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The "Punny" Language of Shakespeare


One 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!


Students will:

  • Learn about basic Early Modern English grammar and how it translates to Modern English.

  • Learn the difference between sentence word order in Shakespearean text and modern text.

  • Learn what puns are and practice creating and writing original puns.

  • Find and examine examples of puns in Shakespeare's Sonnets and Plays.

  • Discuss how puns change the literal meaning of text.

  • Practice translating a popular soliloquy into modern English and identify the puns within.

Estimated Time

Three 45-minute class periods


  • Internet access for students

  • Copies of student worksheets

  • Copies of several of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets and/or Internet access to his works (see links below)

  • Copy of In Search of Shakespeare (to order visit Shop PBS)

  • TV/DVD unit or a computer with DVD capabilities and a data projector


The 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 Activity

If 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.

Episode Three:
A Midsummer Night's Dream (09:30-11:00, 29:30-31:30)
Romeo and Juliet (12:20-4:00)
Richard II (36:00-38:30)
Twelfth Night (43:20-44:20)
Hamlet (45:20-46:20)
Othello (48:40-53:00)

Episode Four:
Macbeth (17:45-22:00)
King Lear (22:00-26:00)
The Tempest (35:15-38:20)
Henry VIII (43:15-45:30)

Online Resources

Shakespeare 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:




Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.

Standard 2: Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Standard 5: Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

Standard 6: Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

Standard 11: Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Standard 12: Students use spoken, written and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information.



Language Arts

Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.

Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing.

Standard 3: Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions.

Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.

Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts.

Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.

Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

Life Skills - Thinking and Reasoning

Standard 3: Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences.

About the Author

Jan 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.


Handout 1: "Everything Old is New Again!"

Handout 2: "Ordering Shakespeare Around"

Handout 3: "Shakespeare was a pretty punny guy!"
Shakespeare's Language

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Lesson Plans

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A lesson plan by Joan Snyder
The "Punny" Language of Shakespeare
A lesson plan by Jan Madden

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