Apr 262015


William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor, was baptized on this date in 1564. Many, perhaps wishful thinking, scholars would like to believe that he was born on the 23rd, thus making his birthday and day of death the same, also coinciding with St George’s Day (patron saint of England — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-george/).


Shakespeare was born and brought up in Stratford-upon-Avon. At the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who was at the time 3 months pregnant with their daughter, Susanna. They went on to have twins, Hamnet and Judith. Between 1585 and 1592, he began a successful career in London as an actor, writer, and part-owner of a playing company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men. He appears to have retired to Stratford around 1613 at age 49, where he died three years later. Few records of Shakespeare’s private life survive, and there has been considerable speculation about such matters as his physical appearance, sexuality, religious beliefs, and whether the works attributed to him were written by others. Given his stature such speculation is natural; the stuff of Ph.D dissertations. I find it all utterly tedious.

Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1589 and 1613.His early plays were mainly comedies and histories and these works remain regarded as some of the best work produced in these genres. He then wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, considered some of the finest works in the English language. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as romances, and collaborated with other playwrights.


Many of his plays were published in editions of varying quality and accuracy during his lifetime. In 1623, John Heminges and Henry Condell, two friends and fellow actors of Shakespeare, published the First Folio, a collected edition of his dramatic works that included all but two of the plays now recognized as Shakespeare’s. It was prefaced with a poem by Ben Jonson, in which Shakespeare is hailed, presciently, as “not of an age, but for all time.”

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

There are many false notions about Shakespeare’s English. One is that he is hard to read because he wrote in “Elizabethan English.” Well, yes, he wrote in Elizabethan English – he was Elizabethan !! But that is not the problem. His plays are in poetic form, not prose. When he – rarely – uses prose for dramatic effect – it’s pretty much like the English of today as in this bit from Hamlet when Hamlet is confronting his mother:


Now, mother, what’s the matter?


Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.


Mother, you have my father much offended.

I’ll spare you the discourse on why she uses “thou” to him and he uses “you” to her. If you know some French or Spanish you’ll understand. Anyone have trouble with “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” (I probably should add another question mark here, but it looks silly.)

No, the problem is that besides being in verse, Shakespeare’s plays contain literally thousands of words he made up. If you read my post on the Oxford English Dictionary (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/oxford-english-dictionary/) you’ll know quotes from his works outnumber those of an other author in that work. Some of them became everyday, household words we still use. The following table from http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/wordsinvented.html gives many of them. Click on a link to see the context.


academe accused addiction advertising amazement
arouse assassination backing bandit bedroom
beached besmirch birthplace blanket bloodstained
barefaced blushing bet bump buzzer
caked cater champion circumstantial cold-blooded
compromise courtship countless critic dauntless
dawn deafening discontent dishearten drugged
dwindle epileptic equivocal elbow excitement
exposure eyeball fashionable fixture flawed
frugal generous gloomy gossip green-eyed
gust hint hobnob hurried impede
impartial invulnerable jaded label lackluster
laughable lonely lower luggage lustrous
madcap majestic marketable metamorphize mimic
monumental moonbeam mountaineer negotiate noiseless
obscene obsequiously ode olympian outbreak
panders pedant premeditated puking radiance
rant remorseless savagery scuffle secure
skim milk submerge summit swagger torture
tranquil undress unreal varied vaulting
worthless zany gnarled grovel

By contrast, this site talks about words he invented that never took root (but should have).


If nothing else, Shakespeare is a philologist’s delight.

In the Merry Wives of Windsor (Act V, Scene 5) there is this exchange:


   Sir John! art thou there, my deer? my male deer?


   My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain

   potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Green

   Sleeves, hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let

   there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.

OK, look up the words you don’t know. It’s potatoes falling from the sky I want to focus on. Potatoes had a rocky start in Britain. They (and tomatoes) were considered poisonous at first. In 1589 Sir Walter Raleigh, English explorer and historian known for his expeditions to the Americas, first brought the potato to Ireland and planted them at his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork. Legend has it that he made a gift of the potato plant to Queen Elizabeth. The local gentry were invited to a royal banquet featuring the potato in every course. Unfortunately, the cooks were uneducated in the matter of potatoes, tossed out the lumpy-looking tubers and brought to the royal table a dish of boiled potato stems and leaves (which were poisonous). These promptly made everyone deathly ill, and potatoes were hence banned from court.

Potatoes eventually became common – mostly due to food shortages in the 18th century. So finding a 16th century recipe is a bit of a lost cause. Hints from literature, though, suggest they were cooked much as we cook them – boiled, roast, baked, mashed, and fried. This quote from General Douglas MacArthur harks back to Elizabethan days:

Found a little patched-up inn in the village of Bulson. Proprietor had nothing but potatoes; but what a feast he laid before me. Served them in five different courses-potato soup, potato fricassee, potatoes creamed, potato salad and finished with potato pie. It may be because I had not eaten for 36 hours, but that meal seems about the best I ever had.

Potato soups of various kinds are an English mainstay. One of my all time favs is leek and potato soup – not the puréed hot vichyssoise wannabe, but a hearty and chunky English classic. I first had it in a country restaurant in a neighboring restaurant in the Catskills with a superb chef. Sadly it closed because the locals were not foodies and balked at the prices. No matter, the recipe was easy to recreate. It’s very plain and simple, but delectable.

Sorry! No kitchen, no photo of mine.  Here’s Kenwood’s.


© Tío Juan’s Leek and Potato Soup

All you need are 2 potatoes, 2 fat leeks, 1 onion, rich chicken stock, parsley, and salt and black pepper. Scub the potatoes well then dice them (without peeling). Split the leeks, clean them well and cut off the tougher outer green leaves. Cut into fat slices. Peel and dice the onion. Bring a quart of chicken stock to the boil, add the leeks, onions, and potatoes, and simmer uncovered. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste plus a small handful of chopped parsley. I use no salt and a lot of pepper. I don’t cook wit salt but you can add it to taste if you wish. Simmer until the potatoes are soft (but not falling apart). Serve in deep bowls with a garnish of parsley.

If you want you can mash a few bits of potato to thicken the broth. Of course, you can add what herbs you want. I prefer the simple freshness of parsley. Some people add a minced clove of garlic. Always cook’s choice.