Elizabethan Drama: Why does this stuff sound so strange?

I. Language


2nd Person: Thee *Thou *Ye
  • They mean “you”
Thou and Thee:
  • “Casual” version of “you”, more intimate (like “tu” in French)
  • Used among friends, and low class people
  • Can be used to “talk down” to someone, and in love poetry…
“Thy” and “thine” = “your”

You / Ye
More formal (like “vous” in French)
Used among upper class / polite company
Used when talking “up” to someone

Verb Forms

“T” endings (art, hast, etc)
  • Used with 2nd person (you/thou)
“If thou lovest me” = “If you love me”

“th” endings (hath , doth, etc.)
  • Used with 3rd person (he / she / it)
"If he loveth me" = "If he loves me"


For the sake of his poetry, Shakespeare often left out letters, syllables, and whole words. These omissions really aren't that much different from the way we speak today. We say:

"Been to class yet?"
"No. Heard Albrecht's givin' a test."
"Wha'sup wi'that?“

We leave out words and parts of words to speed up our speech. If we were speaking in complete sentences, we would say:

"Have you been to class yet?"
"No, I have not been to class. I heard that Mrs. Albrecht is giving a test today."
"What is up with that?"

A few examples of Shakespearean omissions/contractions follow:
  • 'tis ~ it is
  • ope ~ open
  • o'er ~ over
  • gi' ~ give
  • ne'er ~ never
  • i' ~ in
  • e'er ~ ever
  • oft ~ often
  • a' ~ he
  • e'en ~ even

Elizabethan Words

  • An, and: If
  • Anon: Soon
  • Aye: Yes
  • But: Except for
  • E’en: Even
  • E’er: Ever
  • Haply: Perhaps
  • Happy: Fortunate
  • Hence: Away, from here
  • Hie: Hurry
  • Marry: Indeed
  • Whence: Where
  • Wilt: Will, will you
  • Withal: In addition to
  • Would: Wish

II. This stuff is poetry!

(No, people back then didn’t really talk like this - Just ask Launcelot)

1. It is Iambic Pentameter

Each line has ten syllables (pent = 5, and meter = a metric foot, or 2 syllables, so pent-meter is 5 x 2, or 10 syllables)
Stress is on every other syllable - soft, then hard. Da DUM da DUM. Iambic simply means it does this.
So, a line of iambic pentameter is 10 syllables that go da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
x / x / x / x / x /
I am a pi-rate with a wood-en leg

Common Rhythm

The iamb is very common in the English language: we often speak in iambic pentameter without realizing it:

x / x / x / x / x /
I’d like to have you meet a friend of mine.

x / x / x / x / x /
Did you take out the garbage yesterday?

Sonnet 18 --Shakespeare
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Scan of Lines 1 & 2

To “scan” a poem, we mark each stressed and each unstressed syllable with a mark. Here, we’ll use / for stressed and x for unstressed.

x / x / x / x / x /
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

x / x / x / x / x /
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Then we count the stressed syllables in a single line. Here there are 5 stressed syllables in each line.

Counting Stressed Syllables

Once we have taken a count of the stressed syllables in each line, we have a good idea of what the dominant meter of the poem is. Every line may not be the same, but usually there will be one dominant pattern. In Shakespeare’s sonnet, we
could scan all the lines and we would see that there are generally 5 stresses (5 stressed syllables) to each line.

We measure the meter of a poem using the measurement of poetic feet. A foot in poetry is one stressed syllable + the unstressed syllables that seem to go with it.

Poetry scansion makes use of some Greek-derived words to label the meter of a poem. Let’s take a look at those.

Poetic Meter

These terms show number of stresses or feet to a line:

One stress (foot) per line = mono + meter = monometer
Two = di + meter = dimeter
Three = tri + meter = trimeter
Four = tetra + meter = tetrameter
Five = penta + meter = pentameter
Six = hex + a + meter = hexameter
Seven = hep + a + meter = heptameter
Eight = oct + a + meter = octameter

Shakespeare's sonnet has 5 stresses per line, or
five poetic feet per line = pentameter.

Last Step in Scanning

Determine the dominant type of stressed + unstressed syllable combination which seems prominent throughout the poem.
Usually, there are many alternations back and forth between unstressed and stressed syllables. Many in the sonnet look like this: x / x / x /

This pattern of x / also has a name derived from Greek: it is called an iamb.
Although there could be some exceptions – such as x x /--
the dominant, most common pattern is the iamb, or the iambic pattern.

Iambs and Other Weird Patterns

Pattern Noun Adjective

x / iamb iambic
x x / anapest anapestic
/ x trochee trochaic
/ x x dactyl dactylic
/ / spondee spondaic
x x pyrrhic pyrrhic

We describe a poetic line, then, by its type and number of poetic feet.
For example:
5 iambs = iambic pentameter
4 trochees = trochaic tetrameter

2. Iambic Pentameter can take 2 forms:

Rhymed Verse: endings of lines rhyme
  • Often used for “love discussions, and by romantic or magic people / creatures
By the simplicity of Venus’ doves
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves

Blank Verse, where lines do not rhyme
  • In MOV, most upper class people speak this way.
Or if there were a sympathy in choice,
War death or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream
(MNDI.I. 143-146)

How on earth do you write ENTIRE PLAYS in this format???

It’s Easy….

How to cheat like an Elizabethan:

1. Rearrange word order.
Thou hast sung at her window by moonlight:
Here, the syllables aren’t iambic… so, we write it this way:

The "Shakespeare-ized" Version
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung

2. Leave out some syllables (make contractions)
a. Example:
“Quenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon
And the imperial voteress passed on”

Each line has eleven syllables so, to make it pentameter, we write it this way:

The "Shakespeare-ized" Version
“Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon
And the imperial vot’ress passed on”

3. Leave out some words
“Ay there it is.”
“I pray thee, give it to me”

Here, two lines combine into 1 line of iambic pentameter, but it has 1 too many syllables… so, we do this:

The "Shakespeare-ized" Version
“Ay there it is.”
“I pray thee, give it me”

Now it’s 10 syllables…

Why write all this stuff in poetry?

In MOV, it ISN’T all poetry!

a. Poetry is used in specific situations:
Upper class people use iambic pentameter. They may also rhyme when:
  • They are discussing love / romance
  • The speaker is magical / non-human

Blank Verse
  • Unrhymed poetry
  • Structured by a regular meter (usually iambic pentameter)

b. Prose is used in specific situations:
Lower class people speak “normally”
  • This is how “real” Elizabethans would have sounded on the streets of England.

“Here is the scroll of every man’s name which is thought fit, through all Athens, to play in our interlude before the Duke and the Duchess on his wedding day at night.”

Notice how it’s not very different from us today?

Reading Shakespeare: A Review

Unlocking Shakespeare's Language, by Randal Robinson

Unusual Word Arrangements
I ate the sandwich.
I the sandwich ate.
Ate the sandwich I.
Ate I the sandwich.
The sandwich I ate.
The sandwich ate I.

Robinson shows us that these four words can create six unique sentences which carry the same meaning. Locate the subject, verb, and the object of the sentence. Notice that the object of the sentence is often placed at the beginning (the sandwich) in front of the verb (ate) and subject (I).

Rearrange the words in the order that makes the most sense to you (I ate the sandwich).


We speak in prose (language without metrical structure). Shakespeare wrote both prose and verse (poetry). So, it is important that you understand the following terms:

Blank Verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Iambic Pentameter: five beats of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables; ten syllables per line.

That’s It!

So, as you read the play, use this information to help you understand WHAT they are saying and WHY they are saying it…