For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.
As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of As You Like It, for example, you will find the words misconsters (misconstrues, misunderstands), unkept (uncared for), ill-favored (ugly), misprized (scorned, despised), and quintain (a wooden post used for jousting practice or in rural games). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.
More numerous and more problematic are the words in Shakespeare’s plays that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes of As You Like It, for example, the word profit has the meaning of “proficiency,” avoid is used where we would say “get rid of,” envious means “malicious,” and stubborn is used where we would say “ruthless, fierce.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.
Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build dramatic worlds that have their own space, time, history, and background mythology. Shakespeare opens As You Like It on the estate of Oliver, heir of Sir Rowland de Boys. The language which constructs that world centers on inheritance, money, and what we would now call class structure. It is a world where horses are “taught their manage” and are “fair with their feeding,” where a “gentleman of birth” demands that he be “bred” properly and allowed his “exercises,” and where “the courtesy of nations” (i.e., the law of primogeniture) makes the eldest son “nearer to his [father’s] reverence.” When the action moves to the Forest of Arden in 2.1, the language constructs a world “exempt from public haunt,” which views the “envious court” as a place of “painted pomp” and prides itself on confronting nothing more perilous than “the churlish chiding of the winter’s wind.” In this forest world of “antique roots” and brooks that brawl along the wood, courtiers dressed “like foresters” “moralize” natural spectacles and “gore” with “forkèd heads [i.e., arrowheads]” the “round haunches” of deer (“poor dappled fools,” “native burghers of this desert city”). These and other language worlds together create the complex terrain that Orlando, Rosalind, Touchstone, Duke Senior, and their companions and relatives inhabit.
As You Like It is constructed with yet one more set of unusual words. This play depends heavily on allusions. The life of Duke Senior and his men is in part constructed through allusions to Robin Hood and his merry men and to descriptions of the golden age in Hesiod and Ovid. Orlando alludes to the biblical prodigal son narrative to tell his own story. The wrestling match is given a mythological context through allusion to Hercules’ match with Antaeus. Rosalind and Celia describe their friendship through allusion to Juno’s swans. Biblical, mythological, and learned allusions abound in this play, introducing us to (or reminding us of) words and images that significantly enlarge the play’s scope.
In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech pattern or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. In reading for yourself, do as the actor does. That is, when you become puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.
Look first for the placement of subject and verb. Shakespeare often places the verb before the subject (i.e., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”) or places the subject between the auxiliary and the main verbs (i.e., instead of “He will go,” we find “Will he go”). In As You Like It, we find such a construction in Charles the wrestler’s “Marry, do I, sir,” as well as in Oliver’s “Now will I stir this gamester.” Touchstone’s “yet was not the knight forsworn” is another example of inverted subject and verb.
Such inversions rarely cause much confusion. More problematic is Shakespeare’s frequent placing of the object before the subject and verb (i.e., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). Orlando’s “My brother Jaques he keeps at school” is an example of such an inversion (the normal order would be “He keeps my brother Jaques at school”), as is his “the something that nature gave me his countenance seems to take from me.” Other examples are Celia’s “The like do you” (i.e., you do the same thing) and Rosalind’s “Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me,” where the normal order would be “Let me bear with me the knowledge of my fault.”
Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Take, for example, the First Lord’s lines describing the place where “a poor sequestered stag / That from the hunter’s aim had ta’en a hurt / Did come to languish”; here the clause “That from the hunter’s aim had ta’en a hurt” separates the subject (“stag”) from its verb (“Did come”). Or take his description of the deer itself: “And thus the hairy fool, / Much markèd of the melancholy Jaques, / Stood on th’ extremest verge of the swift brook,” where the normal construction “And thus the hairy fool stood on th’ extremest verge of the swift brook” is interrupted by parenthetical material. In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“stag did come to languish,” “fool stood on th’ extremest verge”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.
Locating and rearranging words that “belong together” is especially necessary in passages that separate basic sentence elements by long delaying or expanding interruptions. When Rosalind tells Duke Frederick that she is innocent of treachery (“I never did offend your Highness”), she uses a construction that delays the main sentence elements until subordinate material is presented:
If with myself I hold intelligence
Or have acquaintance with mine own desires,
If that I do not dream or be not frantic—
As I do trust I am not—then, dear uncle,
Never so much as in a thought unborn
Did I offend your Highness.
