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The Language of the Elizabethan Age

The language of the Elizabethan theatre is very poetic and seems to flow freely in a melodic rhythm. The following lines are taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act II, Scene I), when Macbeth is preparing to murder King Duncan of Scotland. Read it out loud and experience how the rhythm and poetic language make the text come alive.

“Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee –

I have thee not and yet I see thee still!

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”

Anglo-Saxon

From 1200 to 1400 the situation in England was quite chaotic when it comes to language. Celtic, French, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon were spoken in different parts of the country, and no attempts were made to standardize. The Normans were keen on introducing French as an official language, but the language that gradually manifested itself was Anglo-Saxon, which was spoken by a majority of the people, and is what developed into standard English. The language of the church was Latin, but in 1539 the Bible was translated into English. So the everyday language spoken in the 16th century was largely what we would recognise as modern English. Grammar and vocabulary were slightly different from today, but the language would be clearly recognisable. There would of course be varieties of spoken English depending on social identity and class, and Celtic survived in “the fringe” - the northern part of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, where it is spoken even today.

The Language of the Theatre

A Midsummernight's Dream by William Shakespeare

The language we today associate with Elizabethan English is what we meet in poetry or texts written for the theatre, and that kind of language is not exactly what we would call everyday English. The poets and playwrights played with words, they invented new ones, and words pop up that are today obsolete or archaic. And the texts would often include references to Greek or Roman mythology. This will naturally make the texts somewhat difficult to understand for modern readers, but nonetheless they demonstrate an artful and masterly control of language that really should be both appreciated and admired.

If you take a closer look, there are some traits that to a certain degree seem to be common characteristics of this language. Verb forms would for example often have endings determined by the subject, e.g. thou dost instead of you do, and he doth. The pronouns would be thee, thou and ye instead of you, and thine and thy instead of your / yours. Abbreviations were different from what we would use today: ‘tis instead of it’s and lock’d instead of locked for example. The characters would also ask questions without the auxiliary verb “to do” – like: “What say you?” or “Goes Fleance with you?” Shakespeare could for example also create verbs out of nouns, e.g. “He words me” instead of “He speaks to me” and people would understand though it had never been used before. Other poetic techniques were for example unexpected juxtapositions like “Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair” which make you stop and reflect. Besides this particular one has a beautiful alliteration (words beginning with the same letter or sound). Playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare had a stunning creativity and gift with words, and seemingly an enormous vocabulary.
Many of Shakespeare’s texts are written in so-called “blank verse” which is a style of poetry that does not rhyme, but has a certain rhythmic pattern, or meter. This gives the lines a melodic sound and a floating diction that comes alive when it is read aloud. The lines from Macbeth (top of page) are a good example.

Activities

  1. Choose some lines from Shakespeare and read them aloud. Do they have the same melodic sound and floating diction as the given example from Macbeth?
  2. Shakespeare is probably the most quoted writer of all times. Go on the net and find some famous quotes by Shakespeare.

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