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 Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, 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” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not, and, worse, some of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth century. 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 reading on one’s own, one 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 Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, you will find the words home-keeping (i.e., stay-at-home), sluggardized (i.e., made lazy), haply (i.e., by chance), parle (i.e., conversation), and angerly (i.e., angrily). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.
In all of Shakespeare’s writing, the more problematic words are those that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes of Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, the word circumstance has the meaning of “circumlocution,” the word blasting is used where we would say “blighted,” watchful where we would say “wakeful,” overcharged where we would say “overcrowded,” and perceive where we would say “obtain.” 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 specific dramatic world. Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, builds, in its opening scenes, a Petrarchan poetic world—a world, that is, in which the male lover presents himself as a worshiper of an almost divine mistress, linked to other desperate and famous lovers, speaking a special language of love. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, this world is constructed through references to “Love” (i.e., Cupid, the Roman god of love), to Leander and the Hellespont, and to a “love-book”; to the lover who is “blasting in the bud,” a “votary to fond desire”; and to a “fair resort of gentlemen” who “with parle” encounter sweet ladies. The play sets this world against one in which young men set out to seek for honor—constructed through references to the “road” (i.e., the harbor), to “hap” (i.e., fortune), to “grievance” (i.e., suffering, pain), to “wrack” (i.e., shipwreck), and to “tilts and tournaments.”
Two Gentlemen of Verona differs from most of Shakespeare’s plays in containing little language that builds a world with a recognizable space and time; indeed, some of the language (e.g., such words as “road” [meaning “harbor”], “shipped,” and “wrack”) cannot be associated with the real-world “Verona,” which is inland. A comparable confusion surrounds the “court” to which Valentine (and then Proteus) travel, which is governed sometimes by an Emperor, sometimes by a Duke—and which is usually said to be in Milan, but is set once in Padua and once in Verona itself. The result is a placeless space in which young men are encouraged by their fathers and their own ambitions to seek honor but find themselves instead enmeshed in and driven by erotic desire.
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. Again, 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, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.
Often Shakespeare places the verb before the subject (i.e., instead of “he goes,” we find “goes he,” or instead of “he does go” we find “does he go”). In Two Gentlemen of Verona, we find such a construction when Proteus says “Thus have I shunned the fire” (instead of “I have shunned”); he uses a similar construction when he later says “with the vantage of mine own excuse / Hath he excepted most against my love.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object or the predicate adjective before the subject and verb (i.e., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “him I hit,” and instead of “It is blue,” we might find “Blue it is”). Antonio’s “Like exhibition thou shalt have from me” is an example of such an inversion (with the object, “Like exhibition,” preceding the subject and verb), as is Lucetta’s “melodious were it, would you sing it” (where, instead of “it were [i.e., would be] melodious,” the predicate adjective precedes the verb, which in turn precedes the subject). In this very early play, inversions serve primarily to shape and control the rhythm of the line, though occasionally (as in Antonio’s “Like exhibition thou shalt have from me”) the inversion also shifts the emphasis to the object.
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, Lucetta’s “ ’tis a passing shame / That I, unworthy body as I am, / Should censure thus on lovely gentlemen.” Here the noun phrase “unworthy body as I am” separates the subject “I” from its verb “Should censure.” Or take Valentine’s “I will write, / Please you command, a thousand times as much,” where the clause “Please you command” separates the verb “will write” from its object, “a thousand times as much.” 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 (“that I should censure,” “I will write a thousand times as much”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.
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 his later plays, Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In Two Gentlemen of Verona omissions seem to be used primarily for the sake of the rhythm of the line. For example, in Julia’s “What fool is she that knows I am a maid,” the omission of the word “a” before “fool” allows a regular iambic pentameter line to be created.
Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only three kinds of wordplay: puns, metaphors, and similes. 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). Much of the dialogue in Two Gentlemen of Verona is based on puns and related kinds of wordplay. In the opening conversation between Proteus and Valentine, for example, a reference to the Hellespont (a strait that links the Sea of Marmora and the Aegean Sea) leads to Valentine’s charge that Proteus, though he “never swam the Hellespont,” is “over boots in love” (1.1.25–26). Here, “over boots in” means both “up to the ankles in” and “recklessly committed to pursuing.” Proteus responds with a proverbial saying, “give me not the boots,” which means, in effect, “don’t make a fool of me,” and which may contain an additional pun on “the boots,” a Scottish instrument of torture used to extort confessions from prisoners. Valentine in turn adds a final pun on “boots,” saying “it boots thee not” (“boots” here being a verb meaning “profits”).
