Shakespeare's Vocabulary: Myth and Reality


One of the staples of Shakespeare commentary for the past century and more has been the idea that Shakespeare had an exceptionally large vocabulary. Now that electronic texts of early modern English drama are available in quantity, it is possible to check this claim. Comparing Shakespeare's plays to a large group of plays by other writers from the period shows that his vocabulary is indeed large, but this would seem to be only because his canon of surviving single-author plays is larger than his contemporaries.' Play for play, Shakespeare's dramatic works fit well with the pattern of others in the number of different words used. The same can be said of the number of new words he introduces into successive plays. Looking at a different measure—the extent to which a playwright's rate of use of individual words deviates from the average—Shakespeare is remarkable for the closeness of his practice to that of his peers. Whatever quantitative measures reflecting Shakespeare's acknowledged exceptional status are explored in the future, the evidence of vocabulary size and word-use frequency places Shakespeare with his contemporaries, rather than apart from them.