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How to Understand Shakespeare Words

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Guide note: Each month, our "Teaching Shakespeare" columnist writes about bringing Shakespeare to life in the classroom and drama studio. This month he translates Shakespeare’s words and phrases for newcomers.

How to Understand Shakespeare Words
by Duncan Fewins

For many, language is the biggest barrier in understanding Shakespeare. Perfectly competent performers can be paralysed with fear when they see bizarre words like “Methinks” and “Peradventure” – something I call Shakespearaphobia.

As a way of trying to counter this natural anxiety, I often begin by telling new students or performers that speaking Shakespeare aloud isn’t like learning a new language –it’s more like listening to a strong accent and your ear soon adjusts to the new dialect. Very soon you are able to understand most of what is said.

Even if you are confused about some words and phrases, you should still be able to pick up meaning from the context and the visual signals you receive from the speaker.

Watch how quickly children pick up accents and new language when on holiday. This is evidence of how adaptable we are to new ways of speaking. The same is true of Shakespeare and the best antidote for Shakespearaphobia is to sit back, relax and listen to the text spoken and performed.

Workshop: Understanding Shakespeare’s Words

I have provided modern translations of the top 10 most common Shakespearian words and phrases.

  1. Thee, Thou, Thy and Thine (You and Your)
    It’s a common myth that Shakespeare never uses the words “you” and “your” – actually, these words are commonplace in his plays. However, he also uses the words “thee / thou” instead of “you” and the word “thy / thine” instead of “your”. Sometimes he uses both “you” and “thy” in the same speech. This is simply because in Tudor England the older generation said “thee” and “thy” to denote a status or reverence for authority. Therefore when addressing a king the older “thou” and “thy” would be used, leaving the newer “you” and “your” for more informal occasions. Soon after Shakespeare’s lifetime, the older form passed away!

  2. Art (Are)
    The same is true of “art”, meaning “are”. So a sentence beginning “thou art” simply means “You are”.

  3. Ay (Yes)
    “Ay” simply means “yes”. So, “Ay, My Lady” simply means “Yes, My Lady.”

  4. Would (Wish)
    Although the word “wish” does appear in Shakespeare, like when Romeo says “I wish I were a cheek upon that hand,” we often find “would” used instead. For example, “I would I were …” means “I wish I were…”

  5. Give Me Leave To (Allow Me To)
    “To give me leave to”, simply means “To allow me to”.

  6. Alas (Unfortunately)
    “Alas” is a very common word that isn’t used today. It simply means “unfortunately”, but in modern English there isn’t an exact equivalent.

  7. Adieu (Goodbye)
    “Adieu” simply means “Goodbye”.

  8. Sirrah (Sir)
    “Sirrah” means “Sir” or “Mister”.

  9. -eth
    Sometimes the endings of Shakespearian words sound alien even though the root of the word is familiar. For example “speaketh” simply means “speak” and “sayeth” means “say”.

  10. Don’t, Do and Did
    A key absence from Shakespearian English is “don’t”. This word simply wasn’t around then. So, if you said “don’t be afraid” to a friend in Tudor England, you would have said “be not afeard.” Where today we would say “don’t hurt me,” Shakespeare would have said “hurt me not.” The words “do” and “did” were also uncommon, so rather than saying “what did he look like?” Shakespeare would have said “what looked he like?” And instead of “did she stay long?” Shakespeare would have said “stayed she long?” This difference accounts for the unfamiliar word order in some Shakespearian sentences.

I think it is important to note that when Shakespeare was alive, language was in a state of flux and many modern words were being integrated into the language for the first time. Shakespeare himself coined many new words and phrases. Shakespeare’s language is therefore a mixture of the old and the new.

Duncan Fewins is our regular “Teaching Shakespeare” columnist. If you would like to follow his monthly advice to teachers and students, please subscribe to our newsletter.

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