John Larrysson Column: Why bother with Shakespeare?

Why do English teachers take William Shakespeare so seriously? Many people have written plays, books and songs in English. Why is he so special?

Shakespeare lived long ago (1564 - 1616). In his time, England and the English language were very different from how they are today. Before Shakespeare's time English was the language of the farmers. The kings and his nobles spoke French. That is why many animals have English names, but their meats have French names. The Old English word for young pigs was picg (the adults were swine). The word for pig meat is pork from the French word porc. The same is true of bulls/beef, sheep/mutton and so on.

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Shortly before Shakespeare was born, the language division of England changed violently. After years of war and rebellion everyone started to speak English instead of French. Shakespeare wrote plays for both nobles and commoners who spoke the same language.


That language of poor farmers was called Middle English. There was very little Middle English literature. The writings of Geoffrey Chaucer were an exception. With Shakespeare's help the language shifted from Middle English to Early Modern English. Modern English speakers can read Shakespeare's plays in Early Modern English and only find them a bit old fashioned. However it is very difficult for Modern English readers to understand Middle English. To understand the difference try to read and compare Shakespeare's English and Chaucer's English.

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Shakespeare's Early Modern English


COUNTESS. In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband.



BERTRAM. And I in going, madam, weep o'er my father's death anew; but I must attend his Majesty's command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection.

(young man)

LAFEU. You shall find of the King a husband, madam; you, sir, a father. He that so generally is at all times good must of necessity hold his virtue to you, whose worthiness would stir it up where it wanted, rather than lack it where there is such abundance.

(old man)

COUNTESS. What hope is there of his Majesty's amendment?

LAFEU. He hath abandon'd his physicians, madam; under whose practices he hath persecuted time with hope, and finds no other advantage in the process but only the losing of hope by time.

COUNTESS. This young gentlewoman had a father- O, that 'had,' how sad a passage 'tis!-whose skill was almost as great as his honesty; had it stretch'd so far, would have made nature immortal, and death should have play for lack of work. Would, for the King's sake, he were living! I think it would be the death of the King's disease.

LAFEU. How call'd you the man you speak of, madam?

COUNTESS. He was famous, sir, in his profession, and it was his great right to be so- Gerard de Narbon.

LAFEU. He was excellent indeed, madam; the King very lately spoke of him admiringly and mourningly; he was skilful enough to have liv'd still, if knowledge could be set up against mortality.

BERTRAM. What is it, my good lord, the King languishes of?

LAFEU. A fistula, my lord.

BERTRAM. I heard not of it before.



(All's Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare)


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Chaucer's Middle English


Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote


The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,

And smale fowles maken melodye,

That slepen al the night with open ye,

(So priketh hem nature in hir corages)

Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

(And palmers for to seken straunge strondes)

To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;

And specially, from every shires ende

Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,

The holy blisful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.



(The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer)


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Shakespeare's play has a few unfamiliar words. For example, Shakespeare uses hath instead of has, 'tis instead of it's and o'er instead of over. Most of these older words can be guessed. Stronger native speaking readers will know these words. However when I read Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, I had to check what words meant more than once per page. (It took me a long time to finish the whole book. I sympathise with second language learners doing that with English.) In the line, "Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote", Whan is when, Aprille is April, shoures is showers (as in rain), sote is sweet (as in gentle). It is a little bit easier to guess the words if you sound them out rather than depend on the spelling. Shakespeare is understandable to most Modern English speakers, Chaucer is not.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.