Shakespeare’s LanguAGE

” Shakespeare’s theatre was non-realist, non-naturalistic, relying on conventions shared by actors and audiences, a few props, elaborate costumes, but above all on language and the human voice.”       -Rex Gibson

Shakespeare was a revolutionary artist.  He used words to create beauty, teach truth, or simply please. They were practically all that he had. People of his time placed a heavy emphasis on words.

During the time he was writing, the English language was flexible and fluid, mostly because there was a lack of fixity. Relaxed rules of grammar and spelling (Elizabethans don’t seem to have known what “spelling” was) made the English language into a virtual game of Spin the Tail on the Word(e).  There was no English dictionary until 1604, so words’ spellings, meanings, or uses were not at all tied down for Shakespeare.

However, language was very important to Elizabethans. Rhetoric was given special emphasis in the schools, reading and writing poetry was widely practiced (especially by the noblemen) and society’s main forms of entertainment involved the creative use of words. Sermons, plays,  proclamations, all were part of daily life for Elizabethans.

Because of the centrality of words, and the flexibility of the developing English language, many poets and writers felt free to invent new words. Shakespeare held his own and kept up with the best of them, inventing hundreds of words and expressions which are still used today. For a list of a few words he is credited with, check out His skill profoundly influenced the English language.

 He often used the hyphen to create compund words that “conjure up vivid images,” says Teaching Shakespeare by Rex Gibson. Examples include: tell-tale,  love-sick, side-stiches, sea-nymphs, etc.  He was also a master phraser, inventing phrases that have survived over 400 years of use such as above compare, in a fool’s paradise, what’s in a name?, as gentle as a lamb, on a wild goose chase, as true as steel, we were born to die, past help, fortune’s fool, a rose by any other word would smell as sweet, all’s well that ends well,  and much ado about nothing.

He also made up nonsense words that have meaning in context – hurly-burly, skimble-skamble, etc. He made verbs out of adjectives and nouns: happies, bolds, pale, he childed as I fathered.  He added prefixes  auch as un-, en-, and dis- “to increase the dramatic potential of words” (Gibson).


Because Shakespeare’s theatre was limited, words were essential to creating the atmosphere and setting of the play. He uses dramatic language to describe events/actions that happen in outside the play itself, as well as containing inbuilt stage directions.  Examples:

Avaunt and quit my sight!

Turn thee, Benvolio, and look upon thy death

 It invoked a sense of place:

Upon this blasted heath you stop our way

‘Tis now the witching time of night/ When churchyards yawn, and hellitself breathes out/ Contagion to this world

It embodied the mysterious supernatural:

Double, double toil and trouble;

fire burn and cauldron bubble

It also intensifed the emotional mood of a character:

Death lies on her like an untimely frost/ Upon the sweetest flower of all the field

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,/ My love as deep;? the more I give to thee, /The more I have, for both are infinite


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