Shakespeare's Language

# Shakespeare’s Language #

Shakespeare is renowned for the poetic imagery of his language and for the word pictures he creates. His reputation is well founded because while he was writing English was not the dominant language – it was Latin. Shakespeare culminated what Chaucer had begun; to make English a respectable language for expressing complex, personal and imaginative ideas.

There is only one reason why Shakespeare’s plays are still alive and read 400 years after they were written; his mastery of clear, powerful visual language. As we have seen most of his plots are not original, but it is ability to revitalise old stories and histories, shape them into compelling dramas with syncopated plots and revitalise them with resonant forceful language that still appeals to us today.

It is interesting to note that in most transformations or adaptations to contemporary productions, directors may update everything except Shakespeare’s Language. Al Pacino admits that it is the appeal of Shakespeare’s language that convinced him to attempt to attract more people to his plays.

Some outstanding features of Shakespeare’s Language are:

  1. His powerful imagery which allows us to visualise his scenes without props or concrete backdrops.
  2. The use of nuances, the power of suggestion, implied meanings.
  3. His varied vocabulary, including the fact that he coined many new words and hundreds of new sayings that have become part of our argot.
  4. The lyricism of his verse and sometimes even his prose has a lightness and resonance or lingering effect on us.
  5. The wide range of his allusions to classical, religious and historical icons, stories and people.
  6. The play on words; he likes to use puns, oxymorons, s-xual innuendo, assonance, alliteration, ambiguity and any other tactics to engage and entertain his audiences.

Shakespeare shed many archaic words even though he retained some. His greatest contribution was coinage – neologisms. There are no less than 1500 words and phrases that didn’t appear anywhere before the bard used them. He made up words to express his ideas without losing his audience. Examples include: antipathy, critical, frugal, hereditary, horrid, excellent, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, “eyeball”, “hot-blooded” and “obscene”,….

Many of his expressions have become so well known and much used to become clichéd: the milk of human kindness, down the primrose path, in a pickle, more sinned against than sinning, beggar all description, cold comfort, to thine own self be true, salad days, be cruel to be kind, pomp and circumstance, and foregone conclusion.

Some passages have given us titles for books such as:

Macbeth :

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,** And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot***, full of sound and fury,*
Signifying nothing.


“Though I am native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance”

Common Phrases Invented by Shakespeare

By Lee Jamieson, Guide

Shakespeare has had a huge influence on the English language. Some people today reading Shakespeare for the first time complain that the language is difficult to read and understand, yet we are still using hundreds of words and phrases coined by him in our everyday conversation.

Phrases Coined by Shakespeare

You have probably quoted Shakespeare thousands of times without realizing it. If your homework gets you “in a pickle”, your friends have you “in stitches”, or your guests “eat you out of house and home”, then you’re quoting Shakespeare.

Here are some of the most popular Shakespeare phrases in common use today:

  • A laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
  • A sorry sight (Macbeth)
  • As dead as a doornail (Henry VI)
  • Eaten out of house and home (Henry V, Part 2)
  • Fair play (The Tempest)
  • I will wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello)
  • In a pickle (The Tempest)
  • In stitches (Twelfth Night)
  • In the twinkling of an eye (The Merchant Of Venice)
  • Mum’s the word (Henry VI, Part 2)
  • Neither here nor there (Othello)
  • Send him packing (Henry IV)
  • Set your teeth on edge (Henry IV)
  • There’s method in my madness (Hamlet)
  • Too much of a good thing (As You Like It)
  • Vanish into thin air (Othello)

In many cases, it is not known if Shakespeare actually invented these phrases, or if they were already in use during Shakespeare’s lifetime. In fact, it is almost impossible to identify when a word or phrase was first used, but Shakespeare’s plays often provide the earliest citation.

Changing Meanings

Over time, many of the original meanings behind Shakespeare’s words has evolved. For example, the phrase “sweets to the sweet” from Hamlet has since become a commonly used romantic phrase. In the original play, the line is uttered by Hamlet’s mother as she scatters funeral flowers across Ophelia’s grave in Act 5, Scene 1:

Queen Gertrude: (Scattering flowers)

Sweets to the sweet, farewell!
I hop’d thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife:
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.

The Pun

A Pun is part of word play where the same word has the same sound but different meanings.

As he is dying in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio says’

“Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man”.

Today the pun is out of vogue, but during medieval times it was very popular.

It is undeniable that the British, especially in Shakespeare’s time were fond of puns. It is usual to sneer at the pun as the lowest form of wit. Such, alas! It too often is, and frequently, as well, it is a form of no wit at all. But the pun may contain a very high form of wit, and may please either for its cleverness, or for its amusing quality, or for the combination of the two. Naturally, the really excellent pun has always been in favour with the wits of all countries.

Johnson’s saying, that

a man who would make a pun would pick a pocket,” is not to be taken too seriously.

It is recorded that Napier when he captured Scinde, notified the government at home of this victory by sending a dispatch of one word, "_Peccavi_" (" Latin for: “I have sinned").

The pun is of the sort that may be appreciated intellectually for its cleverness, while not calculated to cause laughter.

Shakespeare’s double entendres:

A much debated topic is the suitability of Shakespeare’s language for general audiences. During his time he was considered a relatively clean writer when compared to Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson. Yet moves have been made to cleanse his works.

The Eighteenth-century Divine, the Rev Dr Bowdler, made the plays suitable “to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies” by excising or expurgating any rude bits.

Bowdlerize derives from the name Thomas Bowdler , an editor in Victorian times who rewrote Shakespeare, removing all profanity and sexual references so as not to offend the sensibilities of the audiences of his day.

