The "Punny" Language of Shakespeare
IntroductionOne of the most difficult challenges of studying Shakespeare is breaking the language barrier. There are several factors that often confuse the reader about the language of Shakespeare: the use of obsolete words, the order of sentence wording, and puns that depended on the meaning, usage, and pronunciation of words. For the first time reader of Shakespeare, the text may seem confusing and hard to translate, but it is important to understand that Shakespeare did indeed write in English, just a slightly different version of what we consider to be modern English.
By learning about some of the Early Modern English word meanings, sentence structure, and puns students will be able to understand and enjoy the genius and humor in Shakespeare's work. Students will enjoy trying their hand at creating their own puns and finding puns in modern literature. Being able to use newly learned tools to interpret and understand Early Modern English might even seem like learning a secret language code!
Estimated TimeThree 45-minute class periods
ProcedureThe English that Shakespeare and the Elizabethans used is quite readable, however sometimes modern audiences miss the author's intended meanings. In order to appreciate Shakespeare's sonnets and plays, it is important to understand that depending on what a word or phrase meant at an earlier time in history may differ from its meaning today, even if it is English.
Have your students use the Glossary on the Web site to help familiarize themselves with the language of Shakespeare's era.
Print out the Early Modern English grammar sheets available online from the University of Michigan and distribute to students.
Once the students have reviewed this sheet in class, ask them to translate the short phrases by Shakespeare on the "Everything Old is New Again" student worksheet from Early Modern English into Modern English.
Another challenging is getting used to the way Shakespeare formed sentences. We commonly use the SVO (subject - verb- object) order in sentences, whereas Shakespeare often employed the OSV (object - subject - verb) order. Once students get used to this pattern, it makes reading Shakespeare a bit less confusing.
Use the "Ordering Shakespeare Around" worksheet for students and ask your students to experiment with word order in sentences. Have students discuss whether word order changes the meaning of a thought and if changing the order of words changes the sound of the sentence and makes it easier or harder to comprehend.
Make up another simple sentence, such as "I walked the dog," and have students change the order. Let students find other simple sentences or phrases and change the word order, then discuss the changes in inference. Once they have completed this lesson, turn your class loose on Shakespeare's text and let them find examples of short sentences with unusual word orders. Let them try to "reword" Shakespeare's text to make it more modern and more understandable.
Now that students have a basic grasp of Elizabethan grammar, word meaning, and OSV order, the teacher will want to give students an opportunity to translate longer sections of Shakespeare's writing, the teacher can then choose sentences or phrases of their choice from sonnets or plays that they are studying and let students translate them into modern English. It may be helpful for students to be able to view a glossary of terms. There are several very good Shakespearean glossaries in the Online Resources section below that will help them in this exercise. Since these translations are longer, they will vary from student to student, so it would be interesting for students to share their particular translations in class.
Shakespeare often employed the use of puns in his works, much to the delight of his audiences. Since audiences in Shakespeare's time were seated according to class, Shakespeare made sure that there was something humorous in his plays for everyone.
Define "pun" for you students (a play on words which have the same sound but different meanings) and share some modern puns to help students learn more about this form of "thinking man's humor." Once they have read some puns and have discussed them in class, students may want to find examples of puns in modern literature or movie scripts. They will also enjoy creating and writing their own puns in class in a cooperative learning setting.
To practice interpreting puns, use the "Shakespeare was a very punny guy" worksheet. Student interpretations will be very different and this activity should lead into a lively discussion on how people in Shakespeare's day interpreted the puns differently depending on their class and age--much like in today's society.
Extension ActivityIf students are more comfortable with Shakespearean grammar, word meanings, sentence order, and puns, you might want to have them tackle longer and more meaningful translations. Shakespeare often used the form of soliloquy, a lengthy speech that allowed a character to articulate their private thoughts and feelings. These speeches were usually performed when the character was alone on stage and was a way for the audience to connect and better understand that character. This provided the perfect venue for Shakespeare to "play" with the play, pardon the pun, and employ his favorite writing techniques.
In this exercise, give each student a copy of a soliloquy from the play they are currently studying or any soliloquy of your choosing. Keep in mind the length of the soliloquy, age-appropriateness for students, and difficulty of understanding when choosing. Give the students time to read the soliloquy one time silently, and then read it aloud for them. Tell them that they are to translate the soliloquy in one of two ways:
1. Early Modern English into a literal version of Modern English
2. A version in "student lingo" as if they were saying this to their friends
You will have to set perimeters as to language (even though Shakespeare could be rather "bawdy" and vulgar), the students should not write vulgarities, especially in their own up-to-date version. The teacher can then read the translations and possibly have students read their versions aloud in class for extended discussions and probably quite a bit of laughter.
In Search of Shakespeare contains many clips of actors-particularly the Royal Shakespeare Company-performing scenes from Shakespeare's best known works. Play these scenes for you students so that they can hear how the actors have mastered the Bard's language.
Online ResourcesShakespeare Resource Center - The Language of Shakespeare:
Reading Shakespeare's Plays - His Language:
Will's Words (online game):
The Shakespeare Glossary:
Web English Teacher: Just for Fun - Puns:
Playing With Puns:
Puns and Paradoxes in Hamlet:
NCTE and IRA:(http://www.ncte.org/about/over/standards/110846.htm)
Life Skills - Thinking and Reasoning
About the AuthorJan Madden is currently a Music and Technology K-6 teacher in the Marshall County School System, where she has been teaching for the last 28 years. She has won numerous State and National Technology Awards and has presented regionally and nationally in the fields of Music, English, and Technology. She has degrees and backgrounds in Music, English, Art, and Technology and is currently involved with the National Lewis and Clark Rediscovery Project with the University of Idaho and United States Department of Education.
HandoutsHandout 1: "Everything Old is New Again!"
Handout 2: "Ordering Shakespeare Around"
Handout 3: "Shakespeare was a pretty punny guy!"
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