Unit 3: Case study - Shakespeare's Vocabulary

Unit 3: Case study - Shakespeare's Vocabulary

This unit:

  • Shows some of the innovatory ways in which Shakespeare used vocabulary.
  • Discusses the role of vocabulary choice in the texts.
  • Describes how choice of pronouns reveals relationships.

The Voice of the Shuttle website at the University of California, Santa Barbara, contains a lot of information about Shakespeare. It includes a search engine, compiled by Matty Farrow at the University of Sydney, Australia, which can be used to pinpoint individual words. A complete set of Shakespeare's texts is also available from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



Shakespeare lived from 1564-1616, during the period generally referred to as Early Modern English (EmodE), which runs from about 1500 to 1700. This was an exciting period in the history of the English language as well as in its literature. Many older features of the language dropped out and were replaced by forms similar to those we use today. At the same time there was a considerable expansion of vocabulary.

There are numerous reasons why vocabulary should have expanded so dramatically during this period. These can only be touched on briefly here. Among them are the increasing importance of English as a written language and of England as a nation state. Levels of literacy in English grew during the EmodE period, while the introduction of printing to England by William Caxton in 1476 meant that books could be produced more easily. At the same time, as a result of the Renaissance of learning in Europe, many works by classical authors in Latin and Greek became newly available. The demand for translations of these works stimulated the borrowing of words from the classical languages. Another major event at the time was the protestant Reformation in religion which led, among other things, to the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages such as English.

Many new words also found their way into the spoken language, usually through contacts with speakers of other languages as a result of exploration and trade. The word explore itself is first recorded in EmodE. Settlement of North America by English-speakers began during the seventeenth century, as did exploration to the East. A different kind of traveller, the upper-class young man (or occasionally woman) in search of cultural education, travelled in Europe to study topics such as Art, Architecture, Dancing and Music. Many terms for these activities come into English during EmodE, especially from French and Italian.


3.1. Words for the learned vocabulary

Many learned words borrowed from French, Latin or Greek during this period are now part of our general vocabulary. These include such words as accommodation, addiction, anticipate, compatible, democracy, education, encyclopedia, excellent, pretext and profitable. Others, such as egregious, eximious, or exemplary, all originally meaning 'excellent', or tripudiation ('dancing'), have disappeared or are restricted to formal written English. Others again have changed their meanings.

Such words tend to be polysyllabic, i.e. have several syllables. They are thus relatively long for English words. They also have characteristic prefixes and suffixes such as e-/ex- in the list above, which means 'out of'. Others include ab- 'off, away' (abduct), ad- 'to' (advance), ante- 'before' (antenatal, anticipate), com- 'with' (compatible), de- 'down / away' (descend, deprive), dis- 'separating from' (discomfort), pre- 'before', post- 'after'. Prefixes may have more than one form, depending on the following sound. Thus com becomes con in concur.

Prefixes change the meaning of a root word, while suffixes indicate its grammatical role. Thus -al, -able/ible, -ant/ent, -(i)ous, -ive are characteristic adjective suffixes borrowed from Latin or French, while -ation, -ance/ence, -ity indicate nouns.



a) To see how Shakespeare used such words:

  1. Go to the Shakespeare search engine
  2. Click on try Shakespeare search engine
  3. Enter your query: amazement
  4. Under Search Results, choose Hamlet
    • What strikes you about the use of polysyllabic words?


You will find two quotations from Hamlet. In the second one note the effect of two polysyllabic words, visitation and admiration, positioned among generally much simpler language. In the first quotation, from Act 3, Scene 2, Rosencrantz tells Hamlet of his mother's reaction to his behaviour: "Then thus she says; your behaviour hath struck her into amazement and admiration." To a modern reader, this use of admiration may seem rather odd - we normally feel admiration for things we regard positively.

b) Repeat the search, entering admiration as your query word. Try to work out from the context what the word means in the quotations from Hamlet. In fact it means something more like astonishment or amazement. However, if you scroll through all the examples of the word, you should be able to pick out some where the meaning is closer to our modern usage. Like many English words, admiration is polysemous, i.e. has more than one meaning.

The search engine can also be used to identify Shakespearean quotations, though some ingenuity has to be used. If you want to see the original of 'a rose by any other name …', discussed under Intertextuality in Unit 2, enter sweet near smell in the search box. This will give you five hits, including the passage from Romeo and Juliet.


