How We Read Shakespeare's Language
Paula Blank



Shakespeare in Modern English


Now entertain conjecture of a time

When creeping murmur and the poring dark

Fills the wide vessel of the universe . . .

  . . .

And so our scene must to the battle fly;

Where—O for pity!—we shall much disgrace

With four or five most vile and ragged foils

(Right ill dispos’d, in brawl ridiculous)

The name of Agincourt.

—Shakespeare, Henry V (Chorus 4.1–3, 48–52)1

Sustain we now description of a time

When petty lust and overweening tyranny

Offend the ruck of state.

Thus fly we now, as oft with Phoebus did

Fair Asterope, unto proud Flanders Court.

Where is the warlike Warwick

Like to the mole that sat on Hector’s brow

Fair set for England, and for war!

Beyond the Fringe, “So That’s the Way You Like It”2

The brilliant Beyond the Fringe gang—Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore—poked fun at many sacred cows of British culture, and thus found their way to Shakespeare. Their mock-Shakespearean “So That’s the Way You Like It,” like so many of their sketches, takes the form of antic and inspired mimicry. The passage above, a riff on the Chorus’s speech from Act 4 of Henry V, is almost awkwardly close to its original, on the level of language. The high style of Henry V’s jingoistic Chorus is lampooned as they perfectly capture, for example, Shakespeare’s rhythms (they play that tell-tale iambic music—de-dum, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum—in almost all of their lines here, and even the metrical variations they employ are very Shakespearean). They’ve got Shakespeare’s syntax down, for example, in their inverted word order (compare Shakespeare’s “And so our scene must to the battle fly” and their “Thus fly we now”). Their diction is spot on, too. The fact that we probably don’t know what a “ruck” is (it means “a common crowd” or “the ordinary run of people”), combined with the word’s earthy, Saxon sound (to a modern ear, “ruck” sounds somewhat coarse and possibly obscene), makes the phrase “ruck of state” a farce in brief.

Yet Shakespeare’s plays are full of such words, apparently native and yet unknown to us now (“scut,” “fadge,” “tench,” and “bung,” to name just a few), and the whole phrase, “ruck of state” may recall Henry VIII’s “trick of state” (2.1.44) or perhaps Coriolanus’ “the common muck of the world” (2.2.126). Shakespeare’s punning on proper names gets its due in “warlike Warwick” (compare, for example, John of Gaunt’s “Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old,” in Richard II [2.1.74]). Even what may be the funniest line in the passage, “Like to the mole that sat on Hector’s brow,” finds a serious source in Shakespeare. Besides that its structure rehearses a familiar form of Shakespearean simile (“Like to the lark at break of day arising”; Sonnet 29.11), Shakespeare marks out plenty of moles in his plays, if not on Hector, then on other Worthies: “Upon his neck a mole, a sanguine star” (Cymbeline, [5.5.364]); “My father had a mole upon his brow” (Twelfth Night, [5.1.242]).

There isn’t a word, or a phrase, or a line in “So That’s the Way You Like It,” that positively couldn’t be Shakespeare’s. So is the joke on Shakespeare’s language itself? Yes and no. As with all formal parody, this one mirrors Shakespeare’s language so that we can hear it as a set of verbal tics, easily simulated and infinitely reproducible and exposed as such, absurd. But this is also where the joke gets a little more complicated. Even as their sketch reproduces Shakespearean forms, it also removes them from sense. They may reveal Shakespeare’s regard for birthmarks to be funny in itself, but what’s even more hilarious is the way a man (“warlike Warwick”) is compared to a greater man’s mole, “[f]air set . . . for war.” “So That’s the Way You Like It” is a grab-bag of rhetorical tricks that dissociates Shakespeare’s language from Shakespeare’s meaning and thereby turns the joke on us—our own affectedness, our own pious conviction, that Shakespeare’s words are always significant, lofty, and profound. Beyond the Fringe tells us as much about how we experience Shakespeare’s language, “the way [we] like it” or don’t like it as modern audiences, as it does about the language itself.

