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 Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Julius Caesar, for example, the words fain (i.e., gladly), marry (an old oath “by the Virgin Mary,” which by Shakespeare’s time had become a mere interjection, like “indeed”), and doublet (a close-fitting jacket worn by Elizabethan men) all appear in Casca’s speeches beginning in Act 1, scene 2, line 231 (1.2.231). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.
In Julius Caesar, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but now have different meanings. In the third line of Julius Caesar, for example, the workingmen are called “mechanical”; what is meant is that they are “working men.” At 1.2.328, Cassius says that he will throw writings “in several hands” in Brutus’s window; we would say “in different handwritings.” At 1.2.171, Brutus says “I am nothing jealous” where we might say “I have no doubt.” 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 they are used by Shakespeare to build a dramatic world that has its own geography and history and story. Julius Caesar, for example, builds, in its opening scenes, a location and a past history by frequent references to the Tiber River, to Pompey and to “Pompey’s blood” (i.e., Pompey’s sons), to the feast of Lupercal, to the Capitol, to “trophies” on the “images,” to “soothsayers,” to “the ides of March,” to Brutus’s ancestor (Brutus the Liberator), to the Colossus at Rhodes, and to Aeneas and Anchises. These “local” references build the Rome that Brutus, Cassius, and Caesar inhabit and that will become increasingly familiar to you as you get further into the play.
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 patterns 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. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, we check to see if the 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 (e.g., instead of “He goes,” we find “Goes he”). In the opening scenes of Julius Caesar, when Flavius says (1.1.68–69), “Go you down” and “This way will I,” he is using such a construction. Caesar does so as well when, at 1.2.220, he says, “therefore are they very dangerous.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him” we might find “Him I hit”). Brutus’s statement to Cassius at 1.2.173–74, “How I have thought of this, and of these times, / I shall recount hereafter,” is an example of such an inversion. (The normal order would be “I shall recount . . . how I have thought.”) Such constructions are most difficult for us in sentences like that of Cassius at 1.3.95 (“Therein, you gods, you tyrants do defeat”), where “you tyrants” might first be read as the subject of “do defeat”; instead, “you” is the subject and “tyrants” the object. In other words, the normal order here is “you do defeat tyrants.”
Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often his sentences separate words that would normally appear together. (This is usually done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Caesar’s “leave no ceremony out” (1.2.14) interrupts the normal phrase “leave out”; Cassius’s “as Aeneas, our great ancestor, / Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder / The old Anchises bear” (1.2.119–21) separates the two parts of the verb “did bear” with three phrases (“from the flames,” “of Troy,” “upon his shoulder”) and with the verb’s object, “The old Anchises.” Brutus’s “I would not (so with love I might entreat you) / Be any further moved” (1.2.175–76) interrupts the construction “I would not be” by a parenthetical statement that is itself an interrupted construction. 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 (“leave out no ceremony,” “did bear the old Anchises,” “I would not be any further moved”) and placing the remaining words in their familiar order. The result will usually be an increase in clarity but a loss of rhythm or a shift in emphasis.
Locating and rearranging words that grammatically belong together is especially necessary in passages that separate subjects from verbs and verbs from objects by long delaying or expanding interruptions. When Cassius, at 1.2.327–31, reveals his plan to trick Brutus into thinking the populace is urging Brutus to rise against Caesar, he uses such an interrupted construction, as if to disguise from himself or from us the simple sense of what he is saying. To understand him, one needs to figure out that the basic elements of the sentence are “I will throw writings in at his windows.” Cassius’s version reads, “I will this night / In several hands [i.e., handwritings] in at his windows throw, / As if they came from several citizens, / Writings, all tending to the great opinion / That Rome holds of his name. . . .” A less complicated example of this same interrupted construction is used by Cassius again at 1.3.126–29: “Now know you, Casca, I have moved already / Some certain of the noblest-minded Romans / To undergo with me an enterprise / Of honorable-dangerous consequence,” where the basic sentence-elements are simply “I have moved certain Romans to undergo an enterprise.”
