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Shakespeare's Language Helper - Handout for Students
Excerpt From this Document
From Gibson, Rex. Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2005.
Some things we know about Shakespeare’s language and use of language are listed below along with explanations as to why these methods were used and the effect(s) that these methods were intended to have upon the audience.
About English in general:
- English at the time was fluid and changeable as there were no set rules for spelling, grammar, pronunciation, or even meaning.
- “People went to hear a play rather than, as today, to see it.”
- “They [writers] felt free to make up words, to adapt old ones, and to change old meanings to new.”
- “The vigour of language, its sound and evocative power [ability to stir up emotions], mattered as much as its logic [whether or not it made sense].”
- “Shakespeare’s theatre was non-realistic, non-naturalistic, relying on conventions shared by actors and audiences, a few props, elaborate costumes, but above all on language and the human voice.”
- “Shakespeare was [fully aware] that he must create atmosphere and setting through language.”
Changing Language:Some words that Shakespeare used have changed their meanings since his time. In the following list, the meaning that Shakespeare probably had in mind is given in parentheses.
- Silly (simple, homely, innocent)
- Still (always)
- Habit (dress, garment, clothes)
- Naughty (wicked, worthless)
- Marry (indeed)
- Neat (ox, cow)
- Humour (temperament)
- Presently (immediately)
- Several (separate)
- Luxurious (lustful)
- Tell (count)
- Owe (own)
- Fond (foolish)
- Sudden (violent)
- Let (hinder)
- Shrewd (unpleasant)
- Quick (alive, living)
Other words have dropped out of use altogether.
- Haply (perhaps)
- Hight (called)
- Inch-meal (inch-by-inch)
- Clepe (call)
- Dole (sorrow)
- Wight (person)
- Yare (ready, nimble)
- Eke (also)
- Perdy (by God)
- Mocks and mows (insulting gestures and faces)
- Hardiment (valour)
- Trustful (sad)
- Hie (hasten)
- Leman (sweetheart)
Literary Terminology with which you will need to be familiar:
IMAGERY – the use of emotionally charged words and phrases, which conjure up vivid mental pictures in the imagination
- “In every play, Shakespeare uses imagery from nature, the seasons, and so on. His imagination also drew on the bustling daily life of Elizabethan England: farming, sports and hunting, jewels, banking, religion, education, medicine, shopping, and the law.”
- “Oh, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” Macbeth
PERSONIFICATION – a kind of imagery that turns all kinds of things (death, time, war, love, life, England, etc.) into persons, giving them human feelings and attributes. Personification adds to dramatic effect because it endows objects of abstractions with life, enabling them to act, feel, and respond like a living person.
- “Grief fills the room up of my absent child Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me.” King John
ANTITHESIS – the opposition of words or phrases against each other.
- “To be or not to be” Hamlet
- To be is the thesis and not to be is the antithesis.
About this Document
A handout I created based on Rex Gibson's Teaching Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2005). The citation is given in the handout to give proper credit. I created this handout to help students understand how the language was treated in Shakespeare's time (both daily and in drama); how it's changed; some words with definitions that we no longer use so they know what they're reading; and a list of literary terminology with definitions, explanations, and Shakespearean examples. Four page handout (two pages front and back) concludes with some helpful hints about how to read the plays and make sense of them. This can be used at all ages with any Shakespearean play.