Shakespeare was first a poet, and he quickly learned to use words not only to set up the plot but also to create images that told the playgoer what the characters' inner thoughts were. For example, in King Richard III, he writes:
Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York.
Here, Shakespeare is describing the murderous bleakness of the War of the Roses — a civil war between the dukes of Lancaster and York, contenders for the throne of England — as winter. The word discontent shows the murderous bleakness of the War of the Roses. This long-lasting civil war between the dukes of Lancaster and York vying for the throne of England went on for decades. Thus the term, “winter.” That one word conjures up cold, rain, snow, damp, bleakness, hardship, and so on. He then describes the winner of the war at the time of the play's beginning: the Duke of York, as a “son of York.” His victory brought about a “glorious summer.” The one word, “summer,” offers images of warmth, peace, and prosperity, a far contrast of the “winter” it was about to replace.
What's really great about Shakespeare is that he does in two lines of only fifteen words what took several sentences to describe in the preceding paragraph! Reading Shakespeare does take effort, but as you become familiar with his language, you will be better able to make sense of what is being said in his plays.
The Context of Language
Most of us would agree that English has become the universal global language, despite the fact that statistically far more people speak Chinese. But have you stopped to think that the English you speak today would be hard for someone living in Wyoming in 1900 to follow? For instance:
I'm going to the mall to get new software for my computer. I'll pop into a cybercafé while I'm there and check my e-mail because I'm expecting my travel agent to confirm my red-eye flight to London tonight.
Language is all about context. And Shakespeare's language has a context you need to be familiar with in order to make sense of what's going on and why people say and do the things they do in the plays. That's why Shakespeare is sometimes done in modern dress or set in particular periods of modern history.
Many people unfamiliar with the world of William Shakespeare think he wrote and spoke a form of Old English. Old English, however, is actually Anglo-Saxon. Readers now need to learn it as a new language. Chaucer wrote in “Middle English,” which is somewhat recognizable but still quite different from our language. Shakespeare actually wrote in what linguists call “Early Modern English,” which is remarkably close to the language we use today. In fact, he is credited with inventing words and phrases that are now part of our everyday speech, such as:
Bag and baggage
And this is to mention but a handful.
It is true that Shakespeare's syntax is not always the “subject-verb-object” sentence structure with which we are now familiar. Some of the words he used are now archaic, and some have changed their meaning.
The plays assume some sort of knowledge of Elizabethan events and history, and they are filled with references to Renaissance learning: Greek and Roman mythology, astrology, alchemy, and the theory of “humours.”
Shakespeare was a writer who was aware of words and their meanings, but some of the subtleties of his language are difficult for modern audiences to appreciate because the words have changed meaning. For example, naughty now means “badly behaved,” but in Shakespeare's time it had a harsher meaning: “wicked.”