This book is about how we experience Shakespeare’s Early Modern English. Pace Shakespeare parodies, my aim is not to satirize or in any way to judge that experience, but to expose it as part of what Shakespeare’s language inevitably means to us today. Historians of Shakespeare’s language have ably informed us about “what Shakespeare was doing” with Renaissance English, but that information may or may not explain our own, contemporary responses, as I will explain more fully later in this chapter. What we lack, both in our scholarship and in our popular accounts of the poems and plays, is any sustained or serious effort to make sense of how we appreciate (or fail to appreciate) Shakespeare’s language now, whether we are inclined to laugh at it or with it, find it powerful or uneventful, inspiring or dull.


As it appears in titles of earlier books on the subject, the phrase “Shakespeare’s language” refers to the resources of Early Modern English, the formal properties and potentialities of the English vernacular spoken and written in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and the uses Shakespeare put them to. The topic has always been approached historically. The premise behind historicization is this: Besides the prosaic but absolutely necessary task of seeking to understand what Shakespeare’s words actually meant back then, how else could we possibly understand the effects of Shakespeare’s language, except in relation to what was linguistically and rhetorically possible at the time? Unfortunately there are several problems with this rationale, however commonsensical it seems to be. For starters, we experience all manner of effects when we read or hear Shakespeare’s plays, even if we know nothing at all about Early Modern English and perhaps even in spite of what we do know. In part, of course, this is because Shakespeare’s language is in so many ways continuous with our own. David Crystal, our best-known scholar and popularizer of the field, calculates that only about 10 percent of English grammar has changed since the sixteenth century, and only 5 percent of Shakespeare’s lexicon has shifted in meaning.3 Yet for all its continuities with Modern English, many of us still have the overall sense that “Shakespeare’s language” is something unique and singular. We are struck by something strange about it—sometimes just slightly unfamiliar, sometimes more stubbornly obscure or even “foreign” about his words. This book proposes a reason why: We cannot entirely help hearing Shakespeare’s language through or against or alongside our modern vernacular, creating a friction between two “Englishes”—one that was ours, has influenced ours, yet is not quite ours.

We can’t help it hearing that friction, but we are supposed to help it. If we are historicists, as most of us claim to be now, we are trained to work consciously against anachronism in our accounts of what we hear when we read Shakespeare’s works. Over a century ago, Mark H. Liddell explained that our own linguistic habits lead too often to our “botching” Shakespeare, as he described it. Channeling the charge that those who hear Ophelia’s mad ravings “botch the words up fit to their own thoughts” (Hamlet, 4.5.10), Liddell showed how and why modern English might be getting in the way of our understanding, how a “modern reading of Shakespeare is largely botching the words up to fit the reader’s thought.”4 To avoid this, he recommended “a year’s study of a properly arranged textbook upon the subject—a textbook which could be used in elementary schools at a time when a student is usually initiated into the mysteries of Greek,” so that we attain “a familiarity with its sound and form such that there seems nothing unusual in it as we read.”5 His idea hasn’t gone away. Most recently, Crystal has urged us to work toward fluency in Shakespeare’s English, “by devising appropriately graded EME [Early Modern English] syllabuses and writing carefully graded introductions, phrases books, and other materials.”6 Otherwise, as Liddell put it, “we hold on to all the forms and words which have any resemblance to those we use now, and thus produce a sort of bastard-English that never existed in any English mind.”7

I want to look directly at the “bastard-English” Liddell imagined we are hearing when we read Shakespeare’s poems and plays, to bring it into the light and legitimize it. Moreover, I believe it does exist in our English (or American) minds. Something would be lost, as well as gained, if we tried to assimilate Shakespeare in the way Liddell and Crystal propose, that is, if we made it so familiar that we could no longer discern much that’s unusual about it. Instead of juxtaposing Shakespeare’s language to ours inadvertently, begrudgingly or even with some shame, this book invites readers deliberately to put an anachronistic disposition toward Shakespeare on and compare his idiom to our own. It asks them to make conscious what we think we hear, what we think we understand about his language, even when our impressions are erroneous from a historical perspective. And it argues that this approach is not anachronistic but rather more fully historical, in that it aims to resituate Shakespeare’s language in a “story of English” that includes us.

