Archive for Shakespeare’s Language

Words, Words, Words!

Posted in King Lear, Shakespeare's Language with tags , , , on March 31, 2009 by Saera


Shakespeare used vivid language to describe exactly what he wanted or needed his audience to know.  In order to study his writings, a knowledge of basic terms for literary devices is necessary. Here are a few standard terms and explanations, taken primarily from Rex Gibson’s book Teaching Shakespeare.

Imagerythe use of emotionally charged words and phrases which conjure up vivid mental pictures in the imagination.

King Lear expresses his suffering in powerful imagery upon waking from his madness:

“You do me wrong to take me out o’th’ grave.

Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound/ Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears

Do scald like molten lead.”

Clusters of repeated images in each play build up a sense of the themes of the play. All of Shakespeare’s imagery uses metaphor or simile, both of which are comparisons. A simile compares one thing to another using ‘like’ or ‘as.’ A metaphor is a comparison which suggests that two dissimilar things are actually the same. Metaphors are often stronger than similes. For example, it is much better in the line from Macbeth, “There’s daggers in men’s smiles,'” than the simile “men’s smiles are like daggers.”

Personificationa special type of imagery that gives non-human objects or things human feeelings and attributes.

In Twelfth Night, Viola uses personification:

                              “She never told her love,

 But let concealment like a worm i’th’bud

Feed on her damask cheeck. She pined in thought,

And sat like Patience on a monument

Smiling at grief.”

Antithesisthe opposition of words or phrases against each other.  “To be or not to be…”

Alliteration – the repetition of consonants, usually at the beginning of words.

More matter for a May morning!”

Assonance – the repetition of vowel sounds. The repeated vowel sounds may be placed consistently at the beginning or ending of words in a sequence, or they may simply be sounds repeated anywhere throughout the passage or sentence.

“The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king!”  This uses the hard “c” sound at the beginning of words.

“Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,/ And thrice again, to make up nine.” This uses several different vowel sounds, all in various places. The “th”  or “t” sound is used in the beginnings of words, the “ne” and “ce” sound is used at the endings of words.

Onomatopoeia – the use of words whose sound mimic what they describe.

In King Lear, Edgar conjures up the sounds of the sea-shore:

“The murmuring surge,

 That on th’unnumbered idle pebble chafes.”  Murmuring is a word that sounds like what it means.

There is also Rhyme and Prose, both of which are already familiar to most.

Shakespeare also uses lists of words arranged in ways to augment their meaning or dramatic effect.

The best known example of this is found in Macbeth where the witches are listing the ingredients used in making their stew.

“…Fillet of a fenny snake,

in the cauldron boil and bake:

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork, and blind worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth, boil and bubble.”

Shakespeare’s LanguAGE

Posted in Shakespeare's Language, Twelfth Night with tags , , on March 30, 2009 by Saera

” 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