Shakespeare's Language

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The most striking feature of Shakespeare is his command of language. It is all the more astounding when one not only considers Shakespeare's sparse formal education but the curriculum of the day. There were no dictionaries; the first such lexical work for speakers of English was compiled by schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey as A Table Alphabeticall in 1604. Although certain grammatical treatises were published in Shakespeare's day, organized grammar texts would not appear until the 1700s. Shakespeare as a youth would have no more systematically studied his own language than any educated man of the period.

Despite this, Shakespeare is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with the introduction of nearly 3,000 words into the language. His vocabulary, as culled from his works, numbers upward of 17,000 words (quadruple that of an average, well-educated conversationalist in the language). In the words of Louis Marder, "Shakespeare was so facile in employing words that he was able to use over 7,000 of them—more than occur in the whole King James version of the Bible—only once and never again."

Shakespeare's English, despite the harrowing cries of high school students everywhere, is only one linguistic generation removed from that which we speak today. The following table illustrates the time periods and differences between Old, Middle, and Early Modern, and Modern English:

Era Approximate
Time Period
Example: The Lord's Prayer
Old English 450–1066 Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum; Si þin nama gehalgod to becume þin rice gewurþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
Middle English 1066–1450 Oure fadir that art in heuenes, halewid be thi name; thi kyndoom come to; be thi wille don in erthe as in heuene.
Early Modern English 1450–1690 Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdome come. Thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heauen.
Modern English 1690–Present Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.

Although the Elizabethan dialect differs slightly from Modern English, the principles are generally the same. There are some (present day) anomalies with prepositional usage and verb agreement, and certainly a number of Shakespeare's words have shifted meanings or dropped, with age, from the present vocabulary. Word order, as the language shifted from Middle to Early Modern English, was still a bit more flexible, and Shakespeare wrote dramatic poetry, not standard prose, which gave some greater license in expression. However, Elizabethan remains a sibling of our own tongue, and hence, accessible.

This facility with language, and the art with which he employed it, is why Shakespeare is as relevant today as he was in his own time.

Language Links

SRC A Quick Guide to Reading Shakespeare
Shakespeare's works are remarkably accessible once you know what to expect when reading them. This quick guide can help you make a little more sense of what his characters are saying.
SRC Shakespeare's Grammar
In the England of Shakespeare's time, English was a lot more flexible as a language. By taking a closer look at usage, shifts in meaning, syntax, and rhetoric, we can more easily understand the Bard's English.
SRC Speech Analysis: Selected Readings
It's understandable why people sometimes get a little overwhelmed when reading Shakespeare. These analyses are designed to help you—not to give you all the answers, but simply to demonstrate a method you can use for yourself.
CliffsNotes—Shakespeare Glossary
A glossary of Shakespearean terms from the people who have made a living out of students who don't want to read the plays for themselves.
Elizabethan English
Topics include sounds and sentences, puns and word-play, Shakespeare's pronunciation, and prose and verse.
Elizabethan English as a literary medium
From A look at the literary use of Elizabethan English.
Elizabethan English Pronunciation
Ben and David Crystal explain and demonstrate Original Pronunciation (OP) in use during Shakespeare's time.
History of the English Language
A (very) brief history of the English language from
How to Understand Shakespeare's Language: Strategies for Reading the Bard
A concise study guide from the folks at
Proper Elizabethan Accents
A brief introduction to how people's speech in Elizabethan England actually sounded, their vocabulary, and grammar. Includes a table for constructing Shakespearean insults.
Shakespeare 101
Amy Ulen has a guide meant to help Shakespeare newbies with the language of the Bard. Includes a mini-glossary.
Shakespeare and the Development Of Modern English
This article from No Sweat Shakespeare discusses the shift from Middle to Early Modern English.
Shakespeare Concordance
Type in a word, and this search engine will find all the instances of that word in Shakespeare's works.
Shakespeare Dictionary
A selective dictionary of Shakepearean words that have fallen out of use, or whose meanings have changed over the centuries.
A Shakespeare Glossary
The Perseus Digital Library presents this classic reference work by C.T. Onions in a searchable database.
Shakespeare Lexicon
Alexander Schmidt's Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary is a painstakingly compiled glossary of every word in the Shakespeare corpus and an exhaustive collection of quotations. It has long been a standard reference work.
Shakespeare's Language (Royal Shakespeare Company)
One of the many fine educational resources from the RSC website.
Shakespeare's Words
Shakespeare's Words is the companion website to the book by David and Ben Crystal. It includes a glossary and fully searchable texts of the plays and poems.
A Shakespearian Grammar
A great Internet edition of a classic work by Edwin Abbott, a Headmaster of the City of London School. Although first published in 1879, this is still a very good (if highly academic) comparative study of Elizabethan syntax versus Modern English.