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 The Merchant of Venice, for example, we find the words sooth (i.e., truth), piring (i.e., peering), an (i.e., if), and doit (i.e., jot). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.
In The Merchant of Venice, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of The Merchant of Venice, for example, we find the word still where we would use “always,” the word straight where we would say “at once” or “immediately,” the word disabled where we would use “depleted” or “reduced,” and the word ripe where we would say “urgent.” 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 a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. The Merchant of Venice is an interesting example of the way Shakespeare uses words to build dramatic worlds, for in this play he quickly builds two such worlds—the mercantile world of Venice and the romantic world of Portia’s estate of Belmont. In the first and third scenes of the play, he builds—through references to “argosies,” to “signiors,” to “ventures,” to “shallows,” to “ducats,” to “the Rialto,” and to “usances”—a Venetian location inhabited by moneylenders and merchants who venture their fortunes at sea; in the same scenes, he builds a background mythology that underlies Bassanio’s quest, referring to “Jason,” to the “Golden Fleece,” and to “Colchos’ strond.” In the second and fourth scenes, where he shifts us to Belmont and to the test that Portia’s suitors must undergo, he includes, within the discussions of Portia’s father’s will and the “lott’ry of [Portia’s] destiny,” references to “caskets” (i.e., small ornamental chests for holding jewels and other valuables), to “the Sophy” and to “Sultan Solyman,” and he builds another background mythology through references to “Sibylla” and “Diana,” to “Phoebus,” and to “Alcides.” These “local” references create the worlds that Antonio, Bassanio, and Shylock inhabit in Venice and that Portia and Nerissa inhabit at Belmont, worlds (and references) 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 in order to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes in order 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 words are being presented in an unusual sequence.
Often, Shakespeare expresses the negative in what may strike us as odd ways (e.g., instead of “He does not go,” we find “He goes not”). In the opening line of The Merchant of Venice, when Antonio says “I know not why I am so sad,” he is using such a construction; Salarino does so as well when, at 1.1.40, he says “But tell not me,” as does Antonio again at 1.1.46, “Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object or the predicate adjective before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit,” or instead of “It is white,” we might find “White it is”) or between the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I saw him,” we find “I him saw,” or instead of “The dog is black,” we find “The dog black is”). Though frequent in many of Shakespeare’s plays, such inversions are rare in The Merchant of Venice. One does find, at 1.1.191, Antonio saying “I no question make”; at 2.4.14–15, Lorenzo saying “whiter than the paper it writ on / Is the fair hand that writ” (where the normal arrangement would be “the fair hand is whiter . . .”); and, at 2.7.64–65, Morocco saying “But here an angel in a golden bed / Lies all within” (where one would normally say “an angel lies here . . .”). The language of this play, though, is unusual in its avoidance of this kind of inversion.
Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often his sentences separate words that would normally appear together. (This is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) In Antonio’s lines at 1.1.143–44, “And if it stand, as you yourself still do, / Within the eye of honor,” the clause “as you yourself still do” interrupts the normal construction “stand within”; in Shylock’s lines at 1.3.48–50, “he rails, / Even there where merchants most do congregate, / On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,” the line “Even there where merchants most do congregate” interrupts the construction “rails on me.” Bassanio, at 1.1.153–54, says “I owe you much, and, like a willful youth, / That which I owe is lost,” and at 1.1.169–70 he says “she is fair, and, fairer than that word, / Of wondrous virtues.” In both these sentences, he separates “and” from the words that would normally follow. In order to create sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, one can rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“stand within the eye of honor,” “rails on me,” “and that which I owe is lost”), placing the remaining words in their more 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. We find such a passage at 1.1.9–12, when Salarino says,
There where your argosies with portly sail
(Like signiors and rich burghers on the flood,
Or, as it were, the pageants of the sea)
Do overpeer the petty traffickers. . . .
Here, the subject “argosies” is widely separated from the verb “do overpeer.” In plays written some years later than The Merchant of Venice (in Hamlet, for example), long interrupted constructions are used frequently and for complicated dramatic purposes. They are relatively rare in The Merchant of Venice.
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.”) When Gratiano says, at 1.1.114–16, “Well, keep me company but two years more, / Thou shalt not know the sound of thine own tongue,” he omits the words “if you” before “keep.” Bassanio, at line 1.1.168, omits the word “there” and the words “who has been” in saying “In Belmont [there] is a lady [who has been] richly left.” As with interrupted constructions, in plays written some years after The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In The Merchant of Venice omissions are few and seem to be used primarily to create regular iambic pentameter lines.
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 The Merchant of Venice 1.1.85, for example, one finds “old wrinkles,” meaning “the wrinkles of old age.” (One finds a comparable construction in Julius Caesar 1.2.11, where “sterile curse” means “curse of sterility.”) Again, in The Merchant of Venice one finds “melancholy bait” (1.1.107), which is to be understood to mean “the bait of melancholy.” 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 four of the ways he plays with language—puns, malapropisms, metaphors, and similes. 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). When, in the third scene of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock says “suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe” (line 120), he seems to be playing on two meanings of sufferance (“forbearance” and “suffering”); his line “And all for use of that which is mine own” (line 123) contains a pun on the word use, which means both “lending with interest” and “putting to use.” The pun that is heard most often in this play is that on gentle/gentile. It is not always clear when we are to hear “gentle” as “gentile,” but in several cases—e.g., “gentle Jew” (1.3.190), “If e’er the Jew her father come to heaven, / It will be for his gentle daughter’s sake” (2.4.37–38), “Now, by my hood, a gentle and no Jew!” (2.6.53), and “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew” (4.1.35)—it seems likely that the pun is intended.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays, puns are used frequently, either for comic effect (as in Taming of the Shrew) or for a wide variety of effects (as in Romeo and Juliet). In The Merchant of Venice, as the above examples show, they are used rather seriously. In the play’s more comic scenes, one finds, instead of puns, words that are today called “malapropisms”—i.e., words grotesquely misused. Lancelet Gobbo and his father, Old Gobbo, are both given to such verbal blunders. In 2.2, for example, Lancelet uses incarnation for “incarnate” and impertinent for “pertinent”; Old Gobbo uses infection for “affection” and defect for “effect.” In 2.5, Lancelet uses reproach for “approach,” and, in 3.5, agitation for “cogitation.”
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. For instance, when Bassanio says to Antonio “if you please / To shoot another arrow that self way / Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt, / As I will watch the aim, or to find both / Or bring your latter hazard back again” (1.1.154–58), he uses metaphoric language in which Antonio’s loan of money to Bassanio is represented as an arrow: Antonio is encouraged to shoot a second arrow in the same direction as he shot the first and thus recover both of them (i.e., get back both the loan for which Bassanio is now asking and the first loan, now lost).
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. In many of Shakespeare’s plays, metaphors play a central role in expressing characters’ feeling. In The Merchant of Venice, we more often find similes—comparisons between two entities that are expressed by saying that one is like or as the other. When Bassanio describes Portia to Antonio, for instance, he says that “her sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, / Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strond, / And many Jasons come in quest of her” (1.1.176–79), thus equating her hair to the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts, her estate of Belmont to the land where the Fleece was to be found, and her suitors to Jason. And when Portia explains “the quality of mercy,” she uses a simile to convey the way that this quality operates: “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath” (4.1.191–92).
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, in 2.6 of The Merchant of Venice, Jessica says “Here, catch this casket; it is worth the pains,” it can be assumed that she throws a chest (supposedly filled with jewels and money) from her window. When, in the trial scene, Bassanio says “Why dost thou whet thy knife so earnestly?” (4.1.123), it is clear, from Gratiano’s later line, “Not on thy sole but on thy soul, harsh Jew” (line 125), that Shylock sharpens his knife on the sole of his shoe. However, many moments are much less clear. When, for instance, Shylock describes Antonio’s entrance in 1.3 with the words “How like a fawning publican he looks!” (line 41), it is unclear what Antonio does that leads Shylock to say this. Nor is it clear how the scene between Lancelet and his nearly blind father should be played. We know that Lancelet kneels (his father tells him to stand up); then his father says: “Lord worshiped might He be, what a beard hast thou got! Thou hast got more hair on thy chin than Dobbin my fill-horse has on his tail.” To which Lancelet responds, “It should seem, then, that Dobbin’s tail grows backward. I am sure he had more hair of his tail than I have of my face when I last saw him” (2.2.92–98). Stage tradition has Lancelet, when he kneels, turn his back to his father, so that the father mistakes his son’s long hair for a beard—but this is a moment when the director (and we, as readers, in our imaginations) can decide just how the joke might be staged.
It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—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 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.