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  • Straight Talking English

Why is Shakespeare's language so difficult to understand?

In the the league table of questions I get asked by my clients, ‘Why did Shakespeare write like that?’ is a permanent fixture in the top three. An easy, brush off answer would be ‘Because it’s old’ but that isn’t really doing the question, or the text, justice.


Like many middle class boys Elizabethan boys, Shakespeare was fortunate enough to attend school. This was a world away from the school we can identify with, aside from the fact there were desks and young people in it. Schooling ‘meant Latin Grammar. From dawn to dusk, six days a week, all year round’, and involved translating and meditating on key Latin texts. The textbooks were mandatory and legally enforced, known after Edward VI created this ruling, as ‘Short Introduction of Grammar’. Writers like Cicero, Ovid and Julius Caesar became his bread and butter, and despite criticisms from his contemporaries that his Latin wasn’t very good he would have achieved a level far beyond that expected from a university student today. The classical rhetorical modes of expression that we find bewildering today would be common knowledge to an educated Tudor.



Let’s take an example. Lots of people say ‘work to live, not live to work’, or ,at least, they say it to me. This is a greek rhetorical device called a prolepsis and it finds its way into a lot of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. It’s a catchy phrase for us, but for an Elizabethan this is a really powerful and persuasive way of presenting a character or argument. He also semi-designed his plays to be used as a source of catchy soundbites.



His jokes and puns are based on latin structures which were amusing to the intended audience but fly over our heads. Even a grammar school Latin education of the 1970s would not be enough to ‘get’ them. Much like we do today, he was set writing response tasks such as ‘Write a letter to Agamemnon explaining why he should not go to war’. Based on these titles and imagined responses we can see a direct line to speeches in his plays.



Shakespeare, despite moderate origins, mingled with the upper classes via his patrons and sponsors. To get his plays performed at court he had to get them approved via a sort of censorship office, and therefore they had to be accurate. Therefore a noble character needed to talk like a king, and a commoner to talk like a commoner. We already find it difficult to put ourselves in any kind of Elizabethan shoes, and to imagine ourselves as a noble as nigh on impossible. An educated nobleman, or indulged girl, would likely speak English, Latin, Greek and French, and this is reflecting in their manner of speech. While we know that English today has many words with international roots, they are rarely the same terms from another language, and this is what the noble characters are doing. The ‘thee’ issue is a classic. English used to have formal and informal varieties, in the same way that German does today, and ‘ thee’ is just another form of ‘you’. Unless you know a language which does this, it is really tough to remember!

Shakespeare also refers to his current events, sometimes directly, sometimes discretely. While you or I might have an interest in current affairs and enjoy a TV show like ‘Mock the Week’, Shakespeare’s writings are a time capsule that we can’t really understand.



Take ‘The Tempest’ for example: Prospero, the elderly and magical deposed duke, has a magnificent library. We can understand this today as most of us have been to a library. However, the way we would engage with books is different: after a lifetime in the Arts, Shakespeare may have owned forty books, and engagement was expected to be in the form of annotation. You had to really understand and analyse every volume. Therefore, Prospero is a scholar, not just a reader. His magic gives him power over spirits, which are generally believed to be real and lurking around where you least expect if you’re an Elizabethan. But, by the end of the play, Prospero gives up his books and magic and asks God for forgiveness…perhaps like a Catholic giving up icons and following a simpler, Protestant faith…perhaps echoing contemporary religious campaigns…

To continue this line, attendance at church in Shakespeare’s time was mandatory. Regardless of background, an audience member would know, at the bare minimum, bible stories and key teachings. Our society is far more secular and diverse so we don’t have that in our metaphorical bag of tricks.



Another good example of something going over our heads is about Tybalt in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Mercutio mocks him, calling him ‘King of Cats’. This is from an English folk tale that was definitely known by 1553, but has been lost to history. We can’t relate to this because we don’t know what it is. We as a population also don’t know much about history. We might not have the fact that Richard III lost the Wars of the Roses to Henry Tudor at our fingertips in the same way that Shakespeare’s audience might.



What’s the way forward, then? I am no Shakespeare scholar, even though I like reading up on him and I’m actively researching for my podcast, and I can’t expect others to be, especially teens from South London! I’m sceptical of the cult of the Bard, but I know his plays are very enjoyable, and fighting against a hundred plus years of scholarship telling me that every word is incredibly important is the only way I can fully enjoy them! My advice to my clients is ‘don’t worry about it’. Enjoy the words, and the action. Accept that we, as an audience in 2019, won’t be able to get every word and that is absolutely fine. Just have a good time and you are engaging with the plays and their language in the way that Shakespeare intended.

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