His works were credited as the starting point of the Modern English era, but does William Shakespeare truly deserve as the benchmark of the start of Modern English?
By: Vanessa Uy
It is now widely accepted that Beowulf is the definitive benchmark that defined the time period of the Old English era, while Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a prime example of a Middle English work of literature. And Edmund Spenser’s the Faerie Queene is acknowledge by some scholars the last great work of the Middle English period. While William Shakespeare’s works – acknowledge by some as the beginning of the Modern English period – has it’s share of detractors professing to facts supporting that Shakespeare’s works can’t truly be defined as Modern English. But first, a brief definition on what constitutes Old, Middle, and Modern English.
Webster’s dictionary defines Old English as the language of the English people from the time of the earliest documents in the 7th Century to about 1100, or any form of English of any period before Modern English. While Middle English is defined as the English in manuscripts of the 12th to 15th Centuries – also often defined as the transition period between Old English and Modern English. While Modern English is defined as a form of English having the characteristics of the present or most recent period of development of the English language.
The controversy whether the literary works of William Shakespeare can truly be described as belonging to the Modern English era was put forth by scholars who based their evidence of the contrary via archival first drafts of Shakespeare’s works. Noting that Shakespeare more often than not lacked a consistent spelling of some oft used English words. Even citing that Shakespeare spelled these words according to his creative whim. Which will do him no favors for the literate scholars and scribes at the time trying to record his literary works for posterity.
Scholars who subscribe to this point of view – or school of thought – ascribe the true origin of Modern English to Dr. Samuel Johnson, the author of the first definitive English dictionary. Dr. Samuel Johnson might as well be as good a candidate for being credited for the invention of Modern English, because of his authorship of the first truly definitive English dictionary. Which means that from that point on there now exist benchmarks and ground-rules on how to properly spell English words in accordance to a well-defined set of rules. Rather than spelling them according to whomever bard-come-lately’s creative whim. Sadly, the “creative molestation” of the now formalized Modern English language didn’t end with William Shakespeare’s whimsical, idiosyncratic and sometimes deliberate misspellings.