To give only one other example from hundreds available in this play: In 2.1, Speed lists the symptoms that reveal Valentine’s lovelorn state. When Valentine asks “Are all these things perceived in me?” Speed answers “They are all perceived without you,” introducing a set of multiple puns on the word “without” (lines 34–41). Speed’s “without you” probably means “in your appearance and behavior” (or, more literally, “on your exterior”). However, the phrase “without you” usually meant (and still usually means) “in your absence,” and this is the meaning that the phrase seems to have in Valentine’s puzzled reply to Speed: “Without me? They cannot,” i.e., “This appearance and behavior cannot be perceived in me in my absence.” Having baffled Valentine with the pun on without, Speed then puns again and again on the same word: “Without you? Nay, that’s certain, for without you were so simple [i.e., if you were not so simple], none else would [i.e., would perceive them]. But you are so without [i.e., so much on the outside of] these follies, that these follies are within you. . . .” Such intricate punning is so characteristic of the language of this play that one must listen (or read) with care if one hopes to follow the dialogue’s twists and turns.
Metaphors and similes are plays on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. Proteus, for example, uses a metaphor to describe his situation near the end of 1.3. He has entered the scene reading a letter from his beloved Julia and unexpectedly has encountered his father. Seeking to conceal his relationship with Julia from his father, he has said that the letter was from Valentine, who wished that Proteus were with him at the Emperor’s court. Proteus’ father, accepting his son’s misrepresentations of the letter, has ordered Proteus to leave Verona to join Valentine. Alone onstage after this unwelcome dialogue with his father, Proteus presents his plight in a metaphor: “Thus have I shunned the fire for fear of burning / And drenched me in the sea, where I am drowned” (79–80)—“the fire” being the feared discovery of his love for Julia and “the sea” the parental order for him to leave Verona.
Julia, preparing to journey to Milan to find Proteus, uses a series of metaphors to embody her emotional states (2.7.15–38). Urged to wait for Proteus’ return, she makes literal the emotional hunger she feels by asking “O, know’st thou not his looks are my soul’s food? / Pity the dearth that I have pinèd in / By longing for that food so long a time.” The metaphor of “love is a hunger that must be fed” then shifts to “love is a fire that can’t be quenched,” and then to “love is a stream that must not be dammed,” and finally to “the lover who finds the beloved is a blessed soul resting in Elysium.”
Frequently in Two Gentlemen of Verona the metaphoric wordplay takes the form of similes, with “as” or “like” used to connect the terms of the comparison. When Julia is left alone onstage in 1.2, for example, she uses a simile to share with the audience her confusion about her mixed responses to Proteus’ letter, comparing her lovelorn self to a fretful infant: “Fie, fie, how wayward is this foolish love / That like a testy babe will scratch the nurse / And presently, all humbled, kiss the rod!” (lines 60–62). In 2.4 Proteus abandons Julia for Sylvia with a series of similes that form an analogy: “Even as one heat another heat expels, / Or as one nail by strength drives out another, / So the remembrance of my former love / Is by a newer object quite forgotten” (lines 202–5). A few lines later in the speech, he again turns to simile to describe to himself his new emotional state: “now my love is thawed, / Which like a waxen image ’gainst a fire / Bears no impression of the thing it was” (lines 210–12).
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 imaginations. When, in Two Gentlemen of Verona 1.2.34–36, Lucetta says to Julia “Peruse this paper, madam,” and Julia in turn says “ ‘To Julia.’—Say from whom,” it is obvious that Lucetta has handed a paper to Julia. Again, in 2.2.5–6, when Julia says “Keep this remembrance for thy Julia’s sake,” and Proteus replies “Why, then we’ll make exchange. Here, take you this,” it is equally clear that the two exchange love tokens.
Occasionally in Two Gentlemen of Verona, signals to the reader are not so obvious. For example, in 4.2 the Folio text does not make clear who sings the song to Sylvia or precisely how the complicated action is to be rendered. One scholar has proposed that the music be sung offstage while the Host and Julia talk alone onstage, and that Sylvia then enter through a central door instead of entering “above” at her window, as the scene is normally staged. As editors we have chosen to suggest that Proteus sing the song, that the musicians remain onstage during their performance, and that Sylvia enter “above”; but readers, directors, and actors may want to stage the scene differently, either in their own imaginations or onstage. Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one encounters a scene like that of Julia’s dialogue with the pieces of Proteus’ torn-up love letter (1.2) or that of Lance’s enactment of his family’s farewell scene, in which the family roles are represented by Lance’s two shoes, his staff, and his dog Crab (2.3).
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.