For more see:

In her book entitled Filthy Shakespeare, Pauline Kiernan contends that most of Shakespeare’s ribald language is hidden in outrageous puns that were easily picked up in his day such as Mistress Quickly = Quick-lay. This is quite plausible since much of the squeamishness and prudery we share was influenced by the Victorian Era from 1838 – 1901. It was only after the 1960’s that linguistic freedoms were unleashed.

Hear Shakespeare as it was meant to be heard – “The stereotypical English accent of today is not the English accent of Shakespeare’s time, which goes at least some way towards explaining why, when you read Romeo and Juliet in High school, half the play didn’t make sense … as David Crystal, a linguist from the University of Wales, explains in the video above, some of the puns, and many of the rhymes, just don’t work anymore.”

Shakespeare’s Unconventional Conventions


**Zeugma ** [zoog-muh]

Are your verbs slacking off? Take a tip from the Bard and try a zeugma. From the Greek zeugnynai meaning “to yoke or join,” zeugma is the clever use of a single verb in two different idiomatic senses within one sentence:

“Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust."

In this funeral song in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline chimney-sweepers encounter literal “dust” in their work, whereas “Golden lads and girls” become figurative “dust” in death.

Groucho Marx also used zeugma in the film Duck Soup: “Leave in a minute,” he said, “and a huff.”

Enjambment [en-jam-muhnt, -jamb-]

Queen Hermione stands trial in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale after being falsely accused of adultery by her husband. But could any literary device give voice to her frantic plea? Enjambment can try. “I am not prone to weeping,” Hermione says, “but I have / that honourable grief lodged here which burns / Worse than tears drown.” From the French word enjamb meaning “to encroach,” enjambment is the running on of a thought from one line of text onto the next without a syntactical break. Here, Hermione’s words spill over the way her tears would if she could cry.

**Litotes ** [lahy-tuh-teez, lit-uh-, lahy-toh-teez]

In the third act of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony enters the Roman forum holding Caesar’s body. How will he convince the crowd that their emperor was murdered wrongly? Litotes!

“You all did love him once, not without cause."

From the Greek litos meaning “plain, small, meager,” litotes is an understatement, usually illustrated using a double negative. Antony tells the assembled Romans that they loved their murdered emperor “not without cause," using the double negative “not without” to imply that they had great cause to love Caesar.

Slant rhyme

Shakespeare’s King Lear is about to end, and with his last lines, the young Edgar looks toward his future as his whole family lies dead around him.

“The oldest have borne most;we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long."

This desperately sad slant rhyme on “young” and “long” recalls the fatal miscommunications between young and old that set the tragic events of the play in motion. Slant rhymes typically share at least one identical stressed phoneme, but like the ambitions of this ill-fated family, not all their syllables align.


Hamlet has just begun; Claudius just married Gertrude after killing her husband his brother. How can he show his happiness while publicly respecting his secret victim? Isocolon. Claudius says,

“With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage."

From the Greek isokolos meaning “of equal members,” isocolon unites two clauses using parallel structure and similarly distributed syllables. Claudius uses “With __ in __” as a template to compare opposing concepts of equal syllable length: “mirth” vs. “dirge” and “funeral” (pronounced with two syllables) vs. “marriage.”


In the final act of Henry V, Pistol, a drunkard and braggart turned soldier, decides to return to England to become a pickpocket after winning the Battle of Agincourt in France, but how can he explain his plan with finesse? Antanaclasis!

“To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal."

Pistol plans to flee or steal from France to England and once there, to steal people’s wallets, thus using the same word in two different senses in the same sentence. Derived from the combination of three Greek roots, antanaclasis literally translates as an “echo that is bent or broken.”

Assonance [as-uh-nuhns]

The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s last plays, is about to end. Prospero, a former wizard widely thought to represent Shakespeare himself in this epilogue, has renounced his magic powers and is about to leave his mystical island once and for all. But he is trapped onstage until the audience applauds, how can he gracefully ask for their approval? Perhaps a touch of assonance, or vowel rhyme would do the trick.

“But release me from my bands / with the help of your good hands,"

Prospero implores. The word is derived from the French assonare meaning “to sound.”

Performing Shakespeare on Stage as to film:

The language of Shakespeare is the language of thoughts. In the theatre, to do this well, you have to speak loudly; and there are very few actors who can speak loud and still be truthful. That is the actor’s problem. Every actor knows that the quieter he speaks, the closer he can be to himself. And when you play Shakespeare close up, in film, with a mike, you can really speak the verse, you’re not going against the nature of the verse….” (Peter Brook)

You can find examples of parodies of Shakespeare’s Language @:

Frank Kermode

Shakespeare’s Language describes in rich detail the changes in Shakespeare’s style, above all the gradual development of a new, idiosyncratic, and complex manner that must surely have become almost as difficult for a contemporary public to understand as for one today. Kermode reveals an author who developed an approach to words more personal and radically original than any other dramatist of his time. Shakespeare’s Language is best read along with a copy of the plays, since, in spite of the lavish quotations, it inspires a new appreciation and rethinking of the whole body of work.

Kermode is, for once, aggressive in his rejection of many of the most fashionable recent scholarly approaches to Shakespeare, exposing his distaste frankly in the preface:

There are modern attitudes to Shakespeare I particularly dislike: the worst of them maintains that the reputation of Shakespeare is fraudulent, the result of an eighteenth-century nationalist or imperialist plot. A related notion, almost equally presumptuous, is that to make sense of Shakespeare we need first to see the plays as involved in the political discourse of his day to a degree that has only now become intelligible. These and other ways of taking Shakespeare down a peg seem, when you examine them, to be interesting only as evidence of a recurring need to find something different to say, and to say it on topics that happen to interest the writer more than Shakespeare’s words, which are, as I say, only rarely invoked. The tone of these novelties is remarkably self-confident….

On reputation:

“The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation – that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay.”