Playing with Words
In Shakespeare's day, the syntax of the language and grammar itself were still evolving, so some lines need more careful reading than others do. Like many Elizabethans, Shakespeare loved to play with words. Often, reflecting the influence of Latin, his sentences grew long.
New Words, New Meanings
Because of the changes in the structure of language as English developed from Middle English to Modern English, writers were able to invent new uses for words. Shakespeare often used nouns as verbs or adjectives as nouns. But the massive flow of foreign words into the English language during the sixteenth century created a multitude of variations for nearly every word. Shakespeare used this expanded vocabulary to make his language both more precise and more evocative.
In Love's Labour's Lost Berowne's ingenious comment “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile” plays upon four different senses of light — meaning in order: intellect, wisdom, eyesight, and daylight — so the sentence can be interpreted as reading: Wisdom can be as enticing to intellectuals as daylight to a sighted person.
A lot of words have disappeared from use. For example, who says micher meaning “a petty thief,” or slubber meaning “clumsy and messy”? In Chaucer's time nice meant “ignorant” or “licentious” by Shakespeare's time it meant “precise,” as in a “nice distinction.” Today it means “pleasant.”
Shakespeare also wrote in blank verse, that is, the lines do not have to rhyme. When they do, it is usually to mark the end of a scene, because there were no curtains, and the rhyme itself gave the clue to the audience that they were about to experience a scene change. The plays' language did have a rhythm, commonly called iambic pentameter. This is a flashy way of saying that a typical line has five, two-syllable units, with the emphasis on the second syllable. It's considered one of the most successful ways to write poetry that has a natural spoken form.
But Shakespeare also wrote in prose, which he often ascribed to the lower classes and the lowborn, while his kings spoke verse. However, King Lear speaks in prose as he goes mad, and The Merry Wives of Windsor is mainly in prose.
Shakespeare also used a lot of metaphors and similes. Writers of the day drew on the Bible, using such phrases as “strong as Samson” or “wicked as Herod.” Shakespeare also made comparisons to the widely known Robin Hood and King Arthur stories. Members of the upper-middle-class and nobles sprinkled their speech with references to the Greek and Roman classics, such as “beauteous as Venus” or “bright as Phoebus Apollo.” Shakespeare also personified inanimate objects, saying that trees blushed, or seas were angry.