Shakespeare’s Language Barrier

Shakespeare’s Language Barrier

For people reading Shakespeare in the 2020s - his language can be a difficult issue. But it is an issue that can be resolved with a little help. 

It may be necessary for the actor tackling Shakespeare for the first time to untangle Shakespeare’s creative use of the English language, syntax, grammar and spelling. 

And then there is his use of language from over 400 years ago, full of references to things that we Instagram, YouTube, Tinder and Netflix users will find perplexing. 

When an actor reads a piece of Shakespeare, we really do need to get stuck into the text. We cannot read it simply like a story book, this isn’t Spot Loves Nursery. Instead, we may need to go line by line - with a dictionary, or Onions’ remarkable glossary of terms, until the puzzle of his poetry is resolved. And trust me, when you do this, you will get used to it, and once you are used to it, it gets a lot easier with time. 

Shakespeare’s Words

The first thing you notice when you read Shakespeare, is that there are quite a few words you don’t know. This can make even the most learned scholar feel a little silly, so hang in there. 

Take a look at the following tiny fragment from Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet: 

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you. 
She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes 
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone 
On the fore-finger of an alderman, 
Drawn with a team of little atomies 
Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep; 
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners' legs, 
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, 
The traces of the smallest spider's web, 
The collars of the moonshine's watery beams…

Who is Queen Mab? Hath - does that mean has? What is an Agate-Stone? Who is an Alderman (Shakespeare’s Dad was one actually), what are Little Atomies? What does Athwart mean? What are Long Spinners and why do they make Wagon-Spokes? What are moonshine's watery beams?

It can feel like translating an entirely new language. But the key is that it is poetry. Sometimes the phrase is the poetic use of something we already know. And sometimes it’s a word that’s new to us and other times it's a reference we have never met before. 

Language also changes over time. Shakespeare also coined, or made up a lot of words and phrases. He called Jealousy - the green eyed monster. He had Hamlet say that he could see something in his ‘Mind’s Eye’. He was the first to use the word ‘Assassination’.  

Shakespeare used words to create the worlds in which his characters exist. But the good news is that once you get to know Shakespeare’s language, you can apply it to his other plays too. 

Just like any language, it’s about the level of immersion that you’re willing to engage in. If you read a lot of Shakespeare, watch a lot on tv or in the theatre, you’ll quickly get used to it. You won’t find the need to translate everything, you’ll let more and more wash over you instead of feel like you have to translate, you’ll let the words and actions of the actor inform you of their importance in the moment.

Don’t let the Shakespeare Language Barrier put you off, with a little help, you’ll soon be enjoying the work of one of our greatest dramatists. 


To You, The Best

Mark Westbrook is the author of Shakespeare Monologue Audition Success and the co-Principal at Acting Coach Scotland. 

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