Understanding Shakespeare’s Words: Vocabulary for beginners

Understanding Shakespeare’s Words: Vocabulary for beginners

What terrifies students are not Shakespeare plays or sonnets, it is the bizarre Shakespeare words and phrases that threatens them. This article is the end of all your sufferings.

Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.

Rumi

You use Shakespeare vocabulary in your day to day life than anything else. You don’t think so? Ok, then you are not “blindly in love” with Shakespeare. I am doing a “baseless” argument.

It is not just you who struggled in understanding Shakespeare usage of words and phrases. Almost everyone who reads him undergoes the same traumatic experience. The Shakespearephobia increases when they realize that its not a new language. Its simply “English”. Even a good performer struggles with bizarre Shakespeare vocabulary.

Understanding Shakespeare’s words and phrases and adjusting to his vocabulary is not like learning a new language. It is like reading a strong accent and in a few hours, you will adjust to the new dialect accordingly.

Let me ask you a question! What do you think is the meaning of “methinks”? If you got it right, then yes! within a few hours of reading Shakespeare, you will be comfortable in understanding Shakespeare.

Even if you do not understand every word, but you will get the meaning from the context or visual action of the actor if you are watching the performance.

This article is divided into 3 parts.

  • Tips to learn Shakespeare Vocabulary fast.
  • Meaning & Definition of frequently used words and phrases by Shakespeare.
  • New words invented by Shakespeare.

1: Learn Shakespeare Vocabulary fast

I am going to share three magical tips given by my teacher when I was in University. It helped me a lot to understand Shakespeare Vocabulary fast.

  1. Start with listening or watching rather than reading. In our times, there was no luxury of Youtube or audiobooks, so we had to go to the theatre to watch the plays. It was not so frequent and we had to wait. If I were you, I would definitely start by grabbing an audiobook and listen to any play by Shakespeare, the next step would involve watching the movie on Youtube or any other streaming services and finally reading the text. Doing this will not only make you understand the Play better but will also help you to understand common Shakespeare words and phrases.
  2. Read the lines, the way it is meant to be read.Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air – Witch (Macbeth)”. Take a role while reading, and read the script like the original character would have read. Practising this will ensure that you understand what is being said and catch any deeper or hidden meaning if any. You will step in the shoes of the character and feel, how the character would feel in the situation.
  3. Be like a child while watching performances on Shakespeare Play or movie, notice facial expressions, gestures, body language to draw the meaning from the context. A child learns a language or new dialect very fast because of their ability to observe and notice different emotions depicted through body language.

2: How Shakespeare Words are different

dost thee want to talketh like Shakespeare?

 If you are fascinated to see the difference between English we use today and English used in Shakespeare Plays, then this is the place to read.

Thee and Thou means “you” Thy and Thine means “yours”

Many people believe that Shakespeare used thee and thou instead of “you” and thy and thine instead of “yours”. But you can find dialogues where Shakespeare used “you” and “thee” in the same speech. So, thee and thy were not the replacement for you and your.

Thee, thou, thy and thine were a more casual, friendly or intimate way of talking, while you and your were a more polite & formal way of talking. So, if a friend, brother or a colleague is referred, the former is used and on formal occasions later is used.

“Art” & “Ay”

Just like thee, thou, thy and thine, “art” is an intimate expression of saying “are”. So if you encounter a sentence “Thou art”, it means “You are”.

“Ay” means “Yes”, So “Ay, My Master” will mean “Yes, My Master”. Just like thee, thou, thy and thine, both “Art and Ay” are very commonly used expressions in Shakespeare Plays.

“Would” means “Wish”

Shakespeare used both “Would” and “Wish”. But on many occasions, you will find the usage of the word “would” instead of “wish”. “I would I were” for instance, which simply means “I wish I were“. So, next time you see the usage of the word “would”, you know what it means.

