English Language Blog

Understanding Shakespeare Posted by on Mar 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

The English language has changed a great deal in the last 400 years and, as I am sure you know, it is still changing.  In 400 years from now English speakers will look back and likely have difficulty understand today’s English as much as we have trouble understanding the English of Shakespeare’s time.  Yet, we English speakers try hard to under Shakespeare because his writing is so beautiful!

So, the first step to understanding Shakespeare is understanding some of the words that were used in his day that we no longer use today.  Here is a brief list of words that were particularly common for Shakespeare to use in his writing.

anon = right now
art = are
dost or doth = does or do
ere = before
hark = listen
hither = here
thither = there
hath = has
thee = you
thou = you
thy = your
whence = from where
wherefore = why

Isn’t it amazing how much the language has changed?!  Some of these older words are similar to their modern day counter part, but some are very different.  The change in language from what we call ‘Old English’ to ‘modern English’ is not the only reason Shakespeare’s writing can be hard to understand.  Shakespeare also had some interesting writing techniques.  Understanding these techniques will also make understanding his writing easier.  Here are the explanations of some of these techniques along with some of Shakespeare’s writing used as examples.

1. Inverted sentences: In an inverted sentence the verb comes before the subject.

For example:
“Never was seen so black a day as this:” (Romeo and Juliet, IV, v)
You can change this inverted pattern to make it more understandable and it would read: “A day as black as this was never seen:

2. Ellipsis: Ellipses occur when a word or phrase is left out.

Here is an example of this in the play Romeo and Juliet.  Benvolio asks Romeo’s father and mother if they know the problem that is bothering their son, Romeo.

Romeo’s father answers:
“I neither know it nor can learn of him”

What is left out?  Here is the same sentence without ellipses:
“I neither know [the cause of] it, nor can [I] learn [about it from] him.”

3. Contracted words: Shakespeare often used contracted words in which a letter has been left out of a word and an apostrophe has taken the place of the missing letter.

Here are some examples of contracted words used by Shakespeare:

‘gainst = against
do’t =don’t
ta’en = taken
know’st = knowest

4. Metaphor: Shakespeare also frequently uses metaphor to illustrate ideas in unique ways.

Here is an example from Macbeth, in which the king says:
“I have begun to plant thee, and will labour to make thee full of growing.”

In this example of metaphor, the king compares Macbeth to a tree he can plant and watch grow.

5. Allusion: An allusion is a reference to some event, person, or place that is not directly explained or discussed by the writer.  Allusion requires that the reader have familiarity with the item that is referred to.  This is often hard for native English speakers, but even harder for ESL speakers who don’t have the same cultural knowledge base.

Here is an example from Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo alludes to Diana (the Roman goddess of the hunt and of chastity) and to Cupid’s arrow (which is connected to the idea of love).

Romeo: Well, in that hit you miss: she’ll not be hit with Cupid’s arrow, she hath Dian’s wit; and in strong proof of chastity well arm’d.

Okay, now with all this new knowledge about Shakespeare’s writing here are some famous lines from his work for you to read.  Hopefully know you will be able to better understand them!

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”
Hamlet (Act I, Scene III).

“To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
Hamlet (Act III, Scene I)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene II)

“‘T’is neither here nor there.”
Othello (Act IV, Scene III)

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
As You Like It ( Quote Act V, Scene I)

“O! she doth teach the torches to burn bright.”
Romeo and Juliet (Act I, Scene V)

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
The Merchant of Venice (Act III, scene I)

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act I, Scene I)

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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.


  1. Paula Bhagyam:

    I work in a school composed of English Language Learners. I question the practice of teaching Shakespeare to 7th and 8th graders that struggle so much with present day English. Wouldn’t it be best to wait until high school? I really so little to no value in teaching these plays in unabridged versions. I’d like to hear your opinions and ideas.