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
- Firstly, words sounded different in his day, eg. loin = line, loffe = love, noting
- Shakespeare uses a wide variety of words changed around. Ordinarily the verb follows subject, eg. we say - Are you calling? Shakespeare said - Call you?
- Some of the verbs had different endings in Shakespeare's day, unlike modern verbs,
he does - modern doth = old
she has - modern hast
In Shakespeare's later plays these endings became less frequent
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- Have some fun
Have some fun with the language of Shakespeare by investigating what a wonderful creator of curses he was.