Shakespearean language is difficult. Aside from Shakespeare’s lyrical, convoluted style and invented words, there has been so much language change between early modern English, understood by Shakespeare’s audiences around 1590-1610, and modern English, spoken today, that the two dialects often seem to have limited mutual intelligibility.
The more I read and hear of Shakespeare’s language, the more familiar and understandable it becomes. It’s relatively easy to pick up the meaning of archaic terms like fain and wot: after just a few readings or hearings they slip naturally into your vocabulary and cause no more problems.
But what’s much harder is when Shakespeare uses words which are common and familiar in modern English, but had a different meaning in early modern English. It’s very tricky to override the familiar meaning and hear it as the intended meaning; however hard I try to dislodge it, the modern meaning obstinately intrudes into Shakespeare’s text.
Here are the ten words which have caused me the most dissonance between their Shakespearean and modern meanings:
1. an – if
An is an alternate form of if in early modern English, for example in the following exchange in As You Like It:
Orlando: He dies that touches any of this fruit
Till I and my affairs are answered.
Jaques: An you will not be answered with reason, I must die.
It takes a few hearings of this form to get used to it. It helps that, in most cases, this an appears in a grammatical position that the modern an would never be in, so it’s easier to override it in your mind.
2. on – of
Another weird little particle swap is the Shakespearean on meaning of, particularly when combined in contractions like on’s (of us, of his, etc) or on’t (of it). For a couple of examples of the first, let’s turn to King Lear. Here’s the Fool following his typical pattern of alternating between talking total nonsense, and talking the most sense of anyone in the room:
Fool: Thou canst tell why one’s nose stands i’the middle on’s face?
Fool: Why, to keep one’s eyes of either side’s nose; that what a man cannot smell out he may spy into.
Fool: Why, this fellow has banished two on’s daughters, and did the third a blessing against his will.
And for the second, from The Winter’s Tale:
Shepherd: Away! We’ll none on’t: here has been too much homely foolery already.
3. owe – own
In early modern English, the verb owe could mean two different but related things. It already had the modern sense of have a debt to/of which we’re familiar with. It also had the now-obsolete sense of possess (in other words, it was an alternative spelling of own).
This is particularly confusing, because in one sense, the meanings are contradictory: if I’ve borrowed £1000, and still owe it back to my creditor, I don’t really own that £1000, it doesn’t count as an asset. In another sense, it could be consistent: I own the £1000 in the physical sense that I’m currently holding it, even if I also have a liability to someone else for the same amount.
Here it is in Twelfth Night, with Olivia asking Fate to guide her, because she doesn’t trust her own judgement:
Olivia: Fate, show thy force; ourselves we do not owe.
Although owe is being used here unequivocally in the possess sense, the lyrical construction of the expression is already a bit of a struggle for the modern ear to interpret, and having to mentally replace owe with own makes it even harder.
However, Shakespeare loved ambiguity and didn’t stop there. As with other words, he often used owe to mean both things at the same time, exploiting the contradiction for maximum effect (and for modern readers, maximum confusion). In The Merchant of Venice, the wordplay becomes deadly serious:
Bassanio: I owe you much, and like a wilful youth,
That which I owe is lost
4. still – always, continually
For Shakespeare, the adverb still means always or continually. This is more straightforward, and unexpectedly different, from the modern adverb still, which has a subtle range of meanings depending on the conversational context.
For example, in As You Like It when Corin says “Why, we are still handling our ewes” (III.ii.50) he means that they are always handling their ewes, implying past, present and future.
The more natural modern reading is subtly different: they have been handling their ewes in the past, and have continued to do so up to the present. But there’s also a suggestion that the job wasn’t expected to take so long, and they might cease handling their ewes in the near future.
In modern English, “I’m still doing X” as a reply to someone tends to be an excuse: “I can’t do what you’ve asked right now, because X continues to occupy me.” But that wasn’t Corin’s meaning at all. His “I still do X” is actually “I’m always doing X”, as an explanation for a general fact: the difference between courtiers and country-folk.
Another shade of the modern meaning is the even so in response to the previous statement. This intrudes earlier in the play, when Celia describes her friendship with Rosalind:
Celia: I was too young that time to value her,
But now I know her. If she be a traitor,
Why so am I: we still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together,
And wheresoe’er we went, like Juno’s swans
Still we went coupled and inseparable.
She simply means that they always slept together and went coupled and inseparable. However, it’s difficult to avoid hearing the connotation that they did this in spite of what’s been said.
5. want – lack
The English word want originates from the Norse vant, meaning lack. From this initial meaning, it gradually changed, first to imply need, and finally to its current meaning of desire. It has now almost entirely lost the original sense of lack, except occasionally as a noun, where it sounds either proverbial or affected: “for want of a horse…”
In Shakespeare’s day, the sense of lack was still current, and he could use it safe in the assumption that in the right context, it wouldn’t imply desire. When Hamlet describes “a beast that wants discourse of reason” (I.ii.150) it’s unambiguous that he means a beast without intelligence, not that the beast desires intelligence. Now that desire is the only sense the word commonly has, the meanings of phrases which were meant to be clear have become confused. And, conversely (and sadly), the meanings of phrases where Shakespeare puns or intends ambiguity have lost their extra layers, as at many points throughout Timon of Athens:
Bandits: We are not thieves, but men that much do want.
Timon: Your greatest want is, you want much of meat.