In these lines, note that the main sentence elements (“Never did I offend your Highness”) are themselves interrupted with additional material, as is the clause “If that I do not dream or be not frantic, then . . . ,” in which the “if-then” structure is significantly qualified by the interpolated “As I do trust I am not.” In some of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, for instance), long, interrupted sentences and sentences in which the basic elements are significantly delayed are used frequently, sometimes to catch the audience up in the narrative and sometimes as a characterizing device. They appear only occasionally in As You Like It, where sentences tend to be structurally straightforward.
Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In some plays (Twelfth Night, for example), omissions are rare and seem to be used to affect the tone of the speech or for the sake of speech rhythm. In others (especially plays written very late in his career), Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. As You Like It is a play with relatively few omissions, many of them like Rosalind’s “is there any else longs to see this broken music” (where “one” is omitted after “any” and “who” is omitted after “else”) and like Orlando’s “Thus must I from the smoke into the smother” (where “go” is omitted after “I”). Occasionally, however, one finds interesting omissions, such as in Celia’s “I was too young that time to value her” (where “at” is omitted before “that time,” the omission creating a regular iambic pentameter line and giving a secondary meaning to Celia’s memory of “that time”). Equally interesting is Charles the wrestler’s description of Celia’s love for Rosalind—“her cousin so loves her, being ever from their cradles bred together, that she would have followed her exile or have died to stay behind her.” Here the compression is rather severe. The full phrases would read, “have followed her [into] exile or have died [if she had been forced] to stay behind her.” What’s more, the compressed phrasing is also part of an interrupted structure that separates the elements of “so loves her that” with the memorable “being ever from their cradles bred together.”
Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings (or on a single word that has more than one meaning). In As You Like It, for example, when Amiens sings that the winter wind is not “so unkind as man’s ingratitude,” the word “unkind” means both (1) unnatural and (2) inconsiderate. Touchstone’s comment that “the truest poetry is the most feigning” plays with “feigning” as (1) imaginative and (2) deceitful, while Jaques’ comment that Touchstone is a “material fool” puns on “material” as (1) full of good sense and (2) earthy or coarse. When Corin asks Touchstone “how like you this shepherd’s life?” Touchstone replies “as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach,” playing on “stomach” as (1) inclination and (2) belly. When Rosalind describes the remarkably sudden love of Celia and Oliver, who, she says, “have . . . made a pair of stairs to marriage, which they will climb incontinent, or else be incontinent before marriage,” she plays with “incontinent” as (1) at once and (2) unchaste, sexually unrestrained. And Celia’s request “I pray you bear with me” elicits from Touchstone the response “I had rather bear with you than bear you. Yet I should bear no cross if I did bear you, for I think you have no money in your purse,” a response that plays not only with multiple meanings of “bear” but, more interestingly, puns on “cross” as the name of an Elizabethan coin stamped with a cross and on the familiar biblical verse “whosoever doth not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
Many of the puns in As You Like It occur in elaborate combinations. For example, in the following dialogue about a poem found hanging on a tree, Celia and Rosalind pun on “feet” (as divisions of a verse), “bear” (as “allow” and “carry”), “lame” (as “crippled” and “metrically defective”), and “without” (“in the absence of” and “outside of”):
CELIA Didst thou hear these verses?
ROSALIND O yes, I heard them all, and more too,
for some of them had in them more feet than
the verses would bear.
CELIA That’s no matter. The feet might bear the
ROSALIND Ay, but the feet were lame and could
not bear themselves without the verse, and
therefore stood lamely in the verse.
Another interweaving of puns supports Celia’s charge that “the oath of a lover is no stronger than the word of a tapster. They are both the confirmer of false reckonings.” The truth of Celia’s second sentence here depends on complicated puns on the words “confirmer” ( establisher, ratifier, and  encourager) and “reckonings” ( bills and  expectations). As a “confirmer of false reckonings,” the tapster, she claims, is an establisher or ratifier of inaccurate tavern bills; the lover is an encourager of false expectations.
To take one final example: Touchstone’s comment to Audrey, “I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths,” is an elaborate and learned joke that compares Touchstone in the forest to the Roman love poet Ovid exiled among the Getae, often confused in Shakespeare’s day with the Goths (pronounced, at that time, “gotes”). It has been suggested that there is not only a pun on goats/Goths, but also that “capricious” may here mean “lascivious, goat-like,” from wordplay on the Latin caper—i.e., goat. Because puns occur often and in complex combinations in As You Like It, the language in this play must be listened to carefully if one wishes to catch all its meanings.
