As part of my Halloween specials, I’m creating a resource for all my Shakespeare students who are bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the Bard’s tricky use of English. Let me know in the comments what other words you would like me to add next!
Thou/you: At the time when Shakespeare was writing, ‘thou’ and ‘you’ both meant ‘you’, but they definitely weren’t interchangeable. ‘Thou’ was used to refer to people you were close to (like friends), to God, and to people you were talking down to or being rude to. (Imagine calling your teacher ‘mate’, it’s the same sort of thing.) ‘You’ was used to show respect, distance or formality towards people. For example, when Shakespearean characters talk to nobility, or people they respect, they generally refer to them as ‘you’. ‘Thy’ and ‘thine’ are the possessive forms of ‘thou’. Just after Shakespeare’s death, ‘thou’ and ‘you’ stopped being used in this way. (I could explain more, but I’ll leave that for another post.) And so generations of English students had no idea why he was using all of these different words, just to say ‘you’!
Art: Just an old way of saying ‘are’. So ‘Thou art’ means you (familiar) are.
Adieu: A French way of saying ‘Goodbye’. French and Latin were considered very romantic and sophisticated languages at the time, and English (especially among the upper classes) had a lot of words borrowed from these language.
Anon: Soon, so when the witches say ‘Anon!’ they are essentially saying, ‘see you soon!’
Aroint thee! Another of those wonderful insults from Macbeth. Shakespeare is famed for his inventive insults, and ‘Aroint thee’ simply means ‘go away!’ ‘Rump-fed ronyon’, as the witches then call the pilot’s wife, is a little bit ruder...
-eth: In Shakespearean times, people used to very simply add ‘eth’ to the ending of a lot of verbs. ‘You speaketh aright!’ just means, ‘you speak correctly!’
Hither: Here, so ‘Hie thee hither’, means ‘Come here’.
Marry: Not actually related to the modern word, it’s a shortened form of the swear ‘By the Virgin Mary!’ That’s why you are most likely to hear it if a character’s feeling particularly surprised, or passionate about something.
Sirrah: This just means ‘Boy’. I have so many students who think ‘Sirrah’ is a recurring character across Shakespeare. He isn’t. He’s just a boy.
Verily: ‘Truly’ - think of the modern word to ‘verify’ something.
Want: Now this is a little bit more devious, and means to ‘lack’ something. Think of it this way, if you ‘want’ something, you must lack it.
Wherefore: Perhaps the most commonly mistaken word in Shakespeare. ‘Wherefore’ does not mean ‘where’, but instead ‘why’. When Juliet asks ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’, students can be a little puzzled, as he is standing in front of her. Instead, she is asking ‘Why are you called Romeo?’, meaning ‘why do you have to be a Montague?’
Would: ‘Wish’, if you ‘would’ something, it means that you wish something would happen.