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The New Meaning of Shakespeares

Plays
Rachel Fullmer

Everyone knows about William Shake-


speare and the plays he has written. Most of these
plays are taught in schools and are even performed
by various acting companies. However, there seems
to be something missing within the plays that we
just cant pick out. Its the actual theme of the plays
themselves. Each play was written to convey a mes-
sage to the general public. The themes of the plays
depend on the structure and the wording of the
play. It also depends on how the characters are por-
trayed. Since Shakespeares plays were written
hundreds of years ago, no one really knows how the
characters are supposed to be portrayed. All we
really have is the dialogue between the characters.
No one even has the original drafts he wrote (Cain).
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Besides that, the language of the time was not our


current Modern English. Back then, the common
language of the time was Early Modern English
which was spoken from the mid 15th to the late
17th centuries. The accent differed dramatically
from the current British accent. The accent of the
Early Modern English Language was a mix be-
tween a Scottish, and an American accent. The
people talked faster than we do today, and there
were some word puns added into Shakespeares
plays that could never have reached our ears had
we never bothered to look into how people talked
in Shakespeares day. Due to those word puns, it is
most likely that no one truly knows the themes of
Shakespeares plays. The question is, how does the
language of the time affect the themes of the
plays?
The Early Modern English Language was
the basis for many other texts besides Shake-
speares plays. One of these pieces is The Faerie
Queene, which is a collection of many stories com-
piled into one book. They tell tales of King Ar-
thurs day, and many other events that followed
during that time. The language within the stories is
similar to that of Shakespeares and tells a very
good story. Like the plays, no one really knows
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how the characters were originally supposed to be


like. That is one of the many courses of being a
writer. No one truly knows the real intent of the
story unless the author is there to clarify some
questions that people may have about the stories.
For starters, what is Early Modern English?
Early Modern English is the language right before
our current Modern English. There were a few
word differences and pronunciations back then that
we no longer have today. There were also a num-
ber of words back then that are no longer used to-
day (e.g. sirrah). Early Modern English was spo-
ken from the 15th to 17th centuries. Back then, it
was current English. This was the common lan-
guage of the time. How it changed to Modern Eng-
lish was through the various rulers of England at
the time. Each one spoke differently. For example,
in the early 15th century, King James I was put
into power. He was originally king of Scotland
(and still is at this point, he ruled two kingdoms).
Since he was from Scotland, he talked differently
than everyone else. This probably caused everyone
else to adopt the accent and slowly evolve into us-
ing different words. That, and Shakespeare himself
also invented quite a number of words. In fact,
most of our Modern English today consists of a
number of words that Shakespeare invented.
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Many people have researched the Early


Modern English Language, including Edmund
Weiner, one of the editors of the Oxford website.
In his article, he goes over the various wordings
and vowel sounds found within the language.
There are some words that we might recognize go-
ing through the article (e.g. thou, doth, soft, etc).
The article also lists some differences between our
modern day words and the words of the Early
Modern English Language. For example, in Mid-
dle English there was a split construction in the
group genitive (Weiner). This construction was
still found in Early Modern English but was re-
placed by the familiar constructions seen in the
wife of the king of England, or the king of Eng-
lands wife. (Weiner). Weve seen these forms
before in texts such as the King James Bible, and
Shakespeares plays. When the words of the texts
are said out loud by themselves, it is likely that we
dont understand them. Due to more study and a
deeper context for each of the words, we can get
an idea of what the text is trying to say. With the
accent of the language, it is much easier to under-
stand and grasp a better meaning for the texts. For
example, the to be or not to be soliloquy in
Hamlet sounds different. This is what the first 5
lines look like:
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THE NEW MEANING

To be or not to be--that is the question:


Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of an outrageous for-
tune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, to end them. To die, to
sleep-- (Act III. scn 1. Ln
64-68)

Here is what those lines should sound like:

To (bay) er not to (bay)--tht is the ques-


tion:
Whether tis nobler in the m(oi)nd to suffer
The slings and arrows of an outrageous for-
tun,
Or to take arms against a (say) of troubles
And, by opposin, end them. To diee, to slep
-- (Crystal)

Notice how similar the words are. It is all


the same five lines, but with a different pronuncia-
tion. It almost gives the listener a sense of peace
when listening to these words as Lord Hamlet
talks about death. There arent many differences
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between Modern English and Early Modern Eng-


lish, but the words sure did sound different.
The Early Modern English Language also
contained words that we dont use nowadays. Such
as the word sirrah (Markus). Many researchers
have always thought the word to refer to an inferi-
or. However, by close study and working with the
texts, researchers have confirmed that it could real-
ly be a mix between the word sir and the inter-
jection ah or ha. This implies that not all the
words that we see in Shakespeares plays or other
Early Modern English texts mean what we think
they mean. Also, because the language was much
more different than the language of our day, many
of the words sounded similar to words with differ-
ent meaning (e.g. ripe sounds more like rape).
This specific word pun is seen in the play A s Y ou
Like It. The original text looks like this:

And so from hour to hour we ripe and


ripe (Act II. scn vii. Ln 26)

This is what it sounds like in Early Modern


English:
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THE NEW MEANING

And so frum or to or we rape and


rape (Crystal)

These word puns and they are frequently


found within Shakespeares plays (Lodewyck).
With the knowledge of the word puns, the plays
have a different meaning thrust upon them. The
word hour was pronounced or. This makes a
lot of sense considering a good amount of Shake-
speares poems also sounded different with these
words. For example, look at this segment from
Shakespeares sonnet number 116:

Original Text:

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips


and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and
weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
(sonnet 116. Ln 9-14)
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Early Modern English:

Luvs not Toimes fole, tho rosy lips and


chakes
Within his bendin sickles compass cm;
Luv alters not with his brif ors and wakes,
But bears it oat evan toe the edge of dome.
If this bay err and upone may pruvd,
Oi never writ, nor noe man ever luvd.

