Shakespeare's language

Download this document for a brief explanation of how Shakespeare's language works, together with descriptions of some of the major tools of his art. This document is designed as a resource for teachers which can be adapted to use with your students. 

Shakespeare's Language (PDF) »

If Shakespeare played a major role in the transformation of English drama and theatre he did no less for the English language.

He was writing at a time when early modern English was less than 100 years old and most documents were still written in Latin. There was no dictionary yet published, no established grammar texts, no systematic study of English in schools. English language syntax rules were unsteady and English vocabulary was limited.  The future of the young language was precarious.

When the Renaissance playwrights and especially Shakespeare wrote their popular plays they helped to confirm modern English as the national spoken and written language. Shakespeare himself wrote with a vocabulary of approximately 17,000 words, four times larger than the vocabulary of the average educated person of the time.  He is famously responsible for contributing over 3000 words to the English language because he was the first author to write them down. Of this number more than one tenth or 1700 were used for the first time.

Except for the writers of the Bible, Shakespeare is the most frequently quoted writer in English.  Among the many phrases he invented were:

  • 'eaten me out of house and home'
  • 'neither rhyme nor reason'
  • 'wild-goose chase'
  • 'dead as a doornail'
  • 'brave new world'

By the time he wrote his last play in 1613, Shakespeare had helped to establish a new grammar and a much wider vocabulary for the early form of modern English. With his genius for poetic and prose technique, he vastly expanded the stylistic range of the English language.

Further reading

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare's language, how it works and how his technique evolved as he developed his stagecraft, here are some books and websites which will provide more information:

  • The Actor & the Text by Cicely Berry, Virgin Publishing, 1993
  • The Working Shakespeare Collection: A Workbook for Teachers by Cicely Berry, Applause Books, 2004
  • Shakespeare's Advice to the Players by Peter Hall. Oberon Books, 2003
  • Shakespeare's Language by Frank Kermode, Penguin Books, 2001
  • Shakespeare's Wordcraft by Scott Kaiser, Limelight Editions, 2007 
  • Glossary of Literary Terms - University of Cambridge
    A handy, clearly written all-on-one-page glossary:
    http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/vclass/terms.htm
  • What is iambic pentameter? - BBC Learning Zone
    A video of young students learning about meter:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/what-is-iambic-pentameter/9891.html

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