This article discusses Shakespeare and Old English. Although Shakespeare’s plays are four hundred years old, the stories they tell are still as exciting and relevant as they were to Shakespeare’s audience. When you pick up of one of the texts though, you may groan, and complain that they are too hard and need translating from Old English into Modern English.

However, Shakespeare’s English is actually very similar to the English that we speak today, and in fact isn’t Old English at all! What makes Shakespeare’s language difficult isn’t the grammar or the vocabulary as much as the fact that it is written in verse, and therefore most of the words, phrases, sentences, and speeches have multiple meanings.

In the classification we have made of English language periods Shakespeare fits officially into the ‘modern’ category. His language is what is called Early Modern English. Old English is a completely different thing. Look at the following passage in Old English and try and read it:

‘Fæder ure þuþe eart on heofonum
si þin nama gehalgod tobecume þin rice gewurþe þin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele soþlice.’

Do you recognise it? If not, try this one:

‘Oure fadir þat art in heuenes halwid be þi name;
þi reume or kyngdom come to be. Be þi wille don in herþe as it is dounin heuene.
yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred.
And foryeue to us oure dettis þat is oure synnys as we foryeuen to oure dettouris þat is to men þat han synned in us.
And lede us not into temptacion but delyuere us from euyl.’

Easier, and perhaps you recognise it now, but only just? Look at the next one:

‘Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debters.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’

In these three samples of text you have just seen the evolution of the English language. The first is Old English, of which the most famous literary work written in that form is epic poem Beowulf. The Old English extract above though is taken from the Bible and is part of the Lord’s Prayer.

The second passage is from the Wyclif Bible of 1348, two hundred years before Shakespeare’s time, and it is written in what is called Middle English. The most enduring and famous writer of that time is Chaucer.

The third text extract is from the King James Authorised Bible and it came out in the same year as The Tempest, in 1611. You will likley have no difficulty reading this extract because it is written in Modern English, and will probably find it far easier to read than a Shakespeare text, although the language is the language all English people spoke in Shakespeare’s time.

That is because the text is not expressed in the concentrated form that poets used. It was conventional to write plays (and of course sonnets and poems too) in verse during Shakespeare’s time, so you would have the same difficulty reading Ben Johnson or any other of Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights.

Shakespeare at his desk by night, writing with a quill by candle light

Shakespeare writes at his desk… in old English?

Now you understand more about Shakespeare’s writing in Modern English. find out more about the man himself by browsing our top articles on the man – Shakespeare’s biography, Shakespeare quotes and Shakespeare facts, or finding out more about his plays and characters, such as the timeless Lady Macbeth, Queen Mab or Prospero.

11 replies
  1. Jökullsmum
    Jökullsmum says:

    Cant believe how many words are similar to icelandic in the old english text (because old english and old norse are close in many ways and icelandic has hardly changed). Its strange to believe that this language im trying so hard to learn now is so similar to what they used to speak in my own country. Thanks for the post. very informative.

    • Crossleydd42
      Crossleydd42 says:

      Could the similarity be, in part, to the Viking raids which bedevilled England from 703 to around 1066? Many settled in England and would have influenced the indigenous language.

  2. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    This was really helpful because I’ve been wanting to know more about Shakespeare since I am reading “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in my PreAP Language Art class (and I can actually understand what it says), and I’ve been trying to speak in the same way. :)

  3. Nicole Roth
    Nicole Roth says:

    I am always fascinated how languages relate to one another and how they have developed into something completely different over time and still are doing to this day. Being a native German speaker I have little problem reading either the Old English as well as the Middle English texts because they’re still so close to early forms of German. And though I have to read either language carefully it is still intelligible enough to tackle it without much difficulty, except perhaps for the odd word. On top of that, as some commentators pointed out, that it’s also close to Icelandic again shows, how closely connected all these languages are and I agree it’s not a stretch to conclude that it’s all down to people migrating, conquering or simply adapting to the changes taking place hundreds of years ago. What a fascinating legacy to such a turbulent time in history.


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