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Shakespeare and the Norman Conquest: English in the Elizabethan Theatre

ISSUE:  Autumn 1990

How much did Shakespeare know about language, or languages, in a deliberate sense: about language in general, about the languages of Europe in particularand about English above all

That question—or huddle of questions—is still unexplored. It is easy to accept that the great dramatist of England, and of Europe, is the master of his native tongue; but ever since his rival Ben Jonson made his famously slighting remark about “small Latin and less Greek,” it has been doubted if he knew much else. Jonson may have been the better classicist, and there is a tradition supported by Milton, Voltaire, and Samuel Johnson that Shakespeare wrote more by nature than by art, “warbling his native woodnotes wild.” I want now to propose another, and less familiar, Shakespeare: one who held general views about the nature of language, who was the conscious master of more than one European language: in short, a man learned in tongues. I believe that Shakespeare was a conscious linguist.

The difficulties that lie in the way of proving such a hypothesis are in the first instance practical. The truth is that, much as is known about Renaissance English, that knowledge as a whole is still largely unmarshaled. This is the biggest void there is in English studies. Renaissance English still lacks a dictionary, and it still lacks a grammar. There are both for Old English, or Anglo-Saxon; both for Middle English, or Chaucer’s language; and for Modern English both, of course, and in abundance. Shakespeare’s English is Early Modern, and in scholarship it has slipped through the cracks, so to speak, between Chaucer’s English and what lexicographers since Dr. Johnson’s day have successively recorded: it has been lost sight of, as a whole, through a sort of scholarly inadvertence. Though there is an old glossary of Shakespeare’s vocabulary by C.T. Onions (1911), now revised (1986), there is none of 16th- and 17th-century English as a whole—though I have visited a workshop in a German university where a Renaissance dictionary once begun in the United States is still under way. It is a book badly needed. Until there is a dictionary of Renaissance English as a whole, we cannot easily judge Shakespeare’s use of words: a Shakespeare concordance enables us to do no more than compare one usage in that author with another; and even a big historical dictionary of Modern English like the Oxford can offer only occasional clues. That is an odd way to treat the language of Sidney and Spenser, Marlowe and Shakespeare himself, Hooker and Bacon, Ben Jonson and Middleton, Burton and Sir Thomas Browne. No grammar, and no dictionary—at least, not yet. It is the widest gap in English studies that there is.

Shakespeare’s standing as a linguist can be established most briskly by the claim that he is the only Elizabethan dramatist to write at length in a foreign language: a claim so nearly true, when one considers the brevity of Ben Jonson’s Latin tags or of John Marston’s snatches of Italian, as to be a demonstrable fact. The French scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry V are surprising: not just that Shakespeare could write them, but that he should expect a London audience in 1599 to understand them. It is true that his French is boldly inaccurate, even allowing for the fact that some of it is meant to be spoken by ignorant Englishmen: “Suivez-vous le grand capitaine” is as unlikely in 16th-century French as it would be today. Shakespeare muddles “tu” and “vous” as no Frenchman then or since is likely to have done, and misplaces pronouns: “Je te prie, m’enseignez . . . . ,” the French princess says to her confidante (III.v), for “Je te prie, enseignemoi . . .”; and he confuses “il est” and “c’est.” But then I am arguing that Shakespeare was widely read and learned rather than scholarly. He was hugely read; his literary memory must have been one of the world’s marvels; his mind could assimilate books greedily; and above all he could seize the spirit of an original, whether in French, or Latin, or perhaps even in Italian. Italian one imagines him reading, as many have done before and since, out of some half-remembered grasp of Latin acquired at school. That he was inaccurate is an effect of speed of mind, surely, rather than of lack of grasp. The public theatre was in any case no place to take trouble over linguistic accuracy. The French scenes in Henry V, essentially unique as they are, show that he could enter fully if inexactly into the spirit of a foreign tongue. As early as the 1590’s, it is clear, French was an international language of elaborate courtesy—a courtesy linked in the Elizabethan mind to a notion of mannered, even decadent badinage. Henry V’s proposal of marriage to Katherine in the last act of the play is a masterly summary of that style, moving confidently out of mannered French into bluff, blustering English and back again, as a conqueror’s heart is enslaved by the conquered.

