Shakespearean Vocabulary

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

Reading Shakespeare can be a daunting task, but with the right vocabulary guide, comprehending the text is easier than you think. In this lesson we will identify and define common words from the Shakespearean Era to better understand meaning.

The Difficulties of Reading Shakespeare

When most of us think of reading Shakespeare, the word 'ugh' comes to mind. Is the language difficult? Yes, but it is still accessible if you know the right translations for common Shakespearean words.

Read on for a comprehensive guide to some common Shakespearean words to help you on your next reading endeavor.

Shakespearean Vocabulary List

Read the alphabetical list below to learn definitions and see examples of Shakespearean vocabulary.

  • Adieu (n.): farewell

Example: ''Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.'' (Hamlet 1.5)

The ghost of Hamlet's father's spirit is saying goodbye to Hamlet after a monologue warning him of his uncle's motives.

  • Anon (adv): soon, shortly, presently

Example: ''I come, anon.'' (Romeo and Juliet 2.2)

The Nurse calls for Juliet as she says goodbye to Romeo in the famous balcony scene. Juliet continues to tell the Nurse she will be with her shortly.

  • Aye (adv): always, forever or eternity; yes

Example: The word Aye or Ay can be seen throughout Shakespeare's works. From agreeing to a task, or vowing, this word, albeit simple, reinforces an opinion or thought.

  • Chide (v): scorn, rebuke, reprove

Example: ''Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding of his fool?'' (King Lear 1.3)

Goneril, one of Lear's daughters, asks her servant if her father hit him for chiding, or scorning, his fool. One that is familiar with Shakespeare will notice this word in several of his plays. The word most nearly means to criticize someone harshly.

  • Doth: does/Dost: did

Example: ''For nought so vile that on the earth doth live But to the earth some special good doth give.'' (Romeo and Juliet 2.3)

Doth clearly translates to the word does, and in the lines above, the word is used to express what plants, herbs, and stones give to the world.

  • Heavy (adj.): depressed; weighed down with sadness

Example: ''Griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast,'' (Romeo and Juliet 1.1)

Romeo is telling his cousin Benvolio that his sadness, his depression, is weighing him down. This word used in serious situations and emotional moments.

  • Hie (v.): go

Example: ''Hie you to horse.'' (Macbeth 3.1)

In this scene, Macbeth tells Banquo to go to his horse.

  • Hither (adv.): here, to go toward

Example: ''Fetch Desdemona hither'' (Othello 1.3)

The Duke requests that the servants go get his daughter, Desdemona, and bring her to him at once.

  • Knave (n): rascal, scoundrel, rogue

Example: ''A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats.'' (King Lear 2.2)

Kent is in disguise yelling these terrible insults at Goneril's servant Oswald. By doing so he defends the King but causes more problems for himself.

  • Morrow (n): morning

Example: This word is quite common throughout Shakespeare's work, typically used as ''Good Morrow,'' signifying one saying good morning.

  • Nought: nothing

Example: ''For nought I did in hate, but all in honour.'' (Othello 5.2)

In this scene, Othello kills his wife. He explains to her cousin in these lines that he has done nothing out of hate, but he killed her out of honor.

  • Oft (adv): often

Example: ''Her father loved me, oft invited me'' (Othello 1.3)

Here, Othello is defending his character against the accusations that he has manipulated Desdemona in some way. He explains that Desdemona's father cared for him and invited him over often.

  • Pray (v): beg

Example: ''...if you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray come and crush a cup of wine.'' (Romeo and Juliet 1.2)

In this scene, a servant of Lord Capulet extends the invite to come to a party in return for helping the illiterate servant read. The word is used to urge the men to take part in the festivities.

  • Sirrah (n): boy of lower ranking; someone that is socially inferior

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