Over the last year and a half, I’ve gone on a bit of a Shakespeare bender, as a result of my New Year Resolutions in 2014 and 2015 to read and see six plays each year.
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: