9 of the Top Shakespearean Words Students Struggle With—and What They Mean

If you’re reading this post on words in Shakespeare’s plays that students struggle with, chances are you’re studying Shakespeare and are having a few issues with some of the language. Although Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English, his writing contains some remnants of Middle English, as well as a number of words that are no longer in common use or, indeed, used at all. 

Sadly, this can make the immediate understanding of a Shakespeare play a challenge, but knowing a few key—and common—words of Shakespeare’s vocabulary will enhance your understanding immensely. So, here we’ve pulled together the top nine Shakespeare words not commonly used today, along with explanations and their usage in quotes from many of Shakespeare’s characters.

1. Alack

The use of “alack” is primarily an expression of sorrow and was also used to display dismay or regret.

Alack, alack, that heaven should practice stratagems
Upon so soft a subject as myself

Spoken by Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (act 3, scene 5)

2. Cozen

Shakespeare’s plays are full of cozeners. The word means to trick or deceive. 

I will be hang’d, if some eternal villain,
Some busy and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,
Have not devised this slander; I’ll be hang’d else

Spoken by Emilia in Othello (act 4, scene 2)

3. Fie 

“Fie” is a very common exclamation in Shakespeare’s plays. It’s used as an expression of disapproval, dismay, or disgust. A simple “fie!” is most commonly used, with “Fie on you!” preserved to be directed at an individual. 

Fie, that you’ll say so!

Spoken by Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night (act 1, scene 3)

4. Hugger Mugger

“Hugger mugger” was a phrase to describe something done too quickly in secret and without careful thought. 

And we have done but greenly in hugger mugger to inter him

Spoken by Claudius in Hamlet (act 4, scene 5)

5. Marry

“Marry” is another common word found in most of Shakespeare’s play. It’s actually a swearword, taking the Virgin Mary’s name in vain. It is also used for almost everything as an opening comment: like we may say “listen” or “indeed” or “well” to start a sentence. 

Are you so hot? Marry, come up I trow

Spoken by the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (act 2, scene 5)

6. Prithee 

This word is a corruption of “I pray you” that simply means “please.” 

Ay; prithee, sing

Spoken by Orsino in Twelfth Night (act 2, scene 4)

7. Sirrah

This is a lovely one. It’s an address to someone considered socially inferior to oneself. Shakespeare often uses it as an insult where someone implies that another person, possibly a social superior, is inferior by addressing them with “Sirrah.” It’s like saying to someone, “My good man.” It’s also used in addressing a young boy. 

Sirrah, your father’s dead. And what will you do now?

Spoken by Lady Macduff in Macbeth (act 4, scene 2)

8. Thee/Thou/Thine

This one takes a little getting time to understand, as there seem to be so many variants of these pronouns that are not in use today. Thee, thou, and thy/thine* are Early Modern English second person singular pronouns that eventually all merged into today’s catch-all form ‘you.” This table should help clarify things:

  • I, me, my (mine) we, us, our(s)
  • thou, thee, thy (thine) you, you, your(s)
  • he/she, him/her, his/her(s) they, them, their(s)

*The difference between thy and thine is that thy came before a consonant sound and thine before a vowel, for example “hallowed be thy name” vs. “thine own self.”

9. Zounds

Although this was a very common word in Shakespeare’s works and era, it is a real swear. Many people regard using the Christian God’s name in vain as the worst kind of swearing. It is an abbreviation of “God’s wounds,” corrupted to “Zounds.” Saying it means, “I swear, by God’s wounds.”

Zounds, ye fat paunch, an ye call me coward, by the
Lord, I’ll stab thee.

Spoken by Poins, Henry IV, Part 1 (act 2, scene 4)

Let’s take this to the next level!

If you want to improve your understanding of Shakespeare’s vocabulary beyond the words above, why not have a go at creating your very own Elizabethan dictionary? 

Each time you come across a Shakespeare word or phrase you don’t understand, write it down and look up the definition online. (There are dozens of great Shakespeare websites out there.) You can then add the  definition and give one example of the word usage in its context. In addition to the words we’ve already given you, here are a few more to get you started: wherefore (trick question), bawcock, bawd, beshrew, chaps, corky, quillets, and younker. 

For bonus points, look for words from other playwrights of Shakespeare’s time—known as the Golden Age of English literature. There are scores of them, so it would be a good idea to make a list, then research them online. Here are some of the best: Thomas Middleton, John Webster, John Fletcher, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, Robert Greene, and Thomas Kydd.

When you have all the information you need, put it in alphabetical order and give it a snappy title, and you’ll have your very own Elizabethan dictionary!

This guest post comes courtesy of Warren King, a Shakespeare fanatic who runs NoSweatShakespeare.com – a website dedicated to making Shakespeare easy and accessible to all.