6. sad – serious
This unfortunate change in meaning has the effect of adding an unintended emotional element to a scene. So when Barachio says in Much Ado About Nothing that he has seen “the Prince and Claudio, hand in hand, in sad conference” (I.iii.55-6), he just means they were talking solemnly and seriously; there’s no implication that they were upset about anything. But the word is so emotive in modern English, it’s almost impossible not to imagine them weeping over a tragedy (especially since you suspect one is probably not far away).
Similarly, it’s difficult not to imagine that Benedick is feeling depressed, instead of just less frivolous, later in the play:
Benedick: Gallants, I am not as I have been.
Leonato: So say I; methinks you are sadder.
7. discover – reveal, show
Consider the etymology of discover: dis – cover, remove the cover to reveal something underneath.
In modern English, there’s an implication that the finder didn’t already know what was hiding there: the object (or, figuratively, the information) is a surprise, has been stumbled on by accident.
In Shakespeare, this implication is missing. Someone can discover (reveal) their secrets to another person, as in Much Ado:
Antonio: the Prince discovered to Claudio that he loved my niece your daughter
When reading it, I try to draw out this different sense by mentally emphasizing the separation of the syllables: “the Prince dis-covered to Claudio…” But this only has limited success.
8. presently – immediately
Shakespeare’s sense of presently actually makes more sense than ours, when you think about it. The present is now. And when Shakespeare has a character say they will do something presently, he does mean right now, immediately.
What’s surprising is how the word has evolved since, to the meaning we currently give it: soon, sure, but not right away. In other words, in the near future, not the present.
It would reveal a lot about how dishonest usage can change our language, to understand how the weaselly use of presently by prevaricators has led it to mean the opposite of its original meaning.
Nevertheless, the modern meaning is firmly implanted in my mind, so it makes it difficult to imagine the correct intonation in Sir Andrew’s voice when he says, in Twelfth Night:
For the love of God, a surgeon! Send one presently to Sir Toby.
This should be urgent and panicked, but the hint of delay in the modern presently makes it seem sarcastic and dismissive.
9. mere, merely – utter, utterly
In terms of root meaning, merely is one of a set of words, along with only, solely, completely, totally and utterly, which state that X is 100% Y. But these words are all used in subtly different contexts, and imply different things about why that relationship between X and Y is interesting.
For instance, completely is used for emphasis: “X is completely Y” implies that being 100% Y is a surprisingly extreme composition for X.
In modern usage, merely is dismissive: “X is merely Y” implies that we would have been interested if X had been something other than Y, but it’s not.
But in Shakespearean English, merely has an emphatic meaning, similar to the current completely or utterly. It doesn’t dismiss or trivialise its object at all, but draws strong attention to it.
For instance, at the end of Jaques’s famous “All the world’s a stage” speech in As You Like It, he describes old age and death as “mere oblivion” (II.vii.166) which is meant to be a powerful image (“utter oblivion”), not a casual one (“insignificant oblivion”).
Merely is still in the process of change, as other words shift semantically around it. For example, consider the shades of meaning between merely, solely and only.
Solely is neutral: “X is solely Y” implies minimal assumptions about what we might have expected X to be.
Only is often neutral too, like solely. However, only seems to be taking on a dismissive sense as well, moving into merely‘s territory.
Perhaps this is because merely is starting to sound archaic and affected. As only pushes out merely in everyday usage, merely sounds increasing foppish. This takes it even further from Shakespeare’s emphatic usage.
An example of how dramatically Shakespeare’s meanings can change, take the bandit’s description of Timon’s fall in Timon of Athens:
Bandit: The mere want of gold, and the falling-from of his
friends, drove him into this melancholy.
In this sentence, “mere want of gold” is meant to sound catastrophic (a total lack of wealth, an utter dearth of resources), and provide sufficient explanation for Timon’s desperate plight and mental breakdown.
However, the changes in meaning of both mere and want make it come out more like “a trivial desire for gold”, strongly implying that Timon is a greedy, petty man, whose self-exclusion is an unjustified and self-indulgent tantrum.
10. thou – second person pronoun (singular/informal)
Thou has undergone a surprising transformation in the last 300 years. In Shakespeare’s time, both thou and you were current as second person pronouns. Thou was the singular, informal or familiar version (like French tu) and you the plural, formal or respectful version (like French vous).
Over time, the extreme politeness of English speakers meant that the familiar form, thou (and its derivatives – thee, thy, thine etc) dropped out of use almost entirely. Ever since, English people have been using the polite form for all of their everyday conversations, however intimate or condescending.
Now that you is the universal form, used in both familar and formal contexts, thou has had a strange sort of resurrection. It’s occasionally used as a deliberate archaicism (“Can I get thee a drink, good sir?”), and its association with Shakespeare, traditional liturgy, and an imagined stuffy, courtly society of olden times, means it’s associated with respect and formality in contrast to the familiar you: a complete reversal of roles for the two words.
A change in the pronoun used between two characters has a distinct relevance to their relationship in Shakespeare’s plays, but with the reversal of their meanings in modern usage, we tend to miss or misunderstand these cues. For example, a switch from you to thou between a courting couple indicates growing intimacy, but we would hear it as increased formality (or ignore it completely as “just Shakespearean”). And when someone calls a social superior thou it’s a deliberate snub, but we just hear it as obsequiousness.
A valuable resource for writing this article was the Shakespeare’s Words website. Following that website, all line references are to the New Penguin Shakespeare series.