How Can I Understand Elizabethan Language?

The plays of William Shakespeare are considered some of the finest works of English literature. They are studied throughout school, from grade school through higher education, for their mastery of language, their exciting and intricate plots, and their examples of the structure of drama. Because the English language was much different then than it is today, people have difficult understanding much of what Shakespeare’s characters say. It is important to know, however, that “Elizabethan” English is still considered Modern English — that is, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. Modern English as we know it has existed since about 1500, and Shakespeare’s plays were written between 1592 and 1610 — exact dates are not known. Shakespeare was using the same “English” that we use today, but as languages tend to do, the meanings of words and some words in their entirety have changed.

The key to understanding the language of the Elizabethan period is simply becoming familiar with them. How do I understand Shakespearean language? I have read and studied most of Shakespeare’s plays, and have even had the privelege to perform and work on many of them. This would certainly be a good way to familiarize yourself with Shakespeare’s language — simply reading and even peforming some of his classic works will bring you and understanding, as repetition is one of the keys to learning.

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Understanding Shakespeare’s Language

understand-elizabethan-languageSome of the problems in understanding Shakespeare’s language are basic grammar differences. For instance, many words were compounded that are now spelled seperately. An example is “whe’r” which is a compound of the word whether. Shakespeare “made up” many of these compounds to fit rhythmic and metrical structure. Another example of this kind of compounding is ’tis, a compound of “it is”. Once you realize that Shakespeare was writing inside a fairly strict metrical system, you come to understand that he bent words to fit his needs. This was part of his genius — many of our most common expressions today came originally from Shakespeare’s pen. Ever said someone was ‘dead as a door nail’? That’s an invention of Shakespeare. How about the word ‘eyeball’? Believe it or not, until Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the word didn’t exist. Once you begin to study the work of Shakespeare, you’ll come across more and more terms that you are unfamiliar with, and even recognize some expressions you use on a daily basis that the man came up with simply to fit his need.

Elizabethan Glossary

Here’s an Elizabethan glossary of some of the more difficult terms found in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as the plays they come from, that may come in handy when reading his work.

  • aery: nest. (Hamlet)
  • agnize: acknowledge. (Othello)
  • alarum’d: summoned to action. (Macbeth)
  • amerce: punish. (Romeo and Juliet)
  • Anon, anon: In a moment! (Macbeth)
  • argal: therefore. (Hamlet)
  • aroint thee: begone. (King Lear)
  • atomies: miniature beings. (Romeo and Juliet)
  • batten: glut yourself. (Hamlet)
  • belike: probably. (King Lear)
  • betimes: at once. (Julius Caesar)
  • bite my thumb: an insulting gesture in Shakespeare’s time. (Romeo and Juliet)
  • blazon: proclamation (Twelfth Night)
  • bodkin: dagger. (Hamlet)
  • brock: badger or skunk. (Twelfth Night)
  • but soft: slowly. (Julius Caesar)
  • callet: whore. (Othello)
  • catch: musical round. (Twelfth Night)
  • chafing with: beating on. (Julius Caesar)
  • chinks: cash (from the clatter of the coins). (Romeo and Juliet)
  • comptible: sensitive. (Twelfth Night)
  • corky: dry with age. (King Lear)
  • crush a cup: a common expression in Elizabethan English comparable to “open a bottle.” (Romeo and Juliet)
  • daws: jackdaws, or fools. (Othello)
  • doit: cheap coin. (The Merchant of Venice)
  • dudgeon: handle. (Macbeth)
  • eanlings: lambs. (The Merchant of Venice)
  • Elysium: paradise (Illyria). (Twelfth Night)
  • erns: grieves. (Julius Caesar)
  • Ethiop’s: Negro, as used by Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet)
  • factious: active. (Julius Caesar)
  • festinate: speedy. (King Lear)
  • Fie: interjection expressing sense of outrage (Hamlet)
  • figures: fantasies. (Julius Caesar)
  • fobbed: cheated. (King Henry IV, Part 1)
  • four elements: earth, air, fire, and water: The Elizabethans believed that humanity was made up of various combinations of these four elements. (Twelfth Night)
  • fulsome: fat. (The Merchant of Venice)
  • gib: tomcat. (Hamlet)
  • gramercy: many thanks. (The Merchant of Venice)
  • gudgeon: a fish. (The Merchant of Venice)
  • gull: deceive and trick. (Twelfth Night)
  • harpy: a mythical beast having the head of a woman and the body, wings, and talons of an eagle (The Tempest)
  • have old: have a great deal of trouble (a slang term). (Macbeth)
  • hob, nob: hit or miss. (Twelfth Night)
  • humour: feeling (of fear); to persuade by flattery (Julius Caesar)
  • husbandry: thrift. (Hamlet)
  • ides: the 15th day of the month. (Julius Caesar)
  • incarnadine: turn blood-red. (Macbeth)
  • Jacks: fellows (contemptuous). (The Merchant of Venice)
  • jowls: bumps. (Hamlet)
  • maidenhead: virginity. (Twelfth Night)
  • mazzard: head. (Othello)
  • meet: proper. (Julius Caesar)
  • memento mori: reminder of death (King Henry IV, Part 1)
  • micher: truant (our word “moocher” come from this word). (King Henry IV, Part 1)
  • miching mallecho: slinking mischief. (Hamlet)
  • moe: more. (Julius Caesar) (The Merchant of Venice)
  • moiety competent: sufficient portion. (Hamlet)
  • mountebanks: fake doctors who sell quack medicine. (Othello)
  • Mugs: common name for a bumpkin. (King Henry IV, Part 1)
  • music from the spheres: according to Pythagoras, the universe consisted of eight hollow spheres, inside of which the earth and all the other planets are fixed. (Twelfth Night)
  • nonce: occasion. (Hamlet)
  • odd-even: between night and day. (Othello)
  • of wax: i.e., as handsome as if he had been modeled in wax (Romeo and Juliet)
  • out of warrant: unjustifiable. (Othello)
  • out: angry. (Julius Caesar)
  • pale Hecate: Hecate, goddess of the moon and the underworld, was queen of the witches and witchcraft. (Macbeth)
  • paunch: stab. (The Tempest)
  • poor pennyworth: only a small quantity. (The Merchant of Venice)
  • portance: behavior. (Othello)
  • praetor: magistrate. (Julius Caesar)
  • primy: in its prime, youthful. (Hamlet)
  • prithee: I entreat you. (Twelfth Night)
  • prorogued: adjourned (postponed). (Romeo and Juliet)
  • pursy: sensual. (Hamlet)
  • quaint: skillful, ingenious, delicate, elegant. (The Tempest)
  • rack’d: reference to the rack, an instrument of torture. (Twelfth Night)
  • rank garb: gross manner. (Othello)
  • ranker: greater. (Hamlet)
  • reechy: literally smoky, foul. (Hamlet)
  • reeking: sweating. (King Lear)
  • rheumy: moist. (Julius Caesar)
  • rive: split open. (King Lear); split in two. (Julius Caesar)
  • robustious: ranting. (Hamlet)
  • ronyon: a term of abuse or contempt. (Macbeth)
  • sallies: sudden advances in battle. (King Henry IV, Part 1)
  • seel: blind, close. (Othello)
  • shrift: confession. (Romeo and Juliet)
  • ‘slight: by God’s light (common Elizabethan oath). (Twelfth Night)
  • spleen: anger. (Othello); fiery impetuosity. (King Henry IV, Part 1)
  • star-crossed: the idea that people’s fortunes were ruined by the influence of the stars. (Romeo and Juliet)
  • swag-bellied: loose-bellied. (Othello)
  • tetchy: fretful, peevish. (Romeo and Juliet)
  • Thane: an old title of nobility in Scotland almost equal to that of earl. (Macbeth)
  • topgallant: highest sail on the mast; hence, summit. (Romeo and Juliet)
  • truckle-bed: small bed on wheels (Romeo and Juliet)
  • truncheon: a general’s baton. (Hamlet)
  • undone: returned to chaos. (Macbeth)
  • ungently: discourteously. (Julius Caesar)
  • unhoused: unrestrained. (Othello)
  • unhousel’d: not having received the sacrament. (Hamlet)
  • unmake: unnerve. (Macbeth)
  • unprevailing: futile. (Hamlet)
  • unprovide: unsettle. (Othello)
  • unreclaimed: untamed. (Hamlet)
  • unsinew’d: weak. (Hamlet)
  • varlets: low, uncouth characters. (The Tempest)
  • vizards: masks. (Macbeth)
  • welkin: sky, one of the elements. (Twelfth Night)
  • wilt: must. (Romeo and Juliet)
  • windlasses: roundabout means, indirect attempts. (Hamlet)
  • wonder-wounded: overcome with wonder. (Hamlet)
  • wondrous sensible: very deeply felt. (The Merchant of Venice)
  • worser genius: bad spirit. (The Tempest)
  • wot: know. (Romeo and Juliet)
  • yarely: quickly, smartly. (The Tempest)
  • yerked: stabbed. (Othello)
  • yoeman: a property owner, but not high in social rank. (King Lear)
  • younker: sucker or youngster. (The Merchant of Venice)

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