Shakespeare’s sense of language, as a totality, is a humanist’s sense, and it is one inherited from Aristotle, Rabelais, and Erasmus. Words are arbitrary signs, we are often told nowadays—and rightly. The notion has unfortunately been allowed to go about unchecked, at least among literary critics—modern linguists know better—that the Arbitrariness of the Sign is a 20th-century discovery. Shakespeare and his audience knew it as a truth already traditional and familiar. Words happen to be what they are ever since Adam, as told in the Book of Genesis, named the animals at Creation; exceptions apart, like onomatopoeia, they are arbitrary. “That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet,” as Juliet remarks. Words are mere names: things, by contrast, are what God has made them. The point is familiar. Ferdinand de Saussure was not given to quoting Shakespeare, or indeed any literary source; but he is explicit in the Cours de linguistique générale (1916) that the Arbitrariness of the Sign is a traditional doctrine in linguistics: “The principle . . .is contested by nobody.” He might have added that it was uncontested in the European Renaissance. In an early Shakespeare play, 2 Henry VI, a charlatan claiming to have been born blind is whipped out of court for pretending to recover his sight by a miracle. Saunder Simpcox, as the rogue is called, answers questions about colors with suspicious ease: “What colour is this cloak of?”, and he answers “Red”; and “What colour is my gown of?”, and he answers “Black, forsooth, coal-black as jet”; and he is beaten for a liar. “If thou hadst been born blind,” says Gloucester,

Thou might’st as well have known all our names, as
To name the several colours we do wear.
Sight may distinguish colours; but suddenly
To nominate them all, it is impossible. . . . (II.1.124—8)

I am not aware that Shakespeare has any reputation whatever as a theorist of language; and in this matter, as in others, he makes no claim to originality. But like Juliet’s remark about “a rose by any other word,” that scene from Henry VI shows his firm grasp of a humanistic doctrine of language as an arbitrary system that had been ancient and medieval before it was Tudor. It is in Aristotle and Aquinas. Languages only happen to be what they are; they could, after all, be otherwise. They are conventions and not necessary truths. That is surely something that anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language must know; and Shakespeare, it is certain, had more than once done exactly that. At one point, indeed, he invents a language (All’s Well IV).

All that is shared knowledge, as between Shakespeare and his audiences. The story of Simpcox the charlatan, who tried to fool the court by pretending he could name colors at first sight, adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of how language works, in a severely original sense, whether then or now. But it usefully disposes of the idea that Shakespeare’s interest in linguistic questions was purely instinctive. Nobody could have composed that scene, or Juliet’s remark, without having reflected about the nature of human speech— even if those reflections, at that simple level, are no more than traditional; and nobody could have written the French scenes in Henry V without a practical knowledge of how other languages differ from his own. I want now to suggest that Shakespeare’s conscious interest in language goes far beyond familiar humanistic concerns of a lexical or rhetorical sort: that he is a conscious artist when he exploits, and almost for the first time in English, an aspect of the arbitrary principle unique to the language.