3.2 Metre

Shakespeare's plays are mainly written in blank verse, in a metre technically known as iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter consists of ten syllables divided into five feet, each containing a weak and a strong beat, as in:

But, look, amazement on thy mother sits
x    /   x  /  x   /  x   /  x  /

x = weak stress; / = strong stress

No poet follows this pattern all the time. Think about how you would actually say the line above: strong stresses coincide with important words or parts of words, while less important words like the preposition on tend to have weaker stress whatever their place in the metrical line. Polysyllabic words vary the pattern by overlapping the boundaries of the feet. This is even more striking in the line below:

Do not forget: this visitation
x  /  | x  /|  x   / |x /|x /|

| = foot boundary

Here the polysyllabic word visitation occupies half the metrical line. As was common at the time, it was pronounced as five syllables.

Emphasis could also be achieved by reversing the stress, as in the short last line of this speech:

Speak to her, Hamlet.
/   x   /    /  x

(Quotations from Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4)

Shakespeare achieved similar effects in his sonnets, as in Sonnet 18 below, where generally simple language is varied by some longer words. Another emphatic device is to place two strong stresses together, as at the beginning of line 3.

Sonnet 18 (XVIII)

 Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
 Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
 Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
 And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
 Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
 And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
 And every fair from fair sometime declines,
 By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
 But thy eternal summer shall not fade
 Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
 Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
 When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this and this gives life to thee.



  1. Go to the Shakespeare search engine
  2. Click on try Shakespeare search engine
  3. Enter your query: incarnadine
    • What strikes you about the use of polysyllabic words in the single example of this word?
    • Does Shakespeare try to explain the word to someone who might not know what it means?
    • Does multitudinous occur elsewhere in the plays (enter it as a query)?
    • If you have access to the OED, check what it says about multitudinous and incarnadine.
  1. Go to http://www.it.usyd.edu.au/~matty/Shakespeare/texts/poetry/sonnets
  2. Choose Sonnet 10 (X) or 23 (XXIII) and examine the effects of polysyllabic words.

The Historical Thesaurus of English database, introduced in Unit 1, can be used to search for particular prefixes and suffixes.

  1. Go to http://libra.englang.arts.gla.ac.uk/historicalthesaurus/
  2. Select Search: affix
  3. Select suffix option
  4. Select category: Education
  5. Select suffix: ion

Education is a field where many words came into EmodE. Scroll down the list and pick out some polysyllabic words from this period.

If you would like to learn more about traditional metres, a package is available.


3.3 Oversea language

A further source of new words for Early Modern English was contemporary languages, especially French, Spanish and Italian. These words were referred to at the time as 'oversea language'. They are much more varied in form and different in content from the learned borrowings described above. Many of them describe things encountered on voyages of exploration, such as foodstuffs (banana, chocolate, maize, nectarine, potato, tomato), animals (moose, racoon), geographical features (oasis, savannah, volcano). Others refer to fashion (moustache), music (guitar, madrigal, violin), architecture (balcony, portico), and warfare or travel (armada, battalion, canoe, cavalier, palisade). It is often difficult to be certain which language such words come from since they were usually transmitted orally as sailors and settlers tried to communicate with one another and with indigenous peoples. Thus canoe and moose derive ultimately from native American words, but reached English through other European languages. Racoon seems to have come directly into English from an Algonquian language following the English settlement in Virginia. The OED has some interesting examples of its early use; the various attempts at transcribing the native word show how difficult it is to capture words in an unknown language:

1608 CAPT. SMITH True Relat. Wks. (Arb.) 19 Couered with a great Couering of Rahaugcums. Ibid. 23 Presents of Deare, bread, Raugroughcums. c1610 W. STRACHEY Virginia (1849) I. x. 122 There is a beast they call arocoune, much like a badger. Ibid. 183 Dict. Ind. Lang., Arathkone, a beast like a fox. 1624 CAPT. SMITH Virginia II. 27 There is a beast they call Aroughcun, much like a badger. Ibid. III. ii. 48 A great robe, made of Rarowcun skinnes.

From the Oxford English Dictionary, racoon.

Not all the words listed above were used by Shakespeare; some of them are first recorded later in the 17th century. However, we can find a fair amount of oversea language in the plays. Such words include:

anchovy (Spanish or Portuguese), apricot (Spanish or Portuguese, originally from Arabic), armada (Spanish), argosy (a large type of ship, Italian), canary (a type of dance or wine, French or Spanish), mutiny (French), stanza (Italian). Potato, probably a Spanish rendering of a Haitian word, occurs in the form potatoes, probably referring to the sweet potato.



  1. Go to the Shakespeare search engine
  2. Click on try Shakespeare search engine
  3. Search for some of the oversea words used by Shakespeare. You will have to enter them in the form found in the text: anchovies, apricocks, armado, armadoes, argosy, canary, mutiny, potato, potatoes, stanze, stanzo.
    • What strikes you about their use?

The Historical Thesaurus of English database can give us an idea of the range of things in a particular category that were available at a particular period.