A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. When Rosalind describes herself as “one out of suits with fortune,” she is using metaphorical language, speaking as if she were a servant no longer allowed to wear Fortune’s livery. Orlando, unable to speak to Rosalind, explains his sudden muteness with a metaphor, asking himself, “What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue?” The old servant Adam uses metaphor to convey his sense that Orlando’s very strengths have placed him in a dangerous situation: “Your virtues, gentle master, / Are sanctified and holy traitors to you.” In turn, Orlando uses a gardening metaphor to say that, if Adam shares his savings with him, the money will probably be wasted: “poor old man, thou prun’st a rotten tree / That cannot so much as a blossom yield / In lieu of [i.e., in exchange for] all thy pains and husbandry [i.e., thrift].”
Often in As You Like It metaphors are rather straightforward. Human life is “a wide and universal theater” presenting “woeful pageants.” Time is a horse that “travels in divers paces with divers persons.” The pains of love are “wounds invisible that love’s keen arrows make”; to be in love is to be a “prisoner” in a “cage of rushes,” or to be “fathom deep” in an ocean that “cannot be sounded” [i.e., whose depth cannot be measured] because it “hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal.”
Sometimes, however, the play’s metaphoric language is richly complex or highly allusive. Take, for example, Oliver’s “Begin you to grow upon me? I will physic your rankness.” This statement of Oliver’s malign intent upon Orlando draws simultaneously from the worlds of gardening and of sixteenth-century medicine, so that Orlando is, for Oliver, both an overgrown plant in need of cutting down and an illness that must be cured through bloodletting. In quite a different kind of complex metaphor, Silvius declares his adoration for Phoebe by translating his “poverty of grace” into physical poverty:
So holy and so perfect is my love,
And I in such a poverty of grace,
That I shall think it a most plenteous crop
To glean the broken ears after the man
That the main harvest reaps. Loose now and then
A scattered smile, and that I’ll live upon.
Silvius’s extended metaphor, in which he is a poor man living off scattered ears of grain left behind by the reapers, draws on two biblical passages, one in which the Israelites are told by the Lord that, when reaping the harvest, they are to leave some grain unharvested for the poor and the stranger, and one in which Ruth asks to “glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.” In this allusive metaphorical context, Phoebe’s smiles, loosed like broken ears of grain, become Silvius’s sustenance.
In most of Shakespeare’s plays, metaphors tend to be used when the idea being conveyed is hard to express, and the speaker is thus given language that helps to carry the idea or the feeling to his or her listener—and to the audience. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Romeo’s metaphors of Juliet-as-saint and Juliet-as-light employ images from the poetic tradition that seem designed to portray a lover struggling to express the overpowering feelings that come with being in love. In As You Like It, metaphors occasionally have this kind of power. More often, though, they are simply one of many ways that characters converse, one kind of language-thread in the intricate weave of words that creates this play.
Implied Stage Action
Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imagination. When, in As You Like It, Orlando says to Oliver, “Wert thou not my brother, I would not take this hand from thy throat till this other had pulled out thy tongue,” it is clear that Orlando has seized Oliver by the throat. Again, when, in the course of the wrestling bout, Duke Frederick says “No more, no more,” Orlando replies “Yes, I beseech your Grace. I am not yet well breathed,” and the conversation continues with the news that Charles “cannot speak” and the order to “Bear him away,” one knows that Charles has been thrown down.
At several places in As You Like It, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. When, for example, Adam offers his life savings to Orlando with the words “Here is the gold. All this I give you,” the dialogue does not indicate whether the actor playing Orlando should take the purse. Again, when Orlando and Adam are on their journey to the woods, it is clear that, in his exhaustion, Adam lies down. (He says “Here lie I down and measure out my grave.”) However, at the end of the scene, when Orlando says “Come, I will bear thee to some shelter” and the Folio text has them exit, the fact that the word “bear” has several meanings creates ambiguity about the stage action, allowing the director (and the reader, in imagination) either to have Orlando “pick up Adam” (as some editions say) and carry him off or to have Orlando simply support him as they walk off together. Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reads the play’s final scene, with Touchstone’s bravura performance of dueling punctilio, with the unexpected entrance of Hymen “bringing” Rosalind, the yet-more-unexpected entrance of the Second Brother, and the final dance. Here, as in so much of As You Like It, implied stage action vitally affects our response to the play.
It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.