English is the only great European language firmly and extensively based on a system of double derivation. Its derivation is at once Germanic and Romance. The Germanic aspect, which is fundamental, is by now more than a thousand years old, and derives from Anglo-Saxon. The Romance element, which had begun to appear even before the Norman Conquest, was powerfully amplified by that event and its consequences: above all by some three centuries of bilingual usage. For nearly three hundred years, from 1066 down to the 1340’s, when Chaucer was an infant, England was ruled by a French-speaking ruling class; and by the time English re-emerged as an official and literary language in the mid 14th century, it had been profoundly changed by its long immersion in a foreign idiom. That is what makes English fundamentally distinct from other Germanic languages, such as the Scandinavian, or modern German, or Dutch: English is that Germanic tongue that has absorbed most widely from the vocabulary of Mediterranean Europe—in most instances, from Latin by way of French. In a curious and (to the modem mind) paradoxical sense, English is an insular language: paradoxical, because for most of human history, it is easy to forget, it has been easier to travel by sea than by land. To be an island, then, was not to be cut off from Europe but to be fully exposed to it. It is in the remote, mountainous, landlocked corners of Switzerland that medieval German survives at its purest. It is in other remote corners of Switzerland that Latin—or something like it—best survives, in Romansch. English is the supreme instance there is of a fully European language. It is that language that has been most receptively open to the influences of all Europe; and since Shakespeare’s time it has even become a world language, with a scattering of words from Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Shakespeare inherited the double-derivation system that is the hallmark of English; and of all English poets he saw the profoundest possibilities in it, and saw it at its fullest extent. The revival of classical learning was threatening to choke English with long technicalities of Romance origin, as with Holofernes the pedant in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Many such words proved unwieldy and have since been lost, so that the English of Shakespeare’s time was probably the most Latinate there has ever been. Since his interest in linguistic theory was a conscious one, he was consciously interested in that, and Holofernes makes it plain. Indeed there is a moment in another of the Henry VI plays where Shakespeare openly refers to the double derivation of English. When Sir William Lucy arrives too late to find Talbot alive, during the French wars, the Dauphin of France dares speak to him of surrender, or rather submission:

On what submissive message art thou sent?

and he receives a defiant answer:

Submission, Dauphin? ‘Tis a mere French word;
We English warriors wot not what it means
(1 Henry VI IV. v. 53—4).

Now of course “submission,” or rather “soumission,” is a French word—as Shakespeare, with his knowledge of French, could not fail to know. It had entered English some two centuries before him, so far as the documents show, or in the 14th century. Surprising if Shakespeare, after what may be presumed years of school Latin—and who knows how much subsequent reading of French and Italian too?—could not have thought of that for himself. English had no etymological dictionaries in Tudor times: but you hardly need a dictionary to know that some English words are Germanic and others Romance.

The last point needs some expansion. When the late Jürgen Schäfer of Augsburg University published his Shakespeares Stil in 1973, it was subtitled germanisches und romanisches Vokabular—Germanic and Romance vocabulary; and it attracted the criticism that he had exaggerated the extent to which a Tudor poet or audience could have retained any immediate sense of the double derivation of English. These doubts may be put to rest. The truth is that the British to this day retain an immediate and popular sense of the distinction between Germanic and Romance vocabulary, and not only linguists among them. I say British here, since the distinction of derivation is perhaps less strongly felt in American usage; and, what is more, the influence of American usage on British is tending to weaken the distinction. Let me illustrate what I mean by an instance or two.

I recently took a bus to a London suburb—a bus I had never taken before. Having been told by friends to stay on to the very end, I asked a schoolboy, when the bus showed no inclination to go any further: “Is this the terminus?” The boy looked blank, and I suddenly noticed that he was younger than I had supposed. So I altered my question to “Is this as far as it goes?,” and he told me it was.

Translating ourselves is something we do in England every day; and we remark on it so little, as native speakers, because we are so used to it. The British filter their language, both in speaking and writing, using Germanic words for popular or childish conversation and admitting Romance words for learned and technical usage—or for ironic effect. If that amounts to a mild national difference between Britain and the United States, that is because Americans often have a fainter sense of the double derivation of English and are in consequence more polysyllabic. When I first lived in the United States, more than a quarter-century ago, I was struck by the way ordinary Americans would use the word “pregnant” in a domestic context, as in “My wife is pregnant”; whereas in England the word smacks of hospitals and law-courts, and to this day an Englishman would be more likely to say “My wife is having a baby”: a remark that is Germanic through and through. (The phrase “with child” is by now archaic even in England, and I imagine it would strike an American, especially, as impossibly literary and Biblical in ordinary conversation.) No Englishman is likely to remark, as an explanation of why he isn’t laughing, “I’m internalizing,” as Mort Sahl once did in London; or to write about “Hamlet’s sociological origins,” as an American student once did when I was teaching in the Midwest. (He meant no more than that Hamlet was a prince.) American English can strike the British visitor as almost comically polysyllabic. But then the United States never suffered a Norman Conquest or three centuries of Anglo-French bilingualism.

