Keith Cassidy  in MACBETH
Since 1986 at the Burstein Family Stage Home of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
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Shakespeare's Language


William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare wrote his plays nearly 400 years ago. He was writing for all kinds of people: rich, poor, royalty, workers, people of many nationalities and races. And he was re-inventing the English language by making his own rules, by using nouns as verbs - as in "Uncle me no uncle" - and by re-inverting grammar and word order. Or he would simply invent a verb: I'll unhair thy head! Shakespeare was not bound by rules of grammar. He made them up as he went along.

  • Shakespeare created new meanings for words:
    Wherever in your sightless substances... (sightless meaning invisible.)
  • Shakespeare substituted adjectives for nouns:
    In the dark backward and abyss of time...(rather than In the dark and backward...)
  • Shakespeare made grammatical "mistakes" on purpose:
    Yes, you may have seen Cassio and she together... (rather than Cassio and her)
    or... Three parts of him is ours already... (rather than are ours) or...
    Who does me this (rather than Who does this to me) or...
    And his more braver daughter could control thee (rather than And his braver or And his more brave...)
  • Shakespeare left words out:
    I have a brother is condemn'd to die... (rather than who is condemned...)

He would grab whatever word from whatever language was handy and use it if it suited him, similarly to what we do when we speak Spanglish. Shakespeare was word-crazy and he loved the sound of foreign words. From the Spanish he stole barricado, tornado, bravado. From the French he got cap-a-pied. And he got hundreds, if not thousands, of words from ancient languages that were and are no longer spoken but were written out. Shakespeare read non-stop old Latin and Greek classic books, and all that reading gave him a huge vocabulary for his writing.

Shakespeare literally invented hundreds of words that we use today in everyday language: accuse, addiction, amazing, backing, bedroom, blanket, bet, bump, buzz, champion, exciting, fashion, generous, gossip, hint, label, laughable, lonely, luggage, mimic, obscene, puke, savage, secure, torture...over 2,000 words. And he came up with phrases that most of us have used at one time or another, such as: Brave New World... Fair Play... Foregone Conclusion... Foul Play... Into Thin Air... It Was Greek to Me... The Livelong Day... One Fell Swoop... Rhyme and Reason... Too Much of a Good Thing... and many others.

Shakespeare liked to play around with word order and used it a great deal in his plays, so, whenever he could, he made the verb or the subject the last word of the sentence, rather than following the normal word order of English: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I (subject at end) or Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall (verb at end)

Another reason for Shakespeare's playing with word order was that he was writing verse. And sometimes Shakespeare liked to rhyme his verse. And English did not lend itself to rhyme as much as Italian and French and Spanish and Latin, all languages of which Shakespeare had a pretty good knowledge.

Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I'd give to be to you translated.

Here Shakespeare chooses the word of Latin origin translated (from transfere – to change) instead of the more common verb form changed and in doing so gets a better rhythm and rhyme than if he said

If the world were mine and Demetrius was left out,
I'd give the rest to be changed into you.

Most English verbs are one syllable words: be, see, run, take... While essere (Italian), vedere (Latin), correr (Spanish), prendre (French) are easier to use for rhyming. So Shakespeare would use or invent words taken right off these languages. Either the word works better for rhyme or the rhythm and the sound of the sentence or... it just sounds more right:

When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven

Illume means TO LIGHT and it comes from the Italian or Spanish or French (illuminare...iluminar...allumer) and all 3 come from the Latin word for light: lumen.

And to illume that part of heaven sounds a lot better than to light that part of heaven and in Shakespeare so much is about what sounds right.

By using unusual word orders and unusual words, Shakespeare also could place the stress wherever he needed it most — and English is heavily dependent on spoken stress to suggest emphasis and make meaning clear. Shakespeare writes stage directions to the actor and the director in coded but simple ways. Simple ways that help the actor make a choice as to what word to stress, which phrase or group of words or line to punch up and bring out. Take this familiar passage from Hamlet:

To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

Try instead this:

The question is whether to be or to die,
and whether it's better for one to suffer the ups and downs of luck as best one can
or to arm oneself against all of this suffering and put an end to it all.

Rhetoric... The word means the study of the art of using language effectively. Lawyers study it. Politicians use it daily. Badly. Here are just a few of the more common rhetorical devices Shakespeare uses.

ALLITERATION or ASSONANCE
REPEATING SAME consonant or vowel SOUND OVER AND OVER
Here will we sit Jessica, and let the sweet sounds of music creep in our ears
ANAPHORA
REPEATING SAME WORD OVER AND OVER:
Never, never, never, never, never...
ANTITHESIS
CONTRASTING OPPOSITES
Give Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's
ELLIPSIS
LEAVING OUT A WORD
So then...to England
METAPHOR
COMPARING TWO SUBJECTS THAT BELONG TO DIFFERENT CATEGORIES
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
SIMILE
COMPARING TWO SUBJECTS THAT BELONG TO DIFFERENT CATEGORIES BY USING THE WORDS LIKE OR AS
My love is like a flower

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