Reading Shakespeare's Language

by Jesse Marciano

Shakespeare's Words

A reader of Shakespeare's works is likely to encounter words that they are not familiar with. A number of these words may be hard to understand due to lack of use in modern times, especially if they are homophones of commonly used words that the reader is familiar with. Other words differ from the reader's known vocabulary because Shakespeare is using "'local' words and references" (xvi) to build the world of Hamlet in interesting ways. Finally, some words, which are among the hardest to make sense of, have just completely shifted in meaning since Shakespeare's time, sometimes to the point of meaning the exact opposite of what the reader would expect! All of this can make reading difficult, but with a little work and preparation, the reader can enjoy Shakespeare's writing without too much trouble.

Shakespeare's Sentences

The meaning of a sentence in English is very dependent on the placement of each word within the sentence, which can make understanding Shakespeare's writing very confusing, as he often deviates from the expected sentence structure. This is often either to keep a sense of rhythm in the writing or to make a certain character "speak in a special way" (xvii). Though he sometimes switches the placement of the subject and verb, the bigger issue with Shakespeare's writing is that he often places the object before the subject and verb. Furthermore, in Hamlet he specifically makes a habit of "the separation of words that would normally appear together" (xvii). The reader must expect Shakespeare's use of these stylistic choices if they wish to understand his works.

Shakespearean Wordplay

There are entire books dedicated to the analysis of Shakespeare's use of wordplay. The two major forms of wordplay used are puns and metaphors. Shakespeare is very fond of using puns within dialogue, and without being aware of that the "dialogue can seem simply silly or unintelligible" (xxi). It is also worth noting that puns do not have to be comedic, and in Hamlet Shakespeare does write a few that have fairly serious meanings. His metaphors can also be confusing, as the comparisons they're making may not always be obvious to the reader, especially if they have been obscured by time. This is especially problematic when the metaphor is already being used when "the idea being conveyed is hard to express" (xxii). To understand Shakespeare's complex wordplay, a reader must definitely be dedicated to understanding his writing, but it is clear that they will be greatly rewarded for doing so.

Implied Stage Actions

A reader of Shakespeare's plays must keep in mind that they were written to be performed. While this may seem to be obvious to most readers, there are more difficulties involved here than one might expect. While some stage directions within the script are clearly described, others are "suggested within the dialogue itself" (xxii). The result is that while some actions are clear, others are up to the actor, or in this case, the reader, to decide how to interpret them. It is important that the reader considers the different possible implications of such lines while reading. While it may seem pointless at first, there are points within the play where the ability to have such an understanding of the writing will be very rewarding.