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English 361: Shakespeare's Comedies and Histories

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          A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595)

       • Henry IV, Part I (1597)

        • Henry IV, Part II (1597)

        Twelfth Night (1599)

      Much Ado About Nothing (1598)

           Measure for Measure (1604)

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Shakespeare's Language

A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit.  How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward”

 (Twelfth Night 3.1.11-12)

Scholars estimate that Shakespeare's vocabulary was between 25,000 and 29,000--nearly twice the vocabulary of the average college student, according to Russ McDonald in The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare (40).  The normal working vocabulary of a speaker of English is around 5,000 words.

Why is Shakespeare's language difficult?

  1. Flexible syntax: Modern English uses a more rigid syntax than in Shakespeare's day: subject--verb--object with other subordinate elements scattered in so as not to disrupt the flow of these three parts of speech. Think of Yoda when reading some of Shakespeare's lines: "Sense sure you have,/ Else could you not have motion" (Hamlet 3.4.71-2).

  2. Thou/ Thee/ Hath/ Doth: Like with all of Shakespeare's language, these are purposeful choices.  In these cases, the language is elevated for formality such as when Lear tests the love of his daughters: "which of you shall we say doth love us most" (1.1.51).

  3. Anachronisms and Colloquialisms: Shakespeare used words that were already out of regular usage in his day including ycleped (called) and wight (man).

  4. Metaphors.  Much of the density and power of Shakespeare's plays comes from his powerful metaphors that are not clichés (although some of them, such as "the green-eyed monster," have become clichés): dense language is requires different reading strategies than an article in the The Chicago Tribune.

  5. Cultural Knowledge: Some language and metaphors are difficult because the cultural knowledge is no longer immediately accessible:


    "The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Benedict bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write ‘Here is good horse to hire’ let them signify under my sign ‘Here you may see Benedick, the married man.’" (Much Ado About Nothing 1.1. 215-219)

  6. Genre: You may have noticed that Shakespeare wrote plays.  And plays don't have narrators, unlike most genres with which we are familiar.

Shakespeare added many words to the English language that would have been new to his original early  modern audience:

  • by "affixation": by adding prefixes and suffixes to words such as "out-tongue" in Othello or "the be-all or end-all" in Macbeth

  • by making compounds of shorter words: "beef-witted" (Troilus) or "night-tripping" (I Henry IV)

  • by "conversion": changing the part of the speech such as "Brave me upon the watch" from Othello

  • through neologisms: Shakespeare often coined new works such as hobbyhorse (meaning prostitute), oar (the verb), pedant (teacher), and forthright

  • with Latinism

What to do about it:

  • understand that any dense use of language will require you to read more slowly and carefully

  • when you find a particularly difficult passage, break it down to the simple sentence of subject-verb-object and then work out the rest

  • be flexible

  • remember that no one understands everything about a Shakespeare play on the first, second, of fifteenth reading: that's why he is worth reading again and again

  • read summaries of the action (one scene at a time) before reading the language of Shakespeare.  Do not substitute the summary for Shakespeare, however, because it is how he writes it that makes his works exciting intellectually and aesthetically.

  • try to visualize: it is, after all, a play

What's Up

In The Guardian:

"Shakespeare's Sonnets Encoded on DNA"

Shakespeare is better than therapy (new study says)!

"Would Shakespeare

Get Into Swarthmore?


* * * *

The Guardian links Anne Hathaway to a new film version of The Taming of the Shrew


Sites of Interest

The New Globe for all things Middle Ages through Restoration




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