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Language of Shakespeare

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Romeo and Juliet

The Language of Shakespeare

Shakespeare made use of prose-verse dramatic idiom, a genre which has largely disappeared since. Shakespeare was not only a very good poet, but his prose is amongst the finest in our language. He used the prose spoken by everyday people "heightened" for his dramatic purpose. So successful was his prose that he partly contributed to the eventual development of prose as the unquestioned medium for drama. Earlier dramatists had used prose simply for discussing things that were inappropriate in verse. Prose was used for the speeches of clowns, for proclamations, for letters, to include a character's decline to madness, but he used prose also for the intentional dramatic contrast in his plays. Prose is reserved for the language of villains and people of lower social class predominantly whereas the Shakespearean hero and characters of high rank (socially) speak highly rhetorical verse. The Elizabethan audience was very aware of these conventions and would have recognised the subtleties of Shakespeare's handling of them.

Let's Look at his Language a Little More Closely

  1. Firstly, words sounded different in his day, eg. loin = line, loffe = love, noting = nothing.
  2. Shakespeare uses a wide variety of words changed around. Ordinarily the verb follows subject, eg. we say - Are you calling? Shakespeare said - Call you?
  3. Some of the verbs had different endings in Shakespeare's day, unlike modern verbs, eg.
    he does - modern       doth = old
    she has - modern       hast = old

In Shakespeare's later plays these endings became less frequent

  1. In modern English we say "I don't know" - This is what we call the auxiliary verb. We seemed to start using it to show emphasis in questions and with "not"
    eg. Modern - I do not know       Shakespeare - I know not
    eg. Modern - What do you think?       Shakespeare - How think you?

Shakespeare's language obviously did not use "do" in these two cases as our language now does.

  1. Shakespeare tended to use "are" or "were" rather than "have" or "had" in cases such as this with a past participle.
    I am glad you are come.
    People were stolen away = people had stolen away.
  2. Pronouns

Second person is "you" nowadays for plural or singular. In Shakespeare's day, you was used to be polite or as the plural. Thou was for ordinary use.

"Thine" and "mine" - used when the following word starts with a vowel. "My" and "they" used when following word starts with a consonant.

"Self" on the end of some pronouns is used for emphasis, eg. myself. But, it seems that when we (in modern English) would use "self", he doesn't, eg. We will disguise us at my lodging = Shakespeare - we will disguise at my place = us.

  1. Have some fun

Have some fun with the language of Shakespeare by investigating what a wonderful creator of curses he was.

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