The language of Shakespeare

Colloquial language
Language change

The following section is intended as an overview of some of the features of Shakespeare’s language as it is manifested in his plays. Care should be exercised when looking at these features not to automatically assume that they applied in all instances to English during the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare is a great manipulator of language, and in the sphere of vocabulary, he is quite innovative and idiosyncratic. In the realm of grammar his language is probably more indicative of contemporary usage.

Divisions of plays

Phase 1

From the late 1580s to 1594, Shakespeare experimented with different kinds of comedy in Love's Labour's Lost, The Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew. He began to explore English history in his first ‘tetralogy’ (a linked sequence of four plays) comprising Henry VI (in 3 parts) with Richard III. Titus Andronicus was his first tragedy.

Phase 2

From 1594 to 1599 Shakespeare continued to concentrate on comedies and histories. The comedies of this period — A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing — are mainly in his best-loved ‘romantic’ vein, while his fuller command of histories appears in the second tetralogy: Richard II, Henry IV (2 parts), and Henry V. This second period also includes the historical King John and a sentimental tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.

Phase 3

In the third period, from 1599 to 1608, Shakespeare abandoned romantic comedy (except for Twelfth Night) and English history, working instead on tragedies and on the disturbing ‘dark’ comedies or ‘problem plays’ Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida. The tragedies usually regarded as the four greatest are King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello, although a second group of tragic ‘Roman plays’ includes the equally powerful Antony and Cleopatra, along with Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. To this period also belongs the tragedy Timon of Athens, possibly written with Middleton.

Phase 4

Shakespeare’s final phase, from 1608 to 1613, is dominated by a new style of comedy on themes of loss and reconciliation: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest are known as his late ‘romances’. Shakespeare seems to have interrupted his retirement in 1613 to collaborate with John Fletcher in Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Most of the fictional stories in Shakespeare’s plays were adapted from earlier plays and romances, while his historical dramas are derived from Plutarch’s biographies of Roman statesmen and from Holinshed’s rather slanted account of English history, the Chronicles (1577).

Pronunciation in plays

1)       /r/ was pronounced post-vocalically (car, card)
2)       wh was pronounced [ʍ] (which, witch)
3)       /ʊ/ was not lowered (but, pull)
4)       /a/ before /f, s, θ/ was still short (staff, pass, bath)
5)       /a/ after /w/ was not retracted (swan, war)
6)       mid-vowels were not diphthongised (play, boat)
7)       diphthongs /ai, au/ still centralised (time [təɪm], house [həʊs])
8)       /ɛ:, e:/ had not yet been raised to /i:/ (eat rhymes with great)
9)       fewer instances of short /u:/ (book, cook, room)

Colloquial language in Shakespeare

Greeting formulae

       How now, mine host!
       How now, Pistol
       Well met, Corporal Nym
       Well met, Master Ford
       Good morrow, good cousin Shallow


       God save, your grace!
       God save you, Sir John!
       Bless you, sir!
       Bless thee, bully doctor!

Formulae following greeting

       And how doth my good cousin Silence?
       And hos doth my cousin, your bedfellow?

Parting fomulae

       Will you go, Mistress Page?
       Will you go, gentles?
       Here, boys, here, here! Shall we wag?
       Farewell, good wenches...
       Have a care of thyself
       Fare thee well: commend me to them both.


       What ho! gossip Ford! what ho!
       Who’s within there, ho!
       What! Davy, I say

Telling time

       What’s o’clock?
       ... since the first cock (midnight)
       An’t be not four by the day (in the morning)

Compounds in Shakespeare’s plays

These are very common and contribute considerably to the lexical flavour of Shakespeare’s language, both conforming to poetic usage of the time and at the same time indicating specifically his special kind of English. (note: PrP = present participle, PtP = past participle)

Noun + PrP + Noun = Object + Verb + Subject
       heaven-kissing hill
       temple-haunting martlet
       oak-cleaving thunderbolts

Noun/Adj. + PrP + Noun = Complement + Verb + Subject
       summer-seeming lust
       little-seeming substance

Noun + PrP + Noun = Prepositional Phrase + Verb + Subject
       beauty-waning widow
       sky-aspiring thoughts
       summer-swelling flower
       night-tripping fairy

Adv./Adj. + PrP + Noun = Adv. + Verb + Object
       lazy-pacing clouds
       highest-peering hill
       fearful-hanging rock

Noun + PtP + Noun = Agent + Verb + Subject
       star-crossed lovers
       cloud-capped towers
       tempest-tossed body

Adv./Adj. + PtP + Noun = Complement + Verb + Subject
       high-grown field
       big-swoln face
       down-fallen birthdom

Noun + PtP + Noun = Prep. Phrase + Verb + Subject
       fen-sucked fogs


Multiple negation in Shakespeare

     thou hast spoken no word / all this while / ... Nor understood non neither (LLL, 1880-2)

     love no man in good earnest, nor no further in sport neyther (AYLI, 196-7)

     I am not valiant neither (O, 3541)

     Is’t not enough, young man, / That I did never, no nor never can (MND, 780-1)

Older grammar in Shakespeare

Use of old nasal plural with ‘eye'

     Come, thou monarch of the vine, Plumpy Bacchus, with pink eyne! (A&C, 1466-7)

Use of older inflected form of ‘do’, i.e. ‘doth'

     That doth invert the attest of eyes and ears (T&C, 3116)

Use of old genitive as possessive pronoun, i.e. ‘mine'

     But no more deep will I endart mine eye (R&J, 444)

Use of ‘be’, and not ‘have’, as an auxiliary verb

     When we born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools (Lear, 3010)

Language change in Shakespeare’s plays

It is common to divide Shakespeare’s plays into two groups: the earlier plays 1591-1599 (20) and the later plays 1600-1613 (16); this refers to the 36 in the First Folio (1623). The following comments refer to changes in Shakespeare’s use of morphology between the early and the late plays.

1) Third person present singular endings:

(a) Earlier plays

       239 eth endings
       68 es endings

(b) Later plays

       29 eth endings
       185 es endings

2) to do and to have:

(a) Earlier plays

       es endings with to have occur in 10 plays (30 occurrences)
       es endings with to do occur in 11 plays (23 occurrences)

(b) Later plays:

       es endings with to have occur in all plays (319 occurrences)
       es endings with to do occur in all plays (258 occurrences)

Note that in general the verb to do and to have retain the old eth ending longest, surviving into prose and verse into the 18th century.

Images of Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre



Model of the Globe Theatre


Interior of present-day Globe Theatre


Drawings of the Globe Theatre