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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE PLAY

ELIZABETHAN ENGLISH

Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in two main ways:

  1. Questions and negatives could be formed without using "do" or "did," as when Hamlet asks "Hold you the watch tonight?" (Act I, Scene ii, line 240) where today you would say "Do you stand watch tonight?"; or where Laertes states "O, fear me not!" (Act I, Scene iii, line 55) where instead you would say "Do not fear for me" or "Do not be anxious about me." Shakespeare could also reverse the word order in a sentence. He might say "What think you?" instead of "What do you think?" or "It looks not like him" instead of "It doesn't look like him."

  2. A number of past participles and past tense forms are used that are considered ungrammatical today. For instance, "writ" for "written," "bed-rid" for "bed- ridden," "hap" for "happen," and "shook" for "shaken."

Shakespeare and his contemporaries had an extra pronoun, "thou," which could be used in addressing one's equal or social inferior. Frequently a person in power used "thou" to a subordinate but was addressed "you" in return, as when Hamlet and Horatio speak in Act III, Scene ii:

Horatio: Here, sweet lord, at your service.

Hamlet: Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man
As e'er my conversation coped withal.

(lines 53-55)

"You" was obligatory if more than one person was addressed, as in Act II, Scene ii:

Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Moreover that we much did long to see you,...

(lines 1-2)

but it was also used to indicate respect, as in Act I, Scene ii, when Laertes wants his father's permission to return to France:

My dread lord,
Your leave and favor to return to France

(lines 52-53)


One further peculiarity of pronouns is important. When Claudius first appears in the play he uses the royal "we" to emphasize his right to the kingship:

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom...

(Act I, Scene ii, lines 1-3)

Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today, and so you find several uses in Hamlet that you would modify in your contemporary speech. Among them are "on" for "of," in

What think you on't?

(Act I, Scene i, line 66)

"of" for "from," in

That, being of so young days brought up with him

(Act II, Scene ii, line 11)

"after" for "according to," in

Use every man after his desert

(Act II, Scene ii, lines 536-37)

and "of" for "between," in

Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish

(Act III, Scene ii, lines 64-65)

Contemporary English allows only one negative per statement and regards such utterances as "I haven't none" as incorrect. But Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis, as when Hamlet instructs the players: "Nor do not saw the air too much" (Act III, Scene ii, line 4), and adds: "Be not too tame neither" (line 16).  

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