Shakespeare’s Language and Audience

By: Emily Scott


In this post I will analyze¬†a few of the major reasons that Shakespeare’s fame is still upheld today. I further explain my reasons for this project in the ANALYSIS portion at the end of this post. Enjoy! ūüôā


Language is an intangible thread that ties people together and allows organisms to communicate. With this being said, the medium that is language is further complicated than if two organisms speak the same “type” of language or not: an example of two types being Japanese and English. Just because two people speak English, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean that they can communicate easily; we often see a disconnect in the English language in business jargon and slang. Another example of this language barrier appears in classic literature; usually the wording of the texts alone is enough to scare people away (what with all the “thou’s” and “thy’s”).

Why people don’t read:

Part 1

Part 2

However, as I will explain, William Shakespeare’s literature should be the exception in breaching this barrier and even today his works can be read by everyone because his language is always adapting. In Shakespearean England, Shakespeare‚Äôs works were able to reach a wide audience because his literature was written in both prose and verse (as well as in laymen terms when speaking on ‚Äėbad quartos‚Äô); and, today the language that his works are presented in still is a major factor in determining his audience, with versions such as No Fear Shakespeare being today‚Äôs parallel of Shakespeare‚Äôs colloquial prose.


In mid-16th century England, the time and home of Shakespeare, the upper-class – being better educated – ¬†had a wider vocabulary and were able to express themselves in elaborate details, while¬†middle and lower-class individuals were thought to put their thoughts in a straightforward, simpler manner. The question is: how did people enjoy the same entertainment if there was this prevalent language barrier?¬†The genius that is Shakespeare scripted his plays in both verse and prose to accommodate the masses. Typically the nobility¬†in Shakespeare’s plays speak in blank verse and the commoners speak in prose; however, sometimes the nobility speak in rhymed verse instead.

What are Prose and Verse?

  • PROSE: Ordinary language with no accented rhythm. A¬†long passage in prose is typically printed in your text like an ordinary paragraph with right and left justification.
  • RHYMED VERSE: Rhymed verse¬†in Shakespeare’s plays is usually in rhymed couplets, i.e. two successive lines of verse of which the final words rhyme with another.


  • BLANK VERSE: Blank Verse¬†refers to unrhymed iambic pentameter.
    • If you are unsure if a passage is in blank verse or in prose, READ IT ALOUD.¬† If you can discern the regular rhythmic pattern of iambic pentameter¬†(da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM), it is in blank verse.

When are Prose and Verse used?

Prose vs. Verse

  • ¬†PROSE:
    1. To express ordinary – NOT DEEP – observations.
    2. Quick, one-line replies.
    3. Suggest madness, such as when a character is going insane.
    4. Drunken rambling.
    5. Make fun of characters who lack wit.
  • VERSE:
    1. Express deep emotion.
    2. Make wise, philosophical observations.
    3. Add irony.
    4. Portray order and exactness.


What is a ‘Bad Quarto’?

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With this being said, the men who would attend Shakespeare’s performances at The Globe Theater and pirate his plays were usually from the lower or middle-class (they might have been merchants or sailors, for example). So, these men¬†were not well educated and therefore their written versions of Shakespeare’s plays were rudimentary at best.

The worst yet most famous Bad Quarto is from¬†Hamlet’s¬†“To be or not to be” soliloquy. The original First Folio is full of Shakespeare’s luster and careful word choice; needless to say, the First ‘Bad’ Quarto pales in comparison. As you can see by following the links above, the Hamlet’s¬†Bad Quarto is really very awful. However, in reference to language and maintaining an understanding of Shakespeare’s tales, the Bad Quartos have a very important role. One thing that Shakespeare’s folios lack (as I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post. See: “Bad Quartos and Piracy”), are clear stage directions; but, the individuals who scripted Bad Quartos tended to provide very detailed descriptions of the actors’ movements and body language. For example, while Shakespeare‚Äôs folio of The Winter‚Äôs Tale¬†was wonderfully written, without Bad Quartos we might not know that a bear pursues Antigonus when he flees the stage in Act 3, among other stage directions that bring Shakespeare‚Äôs plays to life when performed. Detailed stage directions are all Bad Quartos are helpful for, but if we didn’t have these directions then live performances of the playwright’s works would not be as authentic as they were during the time of his life; Shakespeare’s plays would not contain the same amount of drama, humor, or tragedy had it not been for these faulty replications of his works.


Something else to consider when reading Shakespeare is that today we have an advantage over the audiences of his own time because the words that the playwright invented were at his time new, but today they are clichés/commonplace. Some scholars disagree over whether or not Shakespeare was the first person to use many of these words, but nevertheless he is believed to at least be the first to write them and put them in literature. As The Huffington Post details, a few very common words invented by Shakespeare are: gloomy, laughable, majestic, lonely, radiance, hurry, generous, frugal, critical, courtship, zany, undress, and rant.