The words had a different sound. Most of


the time, these words wouldnt change the theme
of the plays. However, look at this word pun from
Hamlet: And wants not buzzers to infect his ear/
With pestilent speeches of his fathers
death (act IV. sc 5. Ln 97-98). In this scene,
Claudius is telling his servants that they need not
send a message to Laertes of his fathers death.
Besides that, his sister is going insane. In this par-
ticular section it seems like Claudius is making a
point. However, in the original pronunciation, the
word ear almost sounds like the word heir.
Claudius could be making a statement about Laer-
tes inheriting the estate, or hes referring to Hamlet
who knows he killed Polonius and is after Claudius
himself. Claudius could easily be referring to the
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fact that he knows Hamlet wants to kill him to


avenge his father, but is doing so in such a subtle
way that the audience manages to pick it out, but
the characters do not. Turning to the fact that
Claudius knew all along what was going on. Ham-
let assumed his uncle knew, but he didnt really
have all the facts. So that begs the question, did
Claudius willingly go to his death at the end, or
was it the story we all knew where Hamlet kills
him unwillingly? Note that there was a big solilo-
quy about Hamlet considering suicide as an alter-
native to having to avenge his father. He didnt
love his uncle, but he certainly didnt want to have
to take it upon himself to kill him at first.
There are many common themes within
Shakespeares plays. They are listed in the tutor
website for the UK as power, nature, love and re-
lationships, and conflict (A). Of course, Hamlets
theme that we speculate is not being too desperate
for power, or your nephew is going to kill you to
avenge his father. However, what if the language
barrier made it like in the example I showed
above. Its likely that the theme is about commit-
ting suicide, due to the fact that its likely Claudius
knew that Hamlet was going to kill him. Those
small wordings in the plays and poetry give a lot
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of speculation toward something extravagant that


we havent discovered yet.
Word puns are also seen in Shakespeares
play, Twelfth Night. The premise of the play is
that a twin brother and sister get separated from
each other during a shipwreck. Both think that the
other is dead. So, the sister (Viola) disguises her-
self as a man in order to work for the local duke,
Orsino. She is tasked with delivering Orsinos love
messages to the neighboring countess, Olivia.
Eventually, the twins run into each other again and
everything ends on a happy note. Twelfth Night
has a lot of other interesting characters that play
into the story as well. For example, theres Olivias
kinsman, Sir Toby, and his best friend, Sir An-
drew. In one particular scene of the play, they are
meeting up and talking about how to get Olivia to
feel better by letting her find someone to love. This
part of the conversation interested me most:

Original text:

TOBY: Pourquoi (french word for why),


my dear knight?
ANDREW: What is pourquoi? Do, or not
do? I would I had bestowed that time in the
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tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and bear-


baiting. O, had I but followed the arts!
TOBY: Then hadst thou had an excellent
head of hair. (Act I. sc 3. Ln 90-95).

Early Modern English:

TOBY: Pourquoi, moi der noight?


ANDREW: Wot ees pourquoi? Do or not
do? Oi would Oi had bestow-ed that toime in the
tongs that Oi have in fencing, dancing, and bear-
baiting. O, had Oi but follow-ed the arts!
TOBY: Then hadst thou had an excellent
head of hayr.

The word tongues is the interesting part


of the conversation. Back in Elizabethan times,
tongues was pronounced tongs. Also back in
Elizabethan times, a tong was a flat iron that peo-
ple used to straighten their hair (Garber). Without
this word pun, the humor wouldnt make any
sense. There mustve been a lot of laughs at this
conversation in Shakespeares time. This pun gives
the comedy more humor, as a good amount of
Shakespeares plays were tragedies.
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Research is still being done on the Early


Modern English Language and how it pertains to
Shakespeares plays. The texts that were written in
Early Modern English sounded different and possi-
bly had different meanings. Hamlet even appears
to have a different move. Through the word puns
found, it seems more like the theme of the play is
dealing with suicide rather than doing your job
quickly and efficiently. Since, research is still go-
ing on, no one truly knows what Shakespeares
plays mean. They could mean something com-
pletely different. The language may have been dif-
ferent back then, but the meaning of the plays
nowadays has changed dramatically as we have
seen through the examples of Hamlet and Twelfth
Night.
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References
A, Katy. What are the Typical Recurring
Themes in Shakespeare, My Tutor,
2016. https://www.mytutor.co.uk/
answers/5913/GCSE/English-
Literature/What-are-
thetypicalrecurring-themes-in-
Shakespeare-s-plays
Cain, William. "Notes Toward a Supreme
Fiction: Shakespeare at 400." Socie-
ty 53, no. 1 (February 2016): 76-87.
Religion and Philosophy Collection,
EBSCOhost (accessed October 27,
2017).
Crystal, David. The Language of Shake-
speare, Phoenix Union, 2013.
http://phoenixunion.org/cms/lib6/
AZ01001825/Centricity/
Domain/1837/Shakespeare19.pdf
LODEWYCK, LAURA A.1. 2013. "Look
with Thine Ears:" Puns, Wordplay,
and Original Pronunciation in Per-
formance." Shakespeare Bulletin 31,
no. 1: 41-61. Humanities Source,
EBSCOhost (accessed October 27,
2017).
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Markus, Manfred. 2015. "Sirrah, What's


Thy Name?: The Genesis of
Shakespeare's Sirrah in Relation to
Sir and Sire in Late Middle and Ear-
ly Modern English." English Studies
96, no. 2: 191. MasterFILE Premier,
EBSCOhost (accessed October 27,
2017).