When you read something, you can make sense of it if you know at least nine out of ten words. In most cases either the tenth word will not matter much or you will be able to guess at its meaning from the other nine. I know this from reading Portuguese.
If you go by that, then Shakespeare could read most of what was written before 1850, but not much of what has been written since 1950.
You get the same answer when you think about the King James Bible: it is 97% Shakespearean in its words, but no one felt the need to update it till about 1870.
Here is how something from the New Yorker magazine would seem to Shakespeare (I replaced all the words not found in Shakespeare with “BLAH-BLAH”):
Passion of the Christ, The
Mel Gibson’s bloody re-creation of the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus is one of the cruellest BLAH-BLAHS in the history of the BLAH-BLAH. Gibson and the BLAH-BLAH Benedict Fitzgerald selected and BLAH-BLAH incidents from the four Gospels and collated them into a single, BLAH-BLAH violent BLAH-BLAH in which the incomparable glories of Jesus’ BLAH-BLAH – the BLAH-BLAH, the BLAH-BLAH, the heart-stopping eloquence – are all but BLAH-BLAH by the spectacle of his physical destruction. The BLAH-BLAH and flaying, often in slow-motion, go on forever, and Gibson displays a curious BLAH-BLAH BLAH-BLAH with the details of BLAH-BLAH – huge nails being hammered into hands and feet, with James Caviezel’s Jesus howling at each blow. Here and there, the BLAH-BLAH has a kind of grim power, and Caleb Deschanel’s even grey BLAH-BLAH at the BLAH-BLAH is BLAH-BLAH, but this is a BLAH-BLAH, BLAH-BLAH, and ignorant show. The BLAH-BLAHS have also changed in small ways a number of things from the Gospels and BLAH-BLAH what BLAH-BLAHS know of ancient Judea, all with the BLAH-BLAH of making the Jewish leaders more, and the Roman leaders less, BLAH-BLAH for the death of Jesus. It’s a deeply angry BLAH-BLAH, and one wonders how believers can react to it with anything but guilt, fear, or loathing.
– David Denby
That, by the way, is how it will seem thousands of years from now too: English, as we know it, will be gone by then – either dead or changed into something else – but there will still be scholars who will know the English of Shakespeare, just as there are those who know the Greek of Homer.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, by way of comparison, has only one word Shakespeare might not have known: final (it was an English word by the 1300s, but he never used it).
Shakespeare would be able to read:
- British: King James Bible, Milton, Gibbon, William Blake, Jane Austen, Joyce, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Orwell, Churchill, Christopher Hitchens, Colin McEvedy.
- American: Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Dr Seuss, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Isaac Asimov.
He would have trouble reading:
- British: The Economist, Toynbee, Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins.
- American: New Yorker, New York Times, Ann Coulter, William Safire, Larry Niven, Michelle Malkin, Clifford Geertz, Noam Chomsky.
– Abagond, 2008, 2015.