Was the language used in Shakespeare's plays commonly used among people at that time in normal speech? I know that iambic pentameter was commonly used in formal, pre-prepared speeches at the time, but was the vocabulary and structure of normal speech similar to that shown in Shakespeare's plays? I ask this because I do not understand sentences in his plays from time to time, even when they were meant to be comedic. However, someone told me that the jokes he told were very popular and well-understood at the time. Does this mean that they were more educated than us in the English language?

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    The early modern English language was less than 100 years old in 1590 when Shakespeare was writing. No dictionaries had yet been written and most documents were still written in Latin. He contributed over 3,000 words to the English language because he was the first author to write them down. Of this number more than one tenth or 1,700 were used for the first time. rsc.org.uk/shakespeare/language - The language of Shakespeare - davidcrystal.com/?fileid=-4864
    – user66974
    Apr 29, 2017 at 12:29
  • @Josh: English has been constantly changing since the 13th century, and the division between Middle English and Modern English in 1500 is entirely arbitrary. It's not like everybody suddenly started speaking a new language. Apr 29, 2017 at 13:09
  • @PeterShor - Did I say that the change was an overnight thing? Anyway, however arbitrary it may be, the divisions into Old, Middle and Modern is an established fact conventionally accepted by the majority of sources.
    – user66974
    Apr 29, 2017 at 13:12
  • You didn't, but this idea that "early modern English was less than 100 years old" seems to imply that the language was changing faster then. Apr 29, 2017 at 13:15
  • The fact that people in Shakespeare's time found it easier to understand his vocabulary doesn't necessarily mean that they were more educated in the English language. It's like the joke about how impressive it is(n't) that "even the little children in France speak French!" Some words that Shakespeare used are obsolete now, but were in common use in his time. (And on the other hand, there are many modern words that would pose difficulties for time travelers from Shakespeare's era.)
    – herisson
    Apr 30, 2017 at 2:31

2 Answers 2


The reason you can't understand some of his jokes is that words are pronounced differently today, so the puns are a lot harder to hear.

Another reason you can't understand some of his jokes is that slang is different today, so some words that had slang meanings don't anymore.

And still another reason is that some of his jokes were very subtle – some actually only make sense if you know French – so that most people in the audience didn't understand them, and Shakespeare probably didn't intend them to.

  • I speak French but I still don't understand them :-(. Anyway, thanks for the answer!
    – Eric
    Apr 29, 2017 at 13:23

Yes it was they way people all spoke - vocabulary not withstanding. English has changed a lot since the the of Chaucer. Who also wrote in the style of English language at his time. The Bible translation times people also talked like that with all the Thees and Thous etc.

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