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Understanding Shakespeare, Part Two

Welcome to part two of Understanding Shakespeare!
Hopefully you've read the introduction to Understanding Shakespeare (Part One). Now comes the trickier part - translating what Billy the Bard says into plain old English!

The Sandwich Sentence
Did people really speak the way they do in Shakespeare's plays? No - Shakespeare wrote the way he did for poetic and dramatic purposes. He did this for artistic purposes - for rhythm, for speech pattern or to emphasize a word.

Let`s take a look at 6 sentences with 4 words, that all carry the same meaning.

I ate the sandwich.
I the sandwich ate.
Ate the sandwich I.
Ate I the sandwich.
The sandwich I ate.
The sandwich ate I.

When you are reading Shakespeare's plays, look for this type of unusual word arrangement. Locate the subject, verb, and the object of the sentence.

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

Poetry Style
Shakespeare wrote both prose and poetry. It is vital that you understand the following poetry terms:

Blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter: five beats of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables; ten syllables per line. The bold marks the stressed syllable:

"So fair / and foul / a day / I have / not seen'

'The course / of true / love nev/er did / run smooth"

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 slang we speak today. A few examples of Shakespeare omissions and contractions to 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

Unusual Words
Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English, but there are many words in his works that are no longer in use. Sometimes these words still exist, but their meanings have changed as well. That's why it's best to use your play edition's side pages to check their meanings. Shakespeare's vocabulary included 30,000 words, and he even created new words. Today our vocabularies only run between 6,000 and 15,000 words!

Marshall Astor

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