Shakespeare’s English

Shakespeare’s language is an example of what linguists call Early Modern English. There are many resources about Shakespeare's English: dictionaries, grammars, Shakespearean insult generators etcetera.

Aspects of Shakespeare’s Language

Inga Stina-Ewbank described the English of the late 16th and early 17th century as follows: a language which had no dictionary until 1604, and in which a fluid grammar and an almost obsessive interest in rhetorical structures gave scope and spurs to experimentation with words and word-patterns (Stina-Ewbank: 50).


Texts in Early Modern English often use words that have changed in meaning or even disappeared. Below is a very selective list.

title; reputation
if. “An” is a shortened for of “and”; “an if” is also frequently used.
at once
ah! alas!
close relative (i.e. not necessarily the child of one's uncle or aunt)
for [conjunction]
lack; be without
require; demand
marry [oath]
By the virgin Mary.
it seems to me that
always; continually
it [shortened form used to fit the word in the metre of the verse]

Verb Forms

In Elizabethan English, some verb forms were different from today. The second person singular had forms ending in st and the third person singular had forms ending in th.
Here are a few examples for the second person singular:

Here are a few examples for the third person singular:

See also David Crystal & Ben Crystal: Verb forms.

Double (and Triple) Negatives

Shakespeare often used double negatives. According to David and Ben Crystal, the “logical” rule that two negatives make a negative was used in only specific formal types of texts. Instead, double negatives were used to intensify the negative meaning of an expression (Crystal & Crystal: 295; see also Negatives on Shakespeare's Words).

The main source of the “rule” that two negatives result in a positive is the book A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published by Robert Lowth in 1762 (see Early Modern English (c. 1500 - c. 1800) on the website The History of English). It appears that Lowth was superimposing Latin grammar on English: since Latin had no double negatives, Lowth prohibited them also in English.

In order to better understand a double negative such as “not … neither”, one should look up the meaning of “neither” in, for example, A Shakespeare Glossary (1911, 1919) by C. T. Onions:

used to strengthen a negative =
  1. nor that either:
    Gent. II.v.18 shall she marry him?—No.—How then? Shall he marry her?—No, neither, Err. V.i.94, 1H4 III.i.244;
  2. either, e.g.
    Tp. III.ii.23 We'll not run …—Nor go neither, Gent. II.iii.18 nay, that cannot be so neither;
  3. for all that, nevertheless:
    Wint. II.iii.157 let it live: It shall not neither; also with “but”: Ado. I.i.298 [290], Mer.V. III,v.8,. All's W. II.ii.37, Ham. V.ii.121 and yet but yaw neither;
    not so n., by no means Ado III.iii.152, MND. III.i.156, Cor. IV.v.276.

Example from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 3, Scene 1, lines 121-124 (Cambridge Shakespeare):

Nay, I can gleek upon occasion.
Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful.
Not so neither, but if I had wit enough to get out of this wood, I have enough to serve mine own turn.

David and Ben Crystal point out that Shakespeare also used triple negatives (see Crystal &Crystal, p. 295).

As You Like It I.ii.24-27 (Oxford Shakespeare, ed. Alan Brissenden, 1993):

Marry, I prithee do, to make sport withal; but love no man in good earnest, nor no further in sport neither than with safety of a pure blush thou mayst in honour come off again.

Love's Labour's Lost V.i.139-141 (Arden Shakespeare, ed. Richard David, 1951, 1968):

Via, goodman Dull! thou hast spoken no word all this while.
Nor understand none neither, sir.

Twelfth Night III.i.159-162 (Arden Shakespeare), ed. J. M. Lothian & T. W. Craik, 1975, 1988):

By innocence I swear, and by my youth,
I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth,
And that no woman has; nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.

The phenomenon that double or triple negatives in a sentence are interpreted as normal or possibly intensified negatives (instead of switching to a positive in the case of a double negative) is known in linguistics as negative concord. Negative concord still exists in current English dialects. See for example the page about negative concord by the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project.

References and Links

Elizabethan Pronunciation & Original Pronunciation

See especially, Pronouncing Shakespeare by David Crystal.

Other links related to Original Pronunciation:

Shakespeare's Language (General)

Shakespeare's Vocabulary

The most useful general references are the works by C. T. Onions, and by David and Ben Crystal. Shakespeare's indecent use of language (insults, sexual puns, expletives, etc.) has been the subject of many books, some of which are mostly for entertainment. There are even online insults generators, such as this Shakespearean Insults Generator.

Other resources related to Shakespeare's vocabulary:

Not immediately related to Shakespeare's language is the following question on StackExchange: How far back in time would English be understandable to a modern speaker? The question has several detailed answers.

Learning Early Modern English

Insults, Curses & Insult Generators

Performances of Shakespeare's Works

Below is a list of video and audio recordings of performances of Shakespeare's plays and some recording of plays by other Elizabethan or Jacobean playwrights.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has a YouTube channel with archived audio recordings of performances, with the following plays, in the order in which they were recorded:

Other Recordings or Videos

Other recordings organised by play, in chronological order (the approximate order of composition; see Chronology of Shakespeare's plays on Wikipedia).

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1589–1591)

The Taming of the Shrew (1590–1591)

Henry VI, Part 2 (1591)

Henry VI, Part 3 (1591)

(No performances listed.)

Henry VI, Part 1 (1591–1592)

Titus Andronicus (1591–1592)

Richard III (1592–1593)

Edward III (1592–1593)

The Comedy of Errors (1594)

Love's Labour's Lost (1594–1595)

Richard II (1595)

Romeo and Juliet (1595)

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595)

King John (1596)

The Merchant of Venice (1596–1597)

Henry IV, Part 1 (1596–1597)

(No performances listed.)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)

Henry IV, Part 2 (1597–1598)

(No performances listed.)

Much Ado About Nothing (1598–1599)

Henry V (1599)

Julius Caesar (1599)

As You Like It (1599–1600)

Hamlet (1599–1601)

Twelfth Night (1601)

Troilus and Cressida (1600–1602)

Measure for Measure (1603–1604)

Othello (1603–1604)

All's Well That Ends Well (1604–1605)

King Lear (1605–1606)

Timon of Athens (1605–1606)

Macbeth (1606)

Antony and Cleopatra (1606)

(No performances listed.)

Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1607–1608)

Coriolanus (1608)

The Winter's Tale (1609–1611)

Cymbeline (1610)

The Tempest (1610–1611)

Henry VIII (1612–1613)

(No performances listed.)

The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613–1614)

Performances of other English Renaissance plays:

Other Links