Shakespeare’s point about “submission,” then, is something that the English still live by. It is a mere French word. It has no Germanic equivalent, as it happens—abstractions tend to be Romance in English—though there are phrases about “giving in.” Alone among the great European languages, English has the odd facility of offering the chance to say most things in two ways. One may say “Is this the terminus?” or “Is this as far as it goes?” A woman can be pregnant, or she can be going to have a baby. One can teach or lecture. It is a subtly graded system, replete with ironic effects: but in the end it comes down to a set of alternatives, a duality. It is as if English were less one language than two.


The matter has more than one aspect. Since Romance terms often reflect a higher rank, or education, or state of sophistication, they can boast a higher prestige than Germanic; though there are exceptions, and in the days of the U and non-U controversy it was diverting to be reminded that Germanic “napkin” is of higher standing than Romance “serviette.” Another is a difference of length. There are rather few Romance monosyllables in English; and exceptions like the verb “to pant” are somehow surprising to learn. (The word is ultimately related to Greek “phantasia.”) Much of our Germanic vocabulary, by contrast, has been left as words of one syllable, as a consequence of the collapse of English terminal inflections in the later Middle Ages.

That leaves English poetry with a dimension unique in the Western world: the possibility of the monosyllabic line, the poetic equivalent of that remark I made on the bus: “Is this as far as it goes?.” More than half a century ago the great Shakespearean A.C. Bradley was struck by the monosyllabism of Hamlet’s dying speech to Horatio surrounded, as one great line there is, by lines of quite another order—

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain

—and he composed a classic essay on the rise, fall, and Victorian recovery of that strange species of utterance, essentially Germanic as it commonly is. Nowadays four-lettering means obscenity, and there are notoriously four-letter equivalents to police-report terms like “violation” and “fornication,” startling as they would look, until recently, in any polite context. They are sometimes comically called “words of Anglo-Saxon origin.” But such words are after all the heartbeat of some of the greatest lines of English verse, and not only Shakespeare’s.

You do me wrong to take me out of the grave,

says Lear, at a moment of high intensity, and a polysyllabic version could only be weaker. It is one thing to do someone wrong, as Lear puts it; another, and a more technical thing, to commit an injustice. As “submission” is a mere French word, so is “injustice.” So I suggest that what Shakespeare achieved with English was to see a new possibility in its Englishness, or rather its Anglo-Saxon-ness. He dared to make the traditionally less dignified of two derivations its supremely dignified form: he turned the less learned, momentarily, into the more. It is as if “sheep” and “mutton,” or “veal” and “cow,” were reversed: a sort of delayed revenge for the Norman Conquest.


I want now to suggest that Shakespeare, being at once a good linguist and something of a conscious theorist of language, practices the translation-game of English in a deliberate sense and to serious purposes. Since it is possible in English to say most things in two ways, it is often possible to translate oneself—the only language, surely, where such an effect is common or even widely possible. In Shakespeare that game presumably reflects the social diversity of his audience. Not everyone in a Jacobean theatre would understand Macbeth’s line about

The multitudinous seas incarnadine

where the extremely rare verb “to incarnadine,” meaning to dye red, and occurring nowhere else in Shakespeare, is paired off with the highly elaborate adjective “multitudinous” to keep it learned company. Such a line can only have made the vaguest sense for most of Shakespeare’s first audience; but he promptly translates it into the simplest of terms, for the groundlings:

Making the green one red,

so that a hard version is followed by an easy one.

From the beginning of his career, Shakespeare often prefers to play the translation-game in that oddly inverted order, from complex to simple. Consider Berowne’s speech on love in that early play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, where Berowne is urging his three friends to abandon their vow of chastity:

Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockled snails.
Love’s tongue proves dainty Bacchus gross in taste.
For valour, is not Love a Hercules,
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?
Subtle as Sphinx; as sweet and musical
As bright Apollo’s lute, strung with his hair.
And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes Heaven drowsy with the harmony.
. . . (IV. iii. 334—42)

This is aureate, highly Elizabethan English, of a sort Shakespeare was soon to cease to write—a style straight out of the poetical worlds of his older contemporaries like Sir Philip Sidney and Spenser, though more vital and nervous in its movement than theirs. In its verbal derivations it is a system of compounds: Germanic and Romance, short and long, common and learned—”soft and sensible,” “sweet and musical”, “drowsy with the harmony.” If you have two systems of derivation, after all, then (to speak broadly) you have three possibilities: to be one, or the other, or a compound of the two. What guarantees the ironic distance of Berowne’s speech, where he is persuading young men who have no need to be persuaded of the charms of women, is their utterly deflating response:

Now to plain dealing: lay these glozes by,

says Longaville, urging them on to “woo these girls of France.” “And win them too,” says the King bluntly. When it comes to the point, the point is usually monosyllabic. The movement is from the elaborate and the aureate to words of one syllable.

This seems an odd order to proceed in. Why does Shakespeare, whether in an early play like Love’s Labour’s Lost or a late one like Macbeth, make it hard before he makes it easy? Why does he play the translation-game inherent in the language backward, so to speak: first in Romance—or at least a mixture powerfully influenced by Romance—and then in Germanic? I am not aware that this question has ever been posed before, let alone answered. It strikes at the heart of his mastery of style, early and late in his career. And unlikely as the procedure looks, one cannot for a moment accept that he is getting it wrong, since it succeeds so well. In Henry V’s proposal of marriage to Princess Katherine, in the same way, in the last act of Henry V, the scene begins mainly in French, which most of his audience presumably could not understand; and then moves into plain English, which even the most ignorant could grasp in a flash: “Your Majestee ave fausse French enough to deceive de most sage demoiselle dat is en France,” says the Princess beguilingly; and Henry V bursts out in plain English:

Now fie upon my false French! by mine honour, in true English, I love thee, Kate. . . . The elder I wax, the better I shall appear. . . . Thou hast me, if thou hast me, at the worst; and thou shalt wear me, if thou wear me, better and better. . . . Put off your maiden blushes, avouch the thoughts of your heart with the looks of an empress, take me by the hand, and say: “Harry of England, I am thine.” (V.ii)

Shakespeare’s confusion between “you” and “thou” here may help to explain and justify his cheerful confusion of “vous” and “tu” when he wrote French. The entire scene is shaped like Berowne’s exchange with his friends, in stylistic terms, or like Macbeth’s speech: from hard to easy. It is surprising that it should work at all; and yet it does work, and triumphantly.

Perhaps I can best attempt to explain what is happening here by a remote analogy. A Prime Minister of Singapore once remarked that he makes public speeches there in all the three official languages of Singapore: Chinese, Malay, and English. Much of his speech is in Chinese, which is the native language of most of his hearers; there is an obligatory paragraph on Malay culture, which has to be in Malay, even if few understand it; and there is a final passage in English, because it is in English that one announces what one is going to do. In other words, the speech moves from the least known to the best known, in political terms: from the circumlocutionary to the direct, from relative obscurity into the brightest of bright lights. Political speeches are dramatic events, among other things, and I hope the analogy will not be thought too remote here to be instructive. Dramatically speaking, there would be little point in moving from the clear to the obscure. That would be to deprive a dramatic language of much of its power to puzzle, to intrigue and to charm.

The principle can be illustrated by the most famous speech, perhaps, that Shakespeare ever wrote. An audience does not clearly understand what Hamlet means when he enters and says:

To be or not to be—that is the question,

and it does not understand until he has uttered another three or four lines:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them.

The question what is to be, then—or not to be—is whether he should kill the King or do nothing: to act by taking arms, or to “suffer” in the sense of staying passive. That shows the same pattern as the movement from hard to easy, where the riddling is unriddled, though the pattern is no longer dominated by the length or derivation of words. As a rhetorical device it comes close to the figure of suspension, whereby the unexplained is progressively explained. The genius of drama is to make you wait, and to make you want to wait. Rhetorical suspension makes for dramatic suspense; and the high tension of these plays—their unparalleled skill at awakening expectation, and holding it—is powerfully linked to that device of style. Shakespeare’s is above all a purposeful world, where wills are formed in opposition to other wills, and where they clash and conflict, revealing oppositions only gradually and by degrees. What language more fitting, then, than one where a unique double derivation can be used to tease, baffle, and perplex all but the most learned and alert in an audience, until everything at last is made one-syllable and plain?

That plainness I take to be the greatest Shakespearean stroke of all. So much is said of the subtle complexity of Shakespearean language, and justly so, that it is easy to forget what a simple author he often is. The clearest test of all is to say that in Shakespeare it is always utterly clear, by the end of a scene, what has happened in it. He never, like Harold Pinter, deals in unclear situations; he is never knowingly mysterious. Shakespeare is a master of mystery only in the sense that he can portray the mystery and bafflement of his characters. But we are never deceived. Macbeth can be puzzled to know how to interpret the prophecies of the three witches; but we know, or easily guess, that Glamis will become Cawdor, and Cawdor King of Scotland. When Macbeth talks bitterly about the witches paltering with him “in a double sense,” at the bitter end, we accept that it was natural for him to feel misled, but not that we ever were. In terms of dramatic situations, Shakespeare is as lucid a dramatist as ever was.

That clarity is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest debt to Marlowe, who has the same propensity for laying the dramatic facts on the line, and for explaining—often in a single line—what a total situation is. In that sense, though not in all others, Shakespeare is a Marlovian. When we are told at the start of Romeo and Juliet that

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,

an outline of the total action of the play is presented before it is one minute old. Shakespeare forces one to understand.


No mysteries, then, no obscurities, no silences. . . . Seeking exceptions to these rules makes one of the best question-games one can play, so here are some questions.

Question 1: Are there any scenes in Shakespeare where, by the end of the scene, we do not know what has happened in it? Surely none at all: in that sense Shakespeare never writes like Harold Pinter. He never forces one to wait to the end of a play, or even of a scene, before explaining what he means.

Question 2: Are there any single speeches in Shakespeare which we do not understand? Yes, a few, and mostly in the late plays: but usually because we suspect some textual corruption. The principle of clarity holds locally as well as for entire scenes.

Question 3: Are there any speeches which other characters signify they cannot understand? Yes, two, and both of them late in his career. In Cymbeline, when lachimo is trying to seduce Imogen, he is so roundabout in his approach that she replies:

       I pray you, sir,
Deliver with more openness your answers
To my demands. Why do you pity me? (—9)

And in Timon of Athens, when the Poet indulges in some flowery talk, as poets will, the Painter replies “How shall I understand you?” (I.i.51). Misunderstandings are of course something else. But these are perhaps the only two instances of failing to understand altogether, and admitting it—at least when both characters are speaking English.

Question 4: Are there any necessary silences in Shakespeare, where language runs out altogether into wordlessness? I mean silences on stage. Virgilia, to be sure, is silent when she touchingly greets her husband Coriolanus, and he teases her tenderly for it: “My gracious silence, hail!” (II.i.175); but that is not a silence on the stage which is necessary to the action, whatever actors may choose to do with it.

The answer is yes—two again: one in 1 Henry VI, where the fiends who refuse to rescue Joan of Arc “walk and speak not” (V.iii); and another and far more moving instance in Coriolanus, where his mother Volumnia reproaches him for besieging Rome; and he replies, at first, in silence (V.iii.183).

But all that is only to say that, in all the 37 plays, Shakespeare is almost always clear, almost always ready with words, almost always self-explanatory—at least after due allowance has been made for the passage of nearly four centuries. Like Verdi, he was above all a popular artist. He wrote plays for the masses, though not only for them. Actors can speak his lines, audiences can receive and assimilate them. The poems, which often lack a similar transparency—especially the sonnets—suggest that clarity was a deliberate choice, and not the whole of his nature or of his talent. But when all is said, he is that dramatist of all Europe whose language seems most fully apt to delight at once the ignorant and the wise.

I am indebted to Jürgen Schäfer, Shakespeares Stil (Frankfurt, 1973); Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1977); and A.C. Bradley, “Monosyllabic lines and words” (1929), reprinted in my Literary English since Shakespeare (New York, 1970). My thanks are due to my colleagues E.E. Duncan-Jones and Professor Frank Kermode for general encouragement, and to Professor Peter Rickard for advice on 16th-century French.


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