  1. Go to http://libra.englang.arts.gla.ac.uk/historicalthesaurus/
  2. Select Browse
  3. Word: apricot
  4. Select category: Food
  5. Select category: stone fruit
    • Were any other words meaning apricot available in Shakespeare's time?
  6. Scan the column of dates of use: What other stone fruits might Shakespeare have eaten?
  7. Repeat the search for stanza (select Poetry, part of poem).
    • How many forms of this word can you find?



As the racoon example above shows, there were often problems in writing down unfamiliar words picked up in speech. Spellings such as apricocks and stanze show that there was also uncertainty when words entered English through one or more European languages. Spelling was also generally much less standardised in EmodE than in modern English. All this can present problems for computer searching of older texts. In the OED, and hence the Historical Thesaurus, variant spellings have been collected under the modern form; if you look up apricot in the OED you will find the quotation from Shakespeare. However, many editors of texts prefer not to update the spelling because of its historical interest, which means that exact forms have to be entered. Another problem is that few computer programs attempt to distinguish between multiple meanings of the same form: the most obvious example here is that the proper name Armado is picked up alongside armado meaning 'armada'.

The words meaning stanza show how many forms a new word might have before it settled down into the form we know today. In addition to stanzo and stanze, both used in the Shakespeare texts, there is an anglicised form, stance. For apricot, the only alternative recorded in HT is the rather odd-looking word grysomyle, which means 'golden-apple' and might also have referred to a quince. Note too how many exotic fruits are mentioned in the passage from A Midsummer Night's Dream.


3.4 Reactions to new words

The influx of new words into EmodE was a source of considerable controversy at the time. People who found the polysyllabic words obscure and difficult to understand referred to them disparagingly as 'inkhorn terms', words coined for academic purposes rather than everyday use. Those who sprinkled their conversation with oversea language could be accused of 'speaking over-fine'.

Characters in Shakespeare's plays often remark on each other's use of language, sometimes commenting on its novelty. Thus in As You Like It, Act 2, scene 5, Jaques draws attention to a new word, saying: "I do not desire you to please me; I do desire you to sing. Come, more; another stanzo: call you 'em stanzos?"  Later, in Act 3, scene 2, when Rosalind is disguised as a peasant, Orlando realises that her way of speaking is at odds with her character and says: "Your accent is something finer than you could purchase in so removed a dwelling".

Renaissance England was a place of increased social mobility, with education and the wealth brought by trade enabling people to climb up the social ladder. Then, as at most periods in British English, social ambition was often associated with pretentious language. Shakespeare has great fun with this situation in Love's Labours Lost, for example in Act 5, scene 2, where Don Armado, a well-travelled gentleman, and Holofernes, a pedantic schoolmaster, attempt to impress each other by using elaborate language for simple ideas.

ARMADO: Arts-man, preambulate, we will be singled from the barbarous. Do you not educate youth at the charge-house on the top of the mountain?
HOLOFERNES: Or mons, the hill.
ARMADO: At your sweet pleasure, for the mountain.
HOLOFERNES: I do, sans question.
ARMADO: Sir, it is the king's most sweet pleasure and affection to congratulate the princess at her pavilion in the posteriors of this day, which the rude multitude call the afternoon.
HOLOFERNES: The posterior of the day, most generous sir, is liable, congruent and measurable for the afternoon: the word is well culled, chose, sweet and apt, I do assure you, sir, I do assure.

Expressions which made the point include preambulate, an inkhorn term meaning simply 'walk ahead', the French terms mons and sans question, the absurd circumlocution posteriors of this day, and the repetition of synonyms in Holofernes' last speech.



Do a search on armado, using the routine described above. Read the description of the over-fine speaker in the first quotation from Act 1, Scene 1 of Love's Labours Lost.


3.5 The humble pronoun

Like many modern languages, EmodE offered speakers a choice of pronoun when addressing one another, the singular form thou or thee or the plural form ye or you. Usage did not depend only on how many people you were addressing. Using you to a single addressee indicated respect; it was therefore used to address strangers or people of superior status, such as a parent, master or person of higher rank than oneself. Thou was a mark of familiarity, and could be used to express either affection or contempt. It was thus used by master to servant, parent to child or friends to one another. Persons of high rank tended to use you to one another in normal circumstances.

By Shakespeare's time, this system was in decline, and it is sometimes difficult to interpret usage in the plays. Nevertheless, as the passage below from Hamlet demonstrates, when a character makes an unexpected choice of pronoun or switches between singular and plural, it can indicate something about how relationships are developing. It is therefore well worth keeping an eye on the pronouns as you read the plays.