Frequently used Shakespeare words

You are going to encounter the words given below very often in Shakespeare Plays. Knowing what these words mean will make your life easy.

dost = do
doth =does
'ere = before
hast = have
'tis = it is
'twas =it was
wast = were
whence = from where
wherefore = why
hence = from here
oft =often
yea =even
aught = anything
yon, yonder =that one there
marry =(a mild swear word)
nay =no
hie =hurry

Other common Shakespeare Vocabulary

Some other commonly used Words in Shakespeare Plays and what actually he meant:

WordMeaning
AbhorReject
AbsolutePerfect
Addiction Tendency
Adieu Goodbye
AlasUnfortunately
BraveHandsome
CouchTo go to sleep
Sirrah Sir
Give Me Leave To Allow me to
VileHateful
WhereforeWhy

Words ending with “-eth” & “-est”

On many occasions, you will notice that a common English word ends with -eth or -est in Shakespeare works. For instance “Speaketh“, “Sayeth“, “thinketh” etc for Speak, Say, Think respectively. There were similar words ending with -est like “Speakest“, “Sayest”, “Thinkest“. These were the common grammatical expressions. Check the table below:

Verb paradigm in King James English for “think

Singular Plural
(I) think(We) think
(Thou) thinkest(You) think
(He) thinketh(They) think

These old English Suffixes are used just like modern English Suffix “-s or -es”.

 He thinks.
Thou thinkest.

He shall go. (no -s suffix on go)
Thou shalt go.

Soon after Shakespeare’s time “thee/thou/thy” fell out of use, naturally – Est was dropped. -Eth was replaced by English -s or -es.

Absence of Don’t, Do and Did

Words we commonly use today like “don’t” “do” and “did” were unfamiliar to people in Shakespeare’s time. This is one of the reasons why Shakespearean English appears difficult at first glance. The sentence formation without using “don’t, do and did” appear weird to beginners.

Below are some common English sentences and its Shakespearean translation:

  • “Don’t be afraid” will become “Be not afeard”.
  • “Don’t follow me” will become “Follow me not”.
  • “What did he look like?” will become ” what looked he like? “.
  • ” Did he stay long? ” will become “stayed he long? “.

Combining such sentence formation with unfamiliar expressions of thee, thou, thy, thine and old grammatical rule of -eth/ -est is bound to confuse beginners.

3: Words & Phrases invented by Shakespeare

Shakespeare not just invented words for invention shake, he played with them. Most of the Shakespeare words and phrases are so expressive that it is just impossible to not use those it in a particular situation or context. If I get a good result after having lots of distractions, it just becomes imperative to say “All’s well that ends well“.

If you will research on the number of words invented by Shakespeare, the exact number that you will get is “1700”. Do not get misled by the numbers. It is true that Shakespeare is identified as the first time user of many words. But it is also true that many of those words were known to people in Elizabethan society. Otherwise, the audience in Elizabethan theatre would never have understood many words in the play and would have missed the entire plot.

Shakespeare was the first person who used those words in a written format. Just because Shakespeare was first documented user of many words, it is conveniently attributed to him. But that does not mean he did not create any word. He definitely created many words which are colloquially used today. Below is the list of 60 words, which is most certainly invented by Shakespeare himself.

Shakespeare Words

Shakespeare invented words by adding prefixes and suffixes to existing words, conjoining two words, changing verbs into adjectives and noun into verbs. And he did it in a most creative way. No one before Shakespeare has ever played so much with words. It is needless to say that Shakespeare genius is unparalleled.

One common question people will have is that, if reading Shakespeare is considered difficult today, how the contemporaries understood him clearly?

The answer to this is simple, the words invented by Shakespeare were based upon already existing words. Take the word “bedroom” for instance. It is the combination of two words “bed” and “room” and his creativity is in not saying it a “sleeproom”.

Shakespeare also invented completely new words as the vocabulary of English Language was growing in the Elizabethan era and the society was aware of this. This is how the Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary puts it:

The vocabulary of English expanded greatly during the early modern period. Writers were well aware of this and argued about it. Some were in favour of loanwords to express new concepts, especially from Latin. Others advocated the use of existing English words, or new compounds of them, for this purpose. Others advocated the revival of obsolete words and the adoption of regional dialect.

Edmund Weiner

Shakespeare Vocabulary is believed to be more than 50000 words in which he used 31000+ words in works. Have a look at some of the words created and used by this literary genius in alphabetic order.

addiction aerial admirable
batty baseless bedroom
compact cheap control
dalmatian dauntless dawn
embrace employer employment
fanged farmhouse fitful
gallantry generous glow
homely howlhurly
import informal investment
ladybird lament leaky
manager mimic monumental
neglect neverending noiseless
obscene ode olympian
pageantry paternal pedant
radiance reclusive reliance
satisfying savage successful
traditional tranquil tortive
unclaimed uneducated unreal
varied vasty vulnerable
watchdog well-bred wittolly

You may also refer to this mammoth list of 422 words invented by Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Phrases

Shakespeare coined several phrases that have become part of our day to day conversations. These Shakespeare Phrases are so popular that it has been translated into many different languages and used as popular proverbs.