I developed the methods I use in this book after hitting a wall in my own, earlier work. With many others, I had always implicitly disavowed my impressions of Shakespeare’s language as irrelevant, distracting, and/or potentially misleading. Crystal acknowledges that our curiosity is often sparked when we notice a linguistic feature, “something which strikes us as particularly interesting, effective, unusual, or problematic (often because it differs from what we would expect in Modern English).”8 After that initial affective engagement, however, we must set aside what first “str[uck] us” and proceed systematically to “describe the feature” and, finally, to “explain why the feature is there.” A key objective of Crystal’s three-step program is to learn how to “avoid superimposing [linguistic] norms/rules from later periods onto Shakespeare.”9 He concurs with earlier twentieth-century critics who asserted that “we must disregard knowledge as well as acquire it,” when we study Shakespeare’s language because, analogously, when “we learn a foreign language we hear sound-distinctions which to a native speaker are non-meaningful, while at the same time our ear fails to record significant distinctions which, in our own tongue, would mean nothing.”10 Scholars have been consistent on this point for many years: We must refute many of our first, uninformed judgments, predilections, and distastes for Shakespeare, even as we depend on those to launch our study.

This consensus approach to studying Shakespeare’s language, culminating in a kind of retroactive self-discipline, was already implicit in E. A. Abbott’s pioneering textbook, A Shakespearian Grammar (1869). Bearing the subtitle, An Attempt to Illustrate Some of the Differences Between Elizabethan and Modern English, Abbott’s work was written with the particular, potential confusions of his late nineteenth-century English readers in mind. For example, he explains that his readers might be inclined to believe that Shakespeare allows for “any irregularities whatever, whether in the formation of words or in the combination of words into sentences.”11 But such assumptions are wrong, he says; Shakespeare did not lack grammar, but only modern English grammar. His method is comparative and contrastive, as he proceeds from chapters on “Adverbs” to “Articles,” and from “Prepositions” to “Pronouns.” With Abbott, “Shakespeare’s language” becomes a distinctive, determinate object of linguistic inquiry.

Abbott is rightly esteemed for putting the study of Shakespeare’s language on a more scientific footing than it had been before. He reversed a long tradition of Shakespeare criticism that preceded him, in which Shakespeare’s English was regularly blamed for its perceived defects, and then obligingly “corrected” or emended, by editors, from Alexander Pope (1721) through John Warburton (1747), Samuel Johnson (1765), and Edmond Malone (1778). Correcting Shakespeare remained popular through Abbott’s time, most famously, in Thomas Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare (1847), which was, as we now say in this editor’s honor, “bowdlerized” for respectable consumption. For all his innovations, however, Abbott shared many of the biases of his predecessors. His goal, like theirs, was prescriptive, except that he didn’t seek to fix Shakespeare, but rather Shakespeare’s readers. Abbott often passed judgment on the contrasts he drew between Shakespeare’s grammar and ours, and always in Shakespeare’s favor: “For freedom, for brevity, and for vigour, [Shakespeare’s English] is superior to modern English.”12 He does not reflect on how his own tastes might have conditioned his new assessment of Early and Modern English forms.

Every once in a while, a modern critic will begin to advance some ideas about the relevance of modern taste to how we read Shakespeare, only to beat a hasty retreat. Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language (2000) is a representative example. His excellent book traces the development of Shakespeare’s dramatic language from the more formal rhetorical exercises of the early plays to the rich, dense, obscure forms and formulations of the late plays, to a language which “sometimes . . . takes the poet beyond the limits of reason and intelligibility.”13 Kermode introduces his study by locating “the life of the plays . . . in the language” but immediately adds, “Yet the language can admittedly be difficult, even baffling. This is obviously so for audiences coming in four hundred years after the event, but it must often have been true also of the original audiences, less because the language itself was unfamiliar (though much more so to us) than because of the strange and original uses an individual writer might put it to.”14 Kermode speculates that Shakespeare’s language has always seemed strange and original, even to his own audiences. He considers an example from King Lear, in which the king’s treacherous eldest daughter Goneril pressures her father “[a] little to disquantity” his rowdy band of servants and lackeys—that is, to shrink their numbers. Kermode notes that “disquantity” is Shakespeare’s neologism, and he takes a moment to think about this new word’s effect on us: “The dictionary records no earlier use of this word, and it did not catch on, but to the modern ear it has a disturbingly bureaucratic ring, rather like the euphemisms produced by government departments, and it must have surely struck the first audience as a cold and official-sounding word for a daughter to use in conversation with her father.”15 Kermode is able to explain why “disquantity” sounds like bureaucratese to us now by invoking our shared intuitions and experiences of modern English. He surmises that Shakespeare’s original audiences “surely” found it “official-sounding” too. But then he backpedals on his perception of a kindred reaction, saying that “this coincidence of response must be thought unusual.”16 So do we generally share the same responses as Early Modern readers and audiences to Shakespeare’s language, or do we not? And if we don’t, what else in Shakespeare’s English is an effect of something in ours?

Throughout his introduction, Kermode invokes Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare (1765). Johnson’s remarks on the felicities and infelicities of Shakespeare’s language have long been the bugbear of modern Shakespeare criticism, because they are so obviously laden with personal idiosyncrasy and cultural prejudice. As Kermode reminds us,

Dr. Johnson, who liked Shakespeare best when he was writing simply, would struggle awhile with . . . passages and then give up trying, as he alleged Shakespeare to have done: “It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it for a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.”17

Kermode makes it clear that Johnson’s Shakespeare is a mirror of Johnson’s own pleasures and displeasures in language. He compares Johnson to “us” as modern readers: “We are far from sharing Johnson’s distaste for Shakespeare’s more rugged and complicated passages; we have lived through a long period when most favoured contemporary poetry has been defiantly obscure; so we are stimulated rather than put off by this.”18 Here, Kermode admits what we like about Shakespeare’s “complicated passages” has been conditioned by the “defiantly obscure” poetry of our own age. On the one hand, then, Kermode conjures Johnson’s ghost in order to exorcise him; on the other hand, he reveals that Johnson’s ghost is haunting us still. In any event, his book proceeds without further reflection about our changing tastes in style, as if Shakespeare’s effects are “there,” and always there, in the words themselves, regardless of who is reading them. The official line, from Johnson through Kermode, is that the “life of the plays” has been and still is in the language and not in us.

One of our modern biases, as it happens, is our reluctance to talk about bad poetry in Shakespeare, as Johnson did. Since Abbott, scholars have stopped finding fault with Shakespeare’s language. If anything, we bend over backward these days to show how all of Shakespeare’s lines are pleasing, or powerful, or otherwise purposeful, even if we don’t feel that way about them to begin with. This, in and of itself, betrays something about the nature of our modern partiality toward Shakespeare, even compared to Johnson’s.

We must still, and always, rely on historical research on Shakespeare’s language as a primary method of investigation into the topic. I will continue to do so in the chapters ahead. When we seek for answers about our own experience, however, our exclusive insistence on historicist explanations sometimes occludes or even “explains away” some of what we most enjoy about it, what moved us to seek explanations in the first place. I believe we must return to Abbott’s original idea of comparing Shakespeare’s Early Modern English to our Modern English, but not only for the sake of correcting our errors. I believe we must go back even further in our methods to Johnson and to judging Shakespeare’s effects, bad ones as well as good ones. We just need to be a lot more self-conscious and more explicit about the reasons for our judgments than they were or wanted to be. It’s time to admit that many of us are mad for Shakespeare’s language, and many of us are mad at it, too; either way, we need new methods for dealing with it.


1. Shakespeare is cited parenthetically from The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

2. Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe: A Revue (New York: Samuel French, 1963), 51.

3. David Crystal, “Think on My Words”: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 12.

4. Mark H. Liddell, “Botching Shakespeare,” Atlantic Monthly, October 1898, 466.

5. Ibid., 471, 470.

6. David Crystal, “To Modernize or Not to Modernize: There Is No Question.” Around the Globe 21 (2002): 17; (accessed March 27, 2018).

7. Liddell, “Botching Shakespeare,” 470.

8. Crystal, “Think on My Words,” 231 (emphasis added).

9. Ibid., 179.

10. Hilde M. Hulme, Explorations in Shakespeare’s Language: Some Problems of Lexical Meaning in the Dramatic Text (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962), 7.

11. E. A. Abbott, A Shakespearian Grammar: An Attempt to Illustrate Some of the Differences Between Elizabethan and Modern English (London: Macmillan, 1869), 5.

12. Ibid., 13.

13. Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), 16.

14. Ibid., 4.

15. Ibid., 5.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 5–6.

18. Ibid., 6.