be a person that studies Shakespeare, you just need to like good writing and enjoy meaningful dialogue about his works.

Also, one who believes that Shakespeare wrote the plays usually attributed to him;

Here is a video dismantling the Anti-Stratfordian argument. The Anti-Stratfordian argument is part of the reason why I hate the phrase “write what you know”, as it takes that phrase to that extreme– “you can only write what you know”. And honestly, Occam’s Razor, people. Why there is a conspiracy over frigging Shakespeare is beyond me. Though the video brings up several good points, including how we all want to see ourselves as Shakespeare.

an imitator of Shakespeare’s style, one of his school;

This definition is a bit vague, I’ll admit. But let’s go through the permutations. The Globe has, over the past few years, been putting out several productions that boast the use of “Original Pronunciation”, that is, pronouncing the lines in the accents that the original actors would have had. I highly recommend taking a look at their Oberon A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 2014. But the real question here is, what is his style? Shakespeare has gone through so many different styles, it’s hard to define. 10 Things I Hate About You is a far cry from Ian McKellen’s Richard III, but they’re both Shakespearean. One could hardly compare Julie Taymor’s Titus with Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. Even without looking at adaptation, it’s a far stretch between The Merry Wives of Windsor and Julius Caesar. But I’ll bring back the point that we all want to see ourselves as Shakespeare. My Henry V is different from Sir Lawrence Olivier’s and Sir Kenneth Branagh’s. To imitate his style, we first have to interpret his text. And there’s no right or wrong way to do that.

an admirer of Shakespeare’s works.

I am a Shakespearean. And, guess what, you are too. If you’ve ever gone on a “wild goose chase” or been “faint-hearted”, if you “play fast and loose” or worked on the railroad all the “live long day”, if you want to venture into “the undiscovered country” or simply “kill all the lawyers”, then you have needed Shakespeare. This year, this day, marks what many call “400 years of Bardolitry”– a word originally coined by a critic of Shakespeare and his cult of personality. And it’s amazing how Shakespeare can have a cult of personality considering how little we know about him. But through all the controversy, conspiracy, and conflict, these works still stand 4 centuries later. And are still relevant. That’s not something that can be said for many things that we know from our culture today. I’m not even certain Harry Potter will last that long, and that’s sticking around for some time, let me assure you. But 400 years from now, we will definitely still be talking about the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, because his themes of true love, power hungry politicians, the trials of leadership, and straight up murder will probably still be around.

Sorry that wasn’t more eloquent. I’m not Shakespeare.