British and Irish Literature Shakespeare's Language
Robert Stagg, Iolanda Plescia
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0204


The mere association of the words “Shakespeare” and “language” suggests a wide range of potential critical approaches. It is sometimes tempting to argue that Shakespeare’s language is best accessed by one method, subject, or disciplinary field. Yet none holds a singular key to Shakespeare’s language, and we must bring a variety to bear on this essential feature of his craft. As with Solomon’s judgment, any attempt to cut Shakespeare’s language into disciplinary pieces will likely mutilate his writing. This entry on “Shakespeare’s Language” brings together vastly different approaches to argue that every element of his language deserves dedicated attention. We have combined macro-linguistic and stylistic scholarship related to the social, political, philosophical, and psychological imports of linguistic choices, including detailed accounts of “style,” form, and meter, with scholarship that delves into micro-linguistic elements as miniscule as the use of single words (e.g. modals, deictics), which, however, can become so significant as to reveal whole attitudes. Tempting though it is to attribute these attitudes to Shakespeare himself, the studies we have highlighted make clear that the ultimate value of such linguistic constructions lies in, for example, the building of character and the plotting of dramatic structure. Curiously, while many studies over recent decades have focused on linguistic matters, few of them have used the word “language” in their titles, as if there were no need, or as if there was a certain reluctance to call attention to what is, in effect, the very bone and marrow of Shakespeare’s artistry. Yet, as the selections included in this bibliography show, no consideration of wider issues such as performance, scholarly editing, adaptation, and reception can do without careful linguistic study, and the scholarship presented here ranges from lexical description, etymology, and metaphor, to grammar and syntax, to idiosyncratic uses of language and their application to authorship questions; from issues of linguistic identity tied to the history of English to multilingual Shakespeare and the mediation of Shakespeare through translation. Indeed, the question of identity seems to be as crucial in dealing with Shakespeare’s language as it is with his biography: the need to identify Shakespeare as the “father of modern English” has been so pressing that numerous linguistic myths about the size and novelty of his vocabulary have long circulated. The enduring strength of such myths says a lot about us, and about whom we would like Shakespeare to be.

General Reference

Of general import, these books range from the referential to the discursively critical. Some are intended to give readers a schematized, categorical, or taxonomical overview of many things that might fall under the rubric of “Shakespeare’s language”; others are organized around a selection of Shakespearean text, but treat it to a sort of critical attention that runs the gamut of Shakespeare’s language. Adamson, et al. 2001 provides a detailed introduction to Shakespeare’s language. Booth 1977 supplies richly stocked mini-essays on each of Shakespeare’s sonnets that roam across myriad aspects of their language. Crystal 2016 tries to establish a secure footing for the study of Shakespearean pronunciation, and Crystal 2010 gives a lively and clear introduction to five major dimensions of Shakespeare’s language. Das, et al. 2021 gives the reader a glossary of language central to conceptualizing identity, race, and the transcultural in the early modern period. Hope 2003 studies Shakespeare’s grammar. Iyengar 2014 and Partridge 1968 stand in for a number of dictionaries of Shakespeare’s more specialized language (listed in more detail in Iyengar 2014), and Spevack 1973 stands as a good example of a print concordance (with a further, online example given in this entry). Palfrey 2005 gives lucid and yet dazzling expository accounts of many features of Shakespeare’s language.

  • Adamson, Sylvia, Lynette Hunter, Lynne Magnusson, Ann Thompson, Katie Wales, eds. Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language: A Guide. London: Thomson, 2001.

    Highly informative, this volume provides a detailed introduction to Shakespeare’s language. The second section is particularly important for its use of more markedly linguistic approaches to consider dialects and linguistic variation, compounding, conversion, and affixation (with a lingering tendency here to cast Shakespeare as an inventor, rather than popularizer, of words).

  • Booth, Stephen, ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

    More than an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Booth provides richly stocked mini-essays on each sonnet that roam across myriad aspects of their language.

  • Crystal, David. Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    A lively and clear introduction to five major dimensions of Shakespeare’s language: writing system, pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and conversational style.

  • Crystal, David. The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Best read alongside Crystal’s more discursive arguments about how Shakespeare might/would originally have been pronounced, such as Pronouncing Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), and older studies about Shakespeare’s pronunciation, such as Helge Kokeritz’s Shakespeare’s Pronunciation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953).

  • Das, Nandini, Joao Vicente Melo, Haig Z. Smith, and Lauren Working. Keywords of Identity, Race, and Human Mobility in Early Modern England. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021.

    Inspired by Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana, 1976), the many brief chapters in this volume provide the reader with a glossary of language central to conceptualizing identity, race, migration, and the transcultural in Shakespeare’s time.

  • Hope, Jonathan. Shakespeare’s Grammar. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

    A revision of sorts of E. A. Abbott’s Victorian grammar (see section on Grammar and Syntax) which sets the referential aspect of his work on a sounder footing. In a similar vein, readers may wish to consult Norman Francis Blake’s A Grammar of Shakespeare’s Language (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

  • Iyengar, Sujata. Shakespeare’s Medical Language: A Dictionary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

    One of a number of more specialized dictionaries of Shakespeare’s language—see also Charles Edelman’s Shakespeare’s Military Language (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), Chris Hassel and Sandra Clark’s Shakespeare’s Religious Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), and B. J. and Mary Sokol’s Shakespeare’s Legal Language (London: Continuum, 2005).

  • Palfrey, Simon. Doing Shakespeare. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2005.

    Gives lucid and yet dazzling expository accounts of many features of Shakespeare’s language, from the pun to the rhyme. Especially good on Shakespeare’s lexical and syntactical “difficulty” and “excess.”

  • Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy: A Literary and Psychological Essay, and a Comprehensive Glossary. 3d ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.

    Leave aside the dubious introductory material, and make your way to the alphabetic glossary of sexual and scatological terms in Shakespeare.

  • Spevack, Marvin. The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

    A good alternative to online concordances such as Open Source Shakespeare, this one is keyed to the Riverside Shakespeare.

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