His wit and genius as a playwright are evident in his use of phrases, which are so appropriate to the context. Here is the list of 60 popular Shakespeare phrases in alphabetic order.

  1. All our yesterdays (Macbeth)
  2. All that glitters is not gold (The Merchant of Venice)
  3. All’s well that ends well (title)
  4. Bear a charmed life (Macbeth)
  5. Be-all and the end-all (Macbeth)
  6. Brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet)
  7. Devil incarnate (Titus Andronicus)
  8. Good riddance (Troilus and Cressida)
  9. It was Greek to me (Julius Caesar)
  10. In my mind’s eye (Hamlet)
  11. Kill with kindness (Taming of the Shrew)
  12. Laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
  13. Love is blind (Merchant of Venice)
  14. Melted into thin air (The Tempest)
  15. There’s a method to my madness (Hamlet)
  16. Make a virtue of necessity (The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
  17. Milk of human kindness (Macbeth)
  18. Much Ado About Nothing (title)
  19. Naked truth (Love’s Labours Lost)
  20. Neither a borrower nor a lender be (Hamlet)
  21. Neither rhyme nor reason (As You Like It)
  22. Not slept one wink (Cymbeline)
  23. One fell swoop (Macbeth)
  24. Time is out of joint (Hamlet)
  25. Out of the jaws of death (Twelfth Night)
  26. Own flesh and blood (Hamlet)
  27. Star-crossed lovers (Romeo and Juliet)
  28. Parting is such sweet sorrow (Romeo and Juliet)
  29. What’s past is prologue (The Tempest)
  30. What a piece of work is man (Hamlet)
  31. Pitched battle (Taming of the Shrew)
  32. A plague on both your houses (Romeo and Juliet)
  33. Play fast and loose (King John)
  34. Pomp and circumstance (Othello)
  35. A poor thing, but mine own (As You Like It)
  36. Primrose path (Hamlet)
  37. Quality of mercy is not strained (The Merchant of Venice)
  38. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day (Sonnets)
  39. Sick at heart (Hamlet)
  40. Snail paced (Troilus and Cressida)
  41. Something in the wind (The Comedy of Errors)
  42. Something wicked this way comes (Macbeth)
  43. A sorry sight (Macbeth)
  44. Spotless reputation (Richard II)
  45. Stony hearted (I Henry IV)
  46. The world’s my oyster (Merry Wives of Windsor)
  47. To thine own self be true (Hamlet)
  48. Too much of a good thing (As You Like It)
  49. Tower of strength (Richard III)
  50. Towering passion (Hamlet)
  51. Truth will out (The Merchant of Venice)
  52. Violent delights have violent ends (Romeo and Juliet)
  53. Wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello)
  54. What’s done is done (Macbeth)
  55. What’s in a name? (Romeo and Juliet)
  56. Wild-goose chase (Romeo and Juliet)
  57. Wish is father to that thought (2 Henry IV)
  58. Witching time of night (Hamlet)
  59. Working-day world (As You Like It)
  60. Yeoman’s service (Hamlet)

You may also refer to this huge list of proverbs coined by Shakespeare.

Conclusion

Today, in this comprehensive article you have learnt how to quickly adjust yourself to Shakespearean English. I have given three different methods by which you can improve your understanding of Shakespearean English really fast.

You also noticed the major difference between Shakespeare vocabulary and modern English vocabulary. This will eventually help you to read and understand commonly used terms in Shakespeare Plays and Sonnets. Making your study of Shakespeare more thorough and deep.

Sixty Words and Phrases invented by Shakespeare were shown so that you get an idea of how Shakespeare used to invent new words. It will make you understand the meaning of new words as and when you encounter it.

If this article is able to help you, do share it with your friends and classmates to help them easily read Shakespeare. Help me to make this article better by sending your feedback in the comment section and letting me know about the mistakes and improvement scopes. Have I missed to mention your favourite Shakespeare Phrase, do let me know.

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of
Back to top
Succeed with Literature:Essential Tips to get success with English Literature. Submit your Email Now.