How to Understand Shakespeare’s Language

Admit it: reading Shakespeare is not your cup of tea. At first, trying to read Shakespeare’s works may seem like learning a foreign language. Performed for audiences over four centuries ago, Shakespeare’s plays were written in Early Modern English, so it’s natural to feel confused by word choices and sentence structures that have evolved since then. However, the more you expose yourself to Shakespeare’s language, the more comfortable you’ll feel when reading his works.    

Let’s take a look at 10 reading strategies that will help you better understand the Bard’s language.  

1. Read out loud.

It’s important to note that Shakespeare’s works were intended for the stage. His plays were written to be performed, not silently read. Reading Shakespeare’s work aloud will help you become familiar with the rhythm and language of his verse. It’s also helpful to watch performances and listen to how other people perform his work, because you may pick up on something you missed from your own readings.

2. Read to the end of the sentence.

When reading verse, you should read from punctuation mark to punctuation mark. This means you shouldn’t pause at the end of a line just because there’s a break. Punctuation marks dictate complete units of thought. Take a short pause in your reading when you encounter a comma. Take a long pause for a period, colon, semicolon, dash, or question mark.

3. Look up unfamiliar words.

Shakespeare invented many of his own words and phrases. In fact, he added about 1,700 words to the English language by invention or combination. However, many of the words used throughout his work are not used in today’s colloquial language. Reading from an annotated text can help readers bridge the gap between Shakespeare’s language and their own. In these digital texts, obscure phrases are annotated with an explanation of their origins and meanings.  

4. Differentiate Thou, Thee, Thy, and Thine.

Shakespeare uses these words a lot. They are considered “archaic words”, which means they’re no longer used in contemporary English. Thou means “you,” thee means “you,” and thy means “your”. Since these words are so ubiquitous, it’s crucial to know the difference between them in order to know who or what they’re referring to in the text.

5. Understand contracted words.

Contracted words are words in which a letter has been left out, which affects appearance and pronunciation like “do’t” or “know’st”. Shakespeare often used contracted words in order to fit his meter and rhyme scheme. If you see that apostrophe mark, it almost always means a letter is missing. So, if you’re having difficulties understanding what a contracted word, you can often use context clues to determine the meaning.

6. Reword inverted sentences.

Most of the sentences we’re familiar with will start with a subject followed by a verb. Shakespeare’s sentences sometimes do not follow this simple word order. Therefore, rewording Shakespeare’s sentences to place the subject first may help you gain a better understanding of what is being stated.

For example:

“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d[.]”(5-6) – “Sonnet 18

We can rearrange the sentence above to the following: “Sometimes the eye of heaven shines too hot, and his gold complexion is often dimmed.”

7.  Follow the action

Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of who does what to whom. Focus on keeping track of the subject, verb, and object. In Shakespeare’s longer dialogues and soliloquies, it can get confusing to follow who is doing what, especially when there are lengthy descriptions and parenthetical comments. It may be helpful to take a couple of breaks during your reading and make notes of the scene.

8. Identify wordplay.

Shakespeare loved to reconstruct and rearrange words. Be sure to look out for instances where he uses specific wordplay to illustrate the landscape of a scene or to enhance a character’s identity.  

Here are some different types of wordplay often found in Shakespeare’s work:

  • Puns: a play on words in which two words are used that have the same sound but have different meanings.
  • Double entendre: a kind of pun in which a word or phrase has a second, often sexual, meaning.
  • Malapropism: occurs when a character mistakenly uses a word that he or she has confused with another word.  

9. Recognize the use of metaphor.

Shakespeare often used metaphors to heighten the emotional and dramatic aspects of his dialogue. In order to identify specific examples of these literary devices, you must understand how they are used.

For example:

When Romeo crashes the Capulet family party in act 1, scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet, he uses both a metaphor and allusion when describing Juliet’s beauty.

“It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear” (I.v).

Romeo uses a metaphor, specifically a simile, to describe Juliet’s appearance to that of a “rich jewel” hanging on the ear of an African queen.

10. Note stage direction

Stage directions should never be overlooked. They are extremely important to understanding Shakespeare’s plays because avoiding them can result in confusion when reading. They appear in italics, explaining who is involved with a scene and where they are on the stage.

Here are some of the common stage directions used throughout Shakespeare’s plays:

  • Aside: when an actor speaks directly to the audience, but the other characters on stage cannot hear them  
  • Exeunt: indicate the departure of a character from the stage
  • Sennett: a signal call on a trumpet or cornet to for entrance or exit from the stage
  • Solus: when a character is alone on the stage  

For a more in-depth review on Shakespeare reading strategies with specific examples, visit eNotes’ How To Series.