Also, just like the audience of his time had to do, Shakespeare’s words often take on more than one meaning when used in a play’s context and therefore these meanings must be constantly reinforced and re-evaluated. The most prevalent example of this can be seen in the use of the word “honest” in the play¬†Othello.¬†There are 52 occurrences of the word “honest/honesty” in this play alone. Shakespeare transitions from using the word to describe Iago as truthful and loyal to Desdemona as chaste, however, so the reader must be ready to interpret these changes.



Most people consider reading¬†No Fear Shakespeare as cheating if they are true, “honest” Shakespeare Fanatics because this modern version of the playwright’s texts are not in his original language. It’s like reading The King James version (KJV) of The Bible versus the New International Version (NIV). THE WORDS JUST AREN’T THE SAME, but the message itself is. A benefit of reading¬†No Fear Shakespeare’s modern text is that today’s readers no longer have to deal with verse and prose; while you can certainly still decipher when a character jumps from one to the other because his/her speech becomes plainer or more elegant, the sentence structure is less changed. For an example, consult¬†Henry V (5.2):

  • In this scene, Henry is trying to convince Catherine of France to marry him. Since¬†her native language is French and his is English the two lovers have trouble understanding one another. So, Henry begin to speak in prose to make his speech simpler for Catherine. In the original text, Henry’s change to prose also allows the audience to more fully receive Henry’s feelings and intentions for Catherine because prose is so straightforward. But, in the¬†No Fear Shakespeare version of this scene the same message is still described and even further simplified for today’s readers.


Shakespeare does not just use language, he¬†is language; his language is the driving force behind his fame, a fame that isn’t declining anytime soon. Shakespeare’s clever incorporation of verse and prose in his plays allowed his audience during his time and his audience today to better interpret the mood/tone/meaning of his characters’ dialogue. As explained above, one example of this can be read in Henry V. Also, individuals’ piracy of the playwright’s literary works actually had a very important effect: without them, theatrical shows of Shakespeare’s works would not be as true to their original versions – the original stage directions of Shakespeare’s plays more than likely would have been lost or changed in time if all we had for reference were his first folios. So, while I in no way condone piracy, in this instance the criminal act had the benefit of helping to bridge the barrier that is understanding Shakespeare.

Furthermore, I say that Shakespeare¬†is language and doesn’t just use it because he had a way of bending it to his needs, inventing more words than anyone else ever has, yet still being able to be perfectly understood. With this thought in mind though, another way that Shakespeare bent language to his needs was by playing off the many meanings that one word may be able to express. The most common example of this is in the play¬†Othello’s¬†use of the word “honest,” also described above.

Language is ever changing, and it is a change that is inevitable and should be welcomed. So, while some people may shy away from modern translations of classic literature, I would encourage people to read it. Of course, read the original texts as well, but at least reference modern translations (especially if you are having trouble understanding the original text). What really matters is not a play’s dainty or bombastic wording, but the meaning it provides and the actual tale the literature is trying to portray. Modern translations are bringing the messages in Shakespeare’s works to today’s generation; they are helping sustain his fame.

Both the lovely phonetics of reading Shakespeare aloud and the timeless messages one receives form his literary works equally come together in upholding his influence.


I have never done this for a blog post, but I thought you all might find it interesting to know why I wrote this post and my blog in general (sort of like an extensive author’s note). I absolutely love Shakespeare; I love how one can read his plays and always walk away affected in a different way and I love the drama in reading his plays aloud, the phonetics. All of my other posts have been on how Shakespeare is portrayed in the media today, and for this post I wanted to analyze why his works are even still around today. In other words,¬†what makes them so treasured?

When first sitting down and wondering how to get this out to the world I thought about starting a Tumblr blog, but ultimately decided to use WordPress because I was already familiar with the medium. Now, I am happy I made this decision because I feel as if WordPress allows people who share a real interest in the topic of Shakespeare to easily find my blog. At first, I just advertised this blog using “tags” at the end of my posts so individuals with other WordPress blogs could easily view this blog. Then, about halfway through this project I decided that writing this blog is a lot of fun, even more so than I originally thought it’d be. So, about two weeks ago I began to advertise my blog on Twitter and have linked the URL of this blog to my Twitter profile (feel free to follow my Twitter @EmilyScott7112 for updates on when I post to this blog). Needless to say, connecting this blog to my Twitter has already doubled my viewers (I appreciate every single one of you who read my blog!). This growth in viewers has further cemented my belief that the internet/media and technology in general is connecting people. It further cements my belief that Shakespeare having an audience on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and other social media sites is aiding in upholding his presence today. There are so many reasons why a Classic is deemed a Classic and stays a Classic. I believe that Shakespeare was originally remembered because his language is nice on the ears and he wrote in a way that all social classes could relate to his messages. I believe he is still remembered today for both of these reasons and through the use of technology such as¬†No Fear Shakespeare.


“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

-William Shakespeare