The Language of Shakespeare

The Language of Shakespeare

Take the fear out of Shakespeare by learning a few generalities of Early Modern English – the language of the Renaissance.

Students of the sonnets and plays of Shakespeare often dread reading his works because of the language barrier between Early Modern English and Modern English. Learn to get the gist of Shakespeare by appreciating his word play and the syntactical (word order) differences of Early Modern English.

The Evolution of the English Language

Part of the genius of Shakespeare was that he was writing at a time when the language was rapidly changing. Early modern English was evolving into the language that we speak now, Modern English. Shakepeare took advantage of this situation by using a lot of wordplay that incorporated the Great Vowel Shift within many of his famous puns. The Great Vowel Shift was the transformation of the old vowel sounds of Early Modern English into the new vowel sounds (a,e,i,o,u) that we know today in Modern English.

Elizabethan Pronunciation

Because of the difference in vowel sounds during the 16th century, the accents of Elizabethan England were radically different from the accents of modern British English speakers. There were also regional differences in dialect during this era. This is why many words made rhyming sense back in this time period, such as love and prove, which make no rhyming sense today.

The Difference in Syntax

Students of Shakespeare often have trouble understanding the sentence structure in the plays. Shakespeare quite frequently wrote sentences in inverted, or backwards, order:

  • Shakespeare: Break off thy song, and haste thee quick away. Measure for Measure Act (4.1.7)
  • Translation: Stop singing and leave quickly.
  • Shakespeare: How like a fawning publican he looks. The Merchant of Venice (1.3.38)
  • Translation: He looks like an overly flattering tavern keeper.
  • Shakespeare: The clock struck nine when I did send the nurse; In half an hour she promised to return. Romeo and Juliet (2.5.1-2)
  • Translation: I sent the nurse at nine o’clock; she promised to return in a half an hour.

This object before verb structure is found in Germanic languages, and the inverted sentence structure reflects the English language’s Germanic roots.

Shakespeare and Acting

The words of Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be spoken aloud. A play is a dynamic thing where all the action takes place on a stage, instead of taking place inside your head as when reading a novel. Take the time to read the plays aloud, and you will gain new insights into the language of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Puns

Shakespeare made great use of what people knew and what they didn’t know. Shakespeare essentially wrote for two audiences: those who were educated, and those who were not. The educated classes, who included the nobility and the university educated, would understand the subtle jokes about politics, international affairs, and the court, which would fly right over the penny paying groundling’s heads. On the other hand, the groundlings would appreciate the bawdier jokes within the plays, as would everyone else.

Eternal Themes in the Plays

Shakespeare wrote for a diverse audience who sometimes understood the layered meanings within the plays and sometimes did not. He understood his varied audience and tried to write something for everyone, reflecting back not only the diversity of human experience but the eternal themes within that experience. That is why as the English language continues to evolve the themes within the plays will always seem modern – an observation which led Ben Jonson, a fellow playwright of Shakespeare’s, to affirm, “He was not for an age, but for all time.”