Using thou to someone who might reasonably expect to be addressed as you could be very insulting, as we see in Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 2, where Sir Toby Belch is advising Sir Andrew on the composition of an offensive letter and says: "Go, write it in a martial hand; be curst and brief; it is no matter how witty, so it be eloquent and full of invention: taunt him with the licence of ink: if thou thou'st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss …"

HAMLET:Now, mother, what's the matter?
GERTRUDE: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.
GERTRUDE: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
HAMLET: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
GERTRUDE: Why, how now, Hamlet!
HAMLET: What's the matter now?
GERTRUDE: Have you forgot me?
HAMLET: No, by the rood, not so:
You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife;
And - would it were not so! - you are my mother.
GERTRUDE: Nay, then, I'll set those to you that can speak.
HAMLET: Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
GERTRUDE: What wilt thou do? thou wilt not murder me?
Help, help, ho!

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4



Gertrude is talking to Hamlet in her private chamber about his unacceptable behaviour. She begins by addressing him as thou, the normal form from parent to child. When he responds aggressively, she switches to you, presumably as a sign of anger. Further threats produce a switch back to thou, either to remind Hamlet that she is his mother (and the queen) or because she feels that she is at his mercy. Hamlet uses the respectful you throughout this extract, but later in the scene, as his anger grows, he switches to a contemptuous thou.



Examine the usage in the rest of this scene. Bear in mind that any interpretation has to take account of the context - what is happening in the scene and what is known about the characters.

Think about how we address people in modern English. Do we indicate relationships through our choice of first name or title plus surname, for example? If you speak a modern language which makes a distinction between singular and plural pronouns, make a summary of how they are used and compare it with EmodE usage.


3.6 Character and style

It is not only comic characters who abuse fine language. Many of Shakespeare's villains, such as Iago in Othello or Edmund in King Lear, have an elaborate speaking style. Often they will use prose in their public utterances and verse in private when they are revealing their true motivation. Loyal, straightforward characters, such as Horatio in Hamlet or Kent in Lear, tend to speak more plainly. A classic example of this is the contrast between the devious Anthony and the more straightforward Brutus in Julius Caesar.

An important concept at the time was decorum, which divided linguistic styles into three genres or kinds, each suitable for particular forms of writing or types of character. The grand or high style was suitable for tragedy, heroic and sacred verse, and for people of high rank and noble character. The middle style was used for elegiac and lyric poetry, and in drama by solid, reliable people or people of some status, such as superior servants and upper class women. The low or plain style marked satire, burlesque and pastoral writing and was the speech of country people and lower class people generally.

Features of the grand style included polysyllabic vocabulary, elaborate imagery and complex syntax. The other two styles were defined by the relative absence of these features, the low style also being prone to jokes, puns and colloquialisms.



All the points made in this unit can be illustrated from Act 1, Scene 1 of King Lear. Read this scene, looking for the points made above. You can look for the use of pronouns by downloading the scene into your word-processing software and using its search facility to identify examples of you, thou, thee.

If you have access to the OED, check the origin and first date of use of some of the polysyllabic words.



There is considerable variation in the styles of the speakers, reflecting what is going on in the drama. The scene opens with the courtiers gossiping in prose. Lear makes his entrance and addresses the company in the grand style of verse. Two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, respond in kind, but the third, Cordelia, refuses to exaggerate her feelings, speaking in a less rhetorical way. She describes herself as lacking "that glib and oily art / to speak and purpose not", i.e. the ability to conceal her feelings beneath fine language. Lear's language wavers as the quarrel develops, reflecting his rage and possibly his future madness. The scene ends with Goneril and Reagan, alone together, abandoning the grand style for gossipy prose.

The use of pronouns is notable in this scene. Lear addresses his two older daughters individually as thou, while they reply respectfully with you. He initially addresses his youngest daughter, Cordelia, as you, which perhaps reflects the fact that she is his favourite, but changes to thou when she incurs his anger. Likewise, he addresses the king of France, a suitor for Cordelia's hand, as you until France offers marriage to the rejected Cordelia, when he becomes thou. At the height of their quarrel, Kent, the loyal retainer, addresses Lear as thou, saying, "What wouldst thou do, old man? - hardly the way to address a king. Further examples of such switching can be found in the interactions of other characters.



Any book on the history of the English language will contain a chapter on Early Modern English. Suggestions include:

Barber, Charles (1997). Early Modern English, 2nd edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable (2002). A History of the English Language. London: Routledge.
Smith, Jeremy (2005). Essentials of Early English. London: Routledge.

Books more specifically about Shakespeare's language include:

Blake, N. F. (1983). Shakespeare's Language: An Introduction. London: Macmillan.
Blake, N. F. (1996). Essays on Shakespeare's Language: 1st Series. Misterton: Language Press.
Brook, G. L. (1976). The Language of Shakespeare. London: Deutsch.

To see Shakespeare's vocabulary arranged by meaning:

Martin Spevack (1993). A Shakespeare Thesaurus. Hildesheim: Olms.

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