Why is it so hard to understand Shakespeare?

Shakespeare wrote his plays a long time ago. People spoke differently then. They spoke an old form of English – not a different language but a different way of saying things. Once you get used to it, you will begin to understand it better. But Shakespeare used – and also made up – many words and phrases that have become part of modern English.

Shakespeare's language

“But, for my own part, it was Greek to me.”

Shakespeare wrote this in the play Julius Caesar. Today we still say “It's Greek to me", when we don't understand something, as if it's a different language.

 

Would Shakespeare understand you?

Not very well! The English language has developed and changed. It is different everywhere you go. If you're American, you might say sidewalk, elevator, cell phone, fries and "Hi y'all". If you're British, you might say pavement, lift, mobile phone, chips and "Hello, everyone". Same meanings, different words – and they would have baffled Shakespeare!

 

 

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Here is a speech from the play Romeo and Juliet. Can you figure out what Benvolio is telling Romeo? Roll over the quote to reveal the answer – it's exciting stuff!

 

Here were the servants of your adversary,

And yours, close fighting ere I did approach.

I drew to part them. In the instant came

The fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepared,

Which, as he breathed defiance to my ears,

He swung about his head and cut the winds,

Who, nothing hurt withal, hissed him in scorn.

While we were interchanging thrusts and blows,

Came more and more and fought on part and part,

Till the Prince came, who parted either part.

Here is a speech from Juliet. Can you figure out what she is saying to Romeo? Roll over the quote to reveal the answer.

 

How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?

The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,

And the place death, considering who thou art,

If any of my kinsmen find thee here.

SHAKESPEARE'S INSULTS

Here is a fun insult generator, made up from words found in Shakespeare's plays. The idea is to pick a word from each column, then trade insults with your brother, sister or a friend, just like two Shakespearean characters! So what are you waiting for thou lumpish, flap-mouthed barnacle!

COMMON WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS

Alas, 'tis vexing when thou cannot comprehend!

Alas/alack

Anon

I know not

Thee/thou

Thine/thy

Wherefore

Whither

Hither

Ay

Nay

Kin/kinsman

Foe

Fray

Draw!

 

Steal away

Swear/sworn/foresworn

Fare thee well

Adieu

Ere

O'er

Ne'er

Nuptials

Marry

A plague

Jest

Oath

Yonder

Slay

Oft

Mirth

But soft...

Methinks

In faith

 

 

Unfortunately

Soon

I don't know

You

Your

Why

Where

Here

Yes

No

Family/relative

Enemy

Fight

Take out your sword!

Hide away

Make a vow or promise

Bye/farewell

Goodbye

Before

Over

Never

Wedding

Well/indeed

A curse

Joke

Promise

Over there

Kill

Often

Laughter

But wait...

I think

In truth

I know not

Be not

Thou art...

Wilt thou

'Tis not

'Twould

Thou can'st

Thou had'st

She hath

From whence

Dost thou

He doth

Wilt thou

Woo her

What is your will?

I bid thee

Hold

Fear not

Come hither

Let them alone

 

I pray you

I beseech you

I entreat you

By my troth

Bid them make haste

I charge thee

Take my leave

My liege

Speak!

Unhand me

Upon my honour

 

 

I don't know

Don't be

You are

Will you...

Isn't it or It isn't

It would

You can

You had

She has

From where

Do you

He does

Will you

Romance her

What do you want?

I'm asking you

Stop

Don't worry

Come here

Leave them alone

I ask you,

I beg you

I urge you

I swear

Ask them to hurry

I command you

I am going

My king

Tell me!

Let go of me

I'm telling you the truth

Here is a speech from Henry IV Part 1. Can you figure out what Prince Henry is saying to Falstaff? Roll over the quote to reveal the answer.

 

Peace, ye fat guts! Lie down, lay thine ear close to the ground, and list if thou canst hear the tread of travellers.

Here is a quote from Richard III. Can you figure out what Richard is saying to the nobles? Roll over the quote to reveal the answer.

 

To thee, that hast nor honesty nor grace.

When have I injured thee? When done thee wrong?—

Or thee?—Or thee? Or any of your faction?

A plague upon you all!

WORDS AND PHRASES USED TODAY

Shakespeare is said to be responsible for over 500 words still in use today. Some words were probably not new, but Shakespeare was the first to write them down. Others he just made up!

Shakespeare for School

A first introduction to Shakespeare and his works

Cover for The Comedy, History and Tragedy of William Shakespeare

Illustrations © Adria Meserve 2014.
Text © Penny Worms 2014. All rights reserved.