Shakespeare’s sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because he 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.”) In plays written ten years or so after Julius Caesar, Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In Julius Caesar omissions are few and seem to be the effect of compressed expression. At 1.1.30, for instance, Flavius asks, “But wherefore [i.e., why] art not in thy shop today?” omitting the subject, “thou,” and creating a rhythmically regular line. At 1.1.74, he omits the verb “go” and says simply, “I’ll about.” At 1.2.82, Cassius drops the second syllable of “afterward” in saying, “And after scandal [i.e., slander] them.” At 1.2.117, he omits the preposition “at” in saying “But ere we could arrive [at] the point proposed,” and at 1.2.191 he omits the preposition “of” in the phrase “worthy [of] note.” At 1.2.324 he asks “who so firm” rather than “who is so firm,” and at 1.3.130 he omits a noun in the line “I do know, by this [time? hour?] they stay for me.”
Finally, one finds in all of Shakespeare’s plays constructions that do not fit any particular category, each of which must be untangled on its own. In Julius Caesar Flavius says, at 1.1.66, “See whe’er [whether] their basest mettle be not moved,” where the context makes clear that he means “Look, the lowest one of them is emotionally touched.” (This construction—“whether” followed by a negative verb—occurs also in Hamlet, where again it yields a positive statement.) At 1.2.11, the phrase “sterile curse” means “curse of sterility.” (In The Merchant of Venice [1.1.85], one finds a comparable construction in “old wrinkles,” meaning “the wrinkles of old age.”) Such constructions must simply be handled as individual puzzles to be solved.
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 have different meanings (or on a single word that has more than one meaning). When, in the opening scene of Julius Caesar, one of the “mechanicals” answers Marullus’s question about his trade by saying that he is “a cobbler,” he leads Marullus and Flavius to think that he is using the word to mean “a bungler.” Only several lines of dialogue later do they realize that he is, in fact, a shoemaker (the other meaning of that word). Within that dialogue, the cobbler also puns on “withal” (which means “nevertheless,” but which sounds also like “with awl”). If one is not aware that a character is punning, the dialogue can seem simply silly or unintelligible. One must stay alert, then, to the sounds of words and to the possibility of double 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 the metaphor suggests it shares common features. For instance, when Brutus says, at 4.3.249, “There is a tide in the affairs of men,” and goes on to talk about the voyage of a man’s life, he is using metaphoric language. As a good sailor embarks when the tide is high, so a clever man senses when his prospects are favorable and takes advantage of the “full sea.” When Cassius, at 1.2.40–41, says to Brutus, “You bear too stubborn and too strange a hand / Over your friend that loves you,” Cassius is using metaphoric language, likening Brutus to a horseback rider who handles the reins of the horse harshly. And at 2.1.69–72, when Brutus wants to describe the turmoil within himself as he contemplates the possibility of killing Caesar, he uses metaphoric language in which his being is likened to a state suffering an insurrection. Metaphors are often 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.
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 signaled within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. When, at 1.2.24 in Julius Caesar, Caesar says, “Set him before me. Let me see his face,” and Cassius says, “Fellow, come from the throng. Look upon Caesar” (1.2.25–26), it can be assumed that the Soothsayer moves through the crowd of actors to stand before Caesar, so that Caesar can then say, “What sayst thou to me now?” (When stage actions are so clearly demanded by the dialogue, this edition will normally add a stage direction.) Again, at 1.2.225, when Casca says, “You pulled me by the cloak,” it is clear what has happened—though the director (and we, in our imaginations) can choose whether Brutus or Cassius performed the action. Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches a crucial scene like that of the assassination (3.1), where the carefully choreographed kneelings and stabbings are indicated almost completely in the dialogue (though this edition adds some stage directions), and where one must simultaneously understand metaphoric language and the gesture it implies (so that one understands that the line “Metellus Cimber throws before thy seat / An humble heart” [3.1.37–38] indicates that the actor here kneels at Caesar’s feet, and that Casca’s “Speak, hands, for me!” [3.1.84] indicates that Casca here stabs Caesar).
It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage actions—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 a Shakespeare play in our imaginations, 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.