The language used by Shakespeare is an early form of Modern English;
to our ears it sounds rather old-fashioned. They use different words, and also the grammar is different:
- Questions and negatives could be formed without using do or did; Shakespeare had the option of
using two forms, whereas only the first column is correct present-day English:
|Is the king going?
|| Goes the king?
|Did the king go?
||Went the king?
|You do not look well.
|| You look not well.
|You did not look well.
|| You looked not well
- A number of past participles and past tense forms were used that would be ungrammatical today:
| ...hath holp him.
|| ...had helped him.
|He shall live a man forbid.
- Archaic verb forms occur with 'thou':
|As thou art in desire?
||As you are ....
||you are mistaken
||you are looking
- 'doth' was used as an auxiliary of the present tense; it was not an intensifier as in present day English:
|the King doth keep
||the King keeps
|Macbeth doth come
- There was an extra pronoun 'thou', which was used like Dutch 'jij': in addressing a child, a
person who was one's equal or social inferior. 'You' was for superiors, used like Dutch 'U'.
It was used to indicate distance or respect. If 'thou'was used inappropriately, it could be offensive.
'You'was obligatory if more than one person was addressed: 'Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more'
(Macbeth, I, iii, 70).
- Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today, and so we find several uses in
e.g. Macbeth that would have to be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are 'on' to signify 'to' in :
'The victory fell on us' (I, ii,59); 'with' for 'by' in: "Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand"
(III,i,62); 'for' for 'on account of' in: 'For certain friends that are both his and mine' (III,i,120).
- There was multiple negation. Modern English requires only one negative word, Shakespeare often used
a combination of two or more:
- I haven't none
- Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee
- Some of their words are no longer used:
||shame on you!
Apart from differences in grammar, vocabulary and idioms there is the specific way in which Shakespeare
used language. He took a delight with language and created new words and phrases that are still used today.
As a good Elizabethan he would use speech with imagination and weave together terms to form stinging phrases
of wit. In addition to this, his noble characters speak in verse, which has a certain metre, rhyme and use of
imagery. His lower characters, on the other hand, speak in prose.
These fragments from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' are examples:
Act II, scene I
PUCK: I jest to Oberon, and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal;
And sometime lurk I in a gossip's bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab;
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And on her withered dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt telling the saddest tale
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum. Down topples she,
And 'Tailor!' cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole choir hold their hips and laugh.
In Modern English:
PUCK: I joke with Oberon, and make him smile,
When I put on a mare's shape and then neigh,
To lure a lusty bean-fed horse my way.
Sometimes I hide inside a mug of beer,
And when the chatty housewife raises it,
And tries to drink, I splash her greasy lips,
And round her fat throat spill the foaming brew
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometimes mistakes me for a three-legged stool,
And so she sits on me with knees spread out.
Then I slip from her bum, and down she falls,
And swears a filthy oath, and starts to cough,
And then the whole crowd hold their hips, and laugh.
Noble characters speak in verse, and often use lofty language to express their feelings.
In the next fragment Lysander tells Hermia he does not love her any more, but has fallen for Helena:
Act III, scene II
LYSANDER: Ay, by my life;
And never did desire to see thee more.
Therefore, be out of hope, of question, of doubt;
Be certain, nothing truer: 't is no jest,
That I do hate thee and love Helena.
HERMIA: O me! you juggler! you canker-blossom!
You thief of love ! what ! have you come by night
And stol'n my love's heart from him?
HELENA: Fine, i'faith!
Have you no modesty, no maiden shame,
No touch of bashfulness? What! will you tear
Impatient answers from my gentle tongue?
Fie, fie! you counterfeit, you puppet, you!
Shakespeare is noted for his insults, which are also very creative and never fail to arouse fun and laughter:
- Thou mewling swag-bellied pantaloon
- Thou bootless flap-mouthed bugbear
- Thou tottering dismal-dreaming clotpole
We have seen the lofty language of noble characters, but there are also common people in Shakespeare's plays.
These 'lower characters' speak in prose, which is easier to understand for a present-day audience.
In 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' Quince, a carpenter,
and several Athenian workmen meet to discuss their plans to present
the play of Pyramus and Thisby as entertainment for the wedding of the Duke:
Act I, Scene II
A Room in Quince's House.
Enter Quince, Snug, Bottom, Flute, Snout and Starveling.
Quince: Is all our company here?
Bottom: You were best to call them generally, man by man, according to the scrip.
Q: Here is the scroll of every man's name, which is thought fit, through all Athens, to play in our
interlude before the duke and duchess on his wedding-day at night.
B: First, good Peter Quince, say what the play treats on; then read the names of the actors, and so grow
to a point.
Q: Marry, our play is, The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.
B: A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry . Now, good Peter Quince, call forth your
actors by the scroll. Masters, spread yourselves.
Q: Answer as I call you. Nick Bottom, the weaver.
B: Ready. Name what part I am for, and proceed.
Q: You, Nick Bottom, are set down for Pyramus.
B: What is Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?
Q: A lover, that kills himself most gallantly for love.
B: That will ask some tears in the true performing of it: if I do it, let the audience look to their
I will move storms, I will condole in some measure.
To the rest: yet my chief humour is for a tyrant:
I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split:
The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates:
And Phibbus' car
Shall shine from far
And make and mar
The foolish Fates.
This was lofty! Now name the rest of the players.
This is Ercles' vein, a tyrant's vein; a lover is more condoling.
Q: Francis Flute, the bellows-mender.
Flute: Here, Peter Quince.
Q: You must take Thisby on you.
F: What is Thisby? A wandering knight?
Q: It is the lady that Pyramus must love.
F: Nay, faith, let not me play a woman; I have a beard coming.
Q: That's all one: you shall play it in a mask, and you may speak as small as you will.
Bottom: And I may hide my face, let me play Thisby too.
I'll speak in a monstrous little voice, 'Thisne, Thisne'.
'Ah! Pyramus, my lover dear; thy Thisby dear, and lady dear!'
Q: No, no; you must play Pyramus; and, Flute, you Thisby.
B: Well, proceed.
Compare the following scene with its translation into Dutch.
Act II, scene I.
A Wood near Athens.
Enter a Fairy and Puck from opposite sides.
Puck: How now, spirit! whither wander you?
Fairy: Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander every where,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dew - drops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits: I'll be gone;
Our queen and all her elves come here anon.
Puck: The king doth keep his revels here tonight
Take heed the queen come not within his sight;
For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,
Because that she as her attendant hath
A lovely boy, stol'n from an Indian king;
She never had so sweet a changeling;
And jealous Oberon would have the child
Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild;
But she, perforce, withholds the loved boy,
Crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her joy,
And now they never meet in grove, or green,
By fountain clear, or spangled starlight sheen,
But they do square; that all their elves, for fear,
Creep into acorn-cups and hide them there.
Translation by a well-known Shakespeare translator, Jan Jonk:
Een bos bij Athene.
Een elf op door een deur aan de ene kant, Puck aan de andere kant.
Puck: Wat nu, geest! Waarheen gaat uw vlucht?
Elf: Over berg, over dal,
dwars door 'n struik, dwars door 'n stronk,
over park, waterval,
dwars door vloed, dwars door vonk,
ik vlieg overal eens langs,
sneller dan de maans trans;
en ik dien mijn Koningin:
dauw strooi ik op elfenring.
Sleutelbloempjes zijn haar wacht;
vlekjes op hun gouden vacht
zijn robijnen, elfengraven
waar hun geur in ligt begraven.
Wat druppels dauw ben ik op het spoor:
en hang een parel in elk bloempjes oor.
Dag, lobbes van een geest; ik ben hier klaar:
de Koningin komt met haar elfenschaar.
Puck: Vanavond zal de Koning feesten gaan;
houd dan de Koningin bij hem vandaan;
want Oberon is woedend, opgewonden,
daar zij zich een mooi knaapje heeft gevonden,
gestolen uit een Indisch vorstenhuis -
zo'n heerlijk wisselkind had zij nooit thuis.
Hoe graag zou Oberon op zwerftocht gaan
met deze page langs de wilde baan.
Zij weigert hem de lieveling met klem,
vlecht bloemenkransen en vertroetelt hem.
Als die twee zich maar zien in beemd of bos,
bij fonkelend sterrenlicht, op vijvermos,
dan knalt het weer; van angst kruipt de elfenstoet
in eikelnapjes , en verbergt zich goed.
More Elizabethan English: