Shakespeare's complex sentence structures and use of now obsolete words lead many students to think they are reading Old or Middle English. In fact, Shakespeare's works are written in Early Modern English. Once you see a text of Old or Middle English you'll really appreciate how easy Shakespeare is to understand (well, relatively speaking). Take, for example, this passage from the most famous of all Old English works, Beowulf:
Hwät! we Gâr-Dena in geâr-dagum
þeód-cyninga þrym gefrunon,
hû þâ äðelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scêfing sceaðena þreátum.
Lo! the Spear-Danes' glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings' former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers...
Old English was spoken and written in Britain from the 5th century to the middle of the 11th century and is really closer to the Germanic mother tongue of the Anglo-Saxons.
With the arrival of the French-speaking Normans in 1066, Old English underwent dramatic changes and by 1350 it had evolved into Middle English. Middle English is easier but still looks like a foreign language much of the time. Here is an example from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the most famous work in Middle English:
Ye seken lond and see for your wynnynges,
As wise folk ye knowen all th'estaat
Of regnes; ye been fadres of tydynges
And tales, bothe of pees and of debaat. (The Man of Law's Tale)
You seek land and sea for your winnings,
As wise folk you know all the estate
Of kingdoms; you be fathers of tidings,
And tales, both of peace and of debate.
By about 1450, Middle English was replaced with Early Modern English, the language of Shakespeare, which is almost identical to contemporary English.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare's LanguageShakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespearelanguage.html >.