It’s a complaint that you can hear throughout the halls of high schools and colleges, an aggrieved sigh you can find throughout the Internet: “Why do we have to read Shakespeare? It’s too hard to understand Old English!” The irony, of course, is that Shakespeare was writing in modern English. Early modern English if you want to make fine distinctions. But the fact is, the words Shakespeare uses are typically not very different from the words we use today. Some have gone out of style, some have changed or accrued meanings, and some have changed pronunciations. But, with a little work, you can understand Shakespeare. If anything is really tricky about his language, it’s often that his need to maintain the meter of his lines calls for him to write in inverted sentences, and students often struggle when the word order is not what they expect.
What many do not realize is that Old English is not simply English that is old–that is, from the past. Old English refers to a very specific language, the language that Beowulf is written in, the language also known as Anglo-Saxon. The language that was spoken in England until around 1150. The average person cannot read the original manuscript of Beowulf. It’s like reading a foreign language. You have to learn Old English in order to understand it, just as you might learn Spanish or French. See the first lines of Beowulf below:
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
After Old English came Middle English, which lasted until about 1500 (if you accept the OED’s timeline). You can read an example of Middle English in Chaucer’s works. Here’s the beginning of The Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour….
You can see that these words are more recognizable than the words of Old English, though still difficult to decipher. Reading aloud can help. “Flour” might be…”flower!”
Now consider Shakespeare, who lived from 1564 to 1616. He is writing early modern English. Here are the opening lines of his famous Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
It’s true that you would not likely hear someone talk like this today. Words like “temperate” may be unfamiliar to some students and phrases such as “summer’s lease” may initially be confusing. The inversion in “Rough winds do shake” also may prove troublesome. However, all these words are clearly recognizable and generally still in use (We don’t say “thou” or “art” anymore, but the meaning is clear). Shakespeare’s language is very different from the language of Beowulf!
So next time you find yourself puzzled by Shakespeare, take a deep breath and remember that learning Shakespeare is actually far easier than learning Old English!