Shakespearean English: A Complete List of Words + Phrases to Know

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Glancing at any page William Shakespeare wrote can make you feel like you have returned to the Elizabethan era. It isn’t just high school, college, and drama school that provide a reason to explore famous works such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Stage productions and adaptations for television and film audiences remain popular. Capturing the rhythm and tone of a monologue or dialogue-heavy scene is only half the battle. Knowing the meaning of every single word on the page is a vital tool in an actor’s arsenal when performing these beloved works. 

Read on for a complete list of Shakespearean words and phrases you need to learn. You’ll know your “doth” from your “dost” in no time.

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How is Shakespearean English different from Modern English?

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Shakespearean English (or Early Modern English) has some notable grammatical differences from Modern English regarding using “thou,” which is the proper second-person singular. It also has its own verb form, such as “thou art,” “thou dost,” and “thou shalt.” The second-person singular has been replaced by the second-person plural (“you”) in Modern English.

Verb endings for the third-person singular also differ in Modern English; we only add an “s” to the end of the verb, as in “says” or “makes.” In Shakespearean English, you also add “th/eth,” which includes “doth,” “sayeth,” “maketh,” and “giveth.”

Some words are no longer in our lexicon, but this only accounts for 5% of the words found in Shakespeare’s texts. Recognizable terms with different meanings, which are referred to as “false friends,” are more likely to be used in texts. For example, “dear” can mean “pleasing” or “expensive” (both similar to Modern English) or the more negative connotation “grievous” or “bitterly.”    

Former Royal Shakespeare Company director Owen Horsley encourages further exploration of Shakespeare’s words: “A curiosity for language is essential. Become a text detective. Look for repetition, antithesis, alliteration, similes, and metaphors,” he told Backstage. “You’ve got to fall in love with the way words sound—for example, a run of open vowels or repeated ‘s’ sound. Shakespeare rinses language of every possibility. In Shakespeare, language is your ammunition—you want to be fully armed!”

Shakespearean words and what they mean

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In “Mastering the Shakespeare Audition,” former head of musical theater at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Donna Soto-Morettini, offers some salient advice: “Never begin work on a text until you understand all of the words.” 

Below is a selection of some of the most common Shakespearean words and their meanings. 

Shakespearean verbs 

  • Abhor: To reject, disdain
  • Assay: To try
  • Balk: To hesitate, to dispute
  • Clepe: To call
  • Couch: To go to sleep
  • Cozen: To cheat 
  • Dost: Do
  • Doth: Does
  • Draw: To bring near
  • Emboss: To track with an intent to kill
  • Front: To oppose, object
  • Hast: Have
  • Hie: To hurry, go quickly
  • Knap: To hit, strike
  • Lay: To wager 
  • Let: To hinder
  • Like: To please
  • Mark: To notice 
  • Mate: To confuse; to match
  • Pall: To wrap up
  • Perpend: To think of, consider
  • Quicken: To bring to life, bring to one’s senses
  • Quit: To respond; to repay
  • Retire: To go to bed, to retreat
  • Shrift: To confess, admit
  • Tax: To blame, censure
  • Want: To lack
  • Wast: Were

Shakespearean adjectives and adverbs 

  • Absolute: Perfect
  • Anon: Soon
  • Base: Unworthy, illegitimate
  • Brave: Handsome, well-dressed
  • Eft: Ready
  • Egal: Equal
  • Fain: Glad, gladly
  • For: Because
  • Gast: Scared
  • Heavy: Sad, painful, mournful
  • Honest: Pure 
  • Ill: Bad, unskillful, evil
  • Judicious: Fair, equitable
  • Lapsed: Shocked, overcome
  • Mad: Crazy, wild
  • Mickle: Much
  • Or: Before
  • Ought: Privy to, promised
  • Parlous: Dangerous
  • Ravin: Likely to destroy, hunger
  • Simular: Counterfeit
  • Still: Always, forever
  • Tall: Strong, brave
  • Thither: Toward there
  • Unpregnant: Idiotic, inane
  • Wall-Eyed: Wide-eyed, angry, surprised 
  • Whence: From where
  • Wherefore: Why
  • Yare: Prepared, ready
  • Yea: Even
  • Young: Recent
  • Zany: Idiotic, clownish

Shakespearean nouns

  • Aught: Anything
  • Bawd: Pimp
  • Character: Letter, handwriting
  • Coil: Distress, trouble, chaos
  • Delation: Accusation
  • Discourse: Reason
  • Foison: Abundance 
  • Kind: Type
  • Knave: A young boy, a servant 
  • Land: Yard
  • Natural: A fool
  • Practise: A trick
  • Quality: Nature, character
  • Rapture: A fit, ecstasy 
  • Spleen: Anger, impulsiveness
  • Subscription: Obedience
  • Vein: Humor, mood, lifestyle 

Common Shakespearean phrases and what they mean

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Shakespeare coined many phrases that we still use today (including “all that glitters isn’t gold,” “green-eyed monster,” “wear my heart on my sleeve,” and “break the ice”). Still, many lesser-known idioms, euphemisms, metaphors, and phrases feature throughout his plays. 

While this might seem overwhelming, there are tricks to understanding how these kinds of phrases fit into the overall structure and meaning. “At the beginning of a speech, Shakespeare will give you a headline. For example: ‘To be or not to be; that is the question.’ Everything that is spoken in this speech will be in relation to this headline,” said Horsley. “The movement of the speech is about finding a conclusion. A speech can be hard to follow if you miss the headline.”

Below is a sample of some you will have heard; others are lesser-known. Shakespeare didn’t necessarily invent this entire list, but he certainly kept it in the lexicon for contemporary audiences to experience for the first time.  

  • “The beast with two backs”: A euphemism for sex
  • “Bite your thumb at”: Putting your thumb between your teeth as an insult similar to flipping the bird
  • “Dogs of war”: Havoc on the battlefield 
  • “Even a worm will turn”: If pushed too far, even a pacifist will seek revenge 
  • “Fortune’s fool”: Awful luck or a victim of destiny
  • “Hoist with your own petard”: Poetic justice or no one to blame but yourself
  • “Salad days”: Youth and the period of young age
  • “Shuffle off this mortal coil”: To die
  • Star-crossed”: Lovers who are kept apart for external reasons
  • “To be, or not to be”: To exist or not; contemplating suicide

Shakespearean pronouns and what they mean

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In Shakespearean English, the first-person pronoun (I, me, my, and mine) is essentially the same as it is now. The second-person pronoun is slightly different. Modern English only uses four pronouns for addressing a person or persons (you, your, yourself, and yours). The Early Modern English used by Shakespeare adds another six words to this list:

  • Thou: You
  • Thee: You
  • Ye: You
  • Thy: Your
  • Thyself: Yourself
  • Thine: Yours 

“[Shakespeare] often uses long sentences with a lot of metaphorical descriptions and repetition,” writes Soto-Morettini. This element can make Shakespearean English seem alien, but there is always an anchor. “Remember that whenever we look at a sentence, no matter how long, no matter how complicated, we always find some simple grammatical things in order to make sense of it,” Soto-Morettini explains. Mastering common Shakespearean pronouns and recognizing and understanding vocabulary are essential to gaining this valuable skill set.

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