To many readers, Shakepeare’s plays seem to be written in a foreign language. Sometimes the words are familiar but don’t seem to carry the same meaning as they do today. But Shakespeare’s English is really not that different from modern American English. Learning a few word meanings can make reading the plays much easier and allow for more enjoyment.
Anon-has the meaning very soon. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet tells the nurse who is calling her inside, away from Romeo, “I come, anon” (Act II, Scene ii, 150). Juliet is saying, “I’ll be there in a minute.”
If we used Shakespeare’s word today, the sentence would be much the same as Juliet’s: “I am coming anon.”
Cuckold-is a man whose wife is cheating on him. It usually implies he is oblivious to her indiscretions. In Othello (Act IV, Scene iii, 75-77), Shakespeare’s character Emilia says, “Who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?” She is meaning that any woman would sleep with another man if doing so would give her husband a position of power.
We’re more blunt today, and the concept doesn’t have the power it did during Shakespeare’s England, so the impact is different, but a modern speaker could say, “He is such a cuckold; his wife has cheated on him three different guys, and he still has no clue.”
Fain-means ready and willing, perhaps even eager. At the start of The Tempest, a character standing on a sinking ship laments, “I would fain a dry death” (Act I, Scene i, 73). He would much rather die any other way than drowning.
I commonly hear teenagers saying, “I fain pizza for dinner.”
Fie-is an interjection meaning ridiculous. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth relives trying to talk her husband into murder, saying (Act V, Scene 1, 37-38), “Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and afeard?” Since he is a military man, it is nonsense for him to be afraid of a simple murder.
A driver stopped for speeding could tell the officer, “Fie, I never even got up to the limit!”
Marry-(often lower case) usually means the Virgin Mary, so it is used to swear an oath or as an interjection of surprise, much as many modern speakers use the term “Jesus.” Shakespeare has Richard III utter such an expletive when accusing his late brother’s wife of causing mayhem in the aristocracy: “She may, yea, marry” (Act I, Scene iii, 98).
Prithee-means literally pray thee, a word meaning “ask” in Shakespeare’s time. King Lear’s daughter Regan makes a decision Lear disagrees with, and he tells her so: “I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad” (Act II, Scene iv, 221).
Parents give words of wisdom to their children who are heading out on a trip: “Prithee, be careful.”
Sooth-means truth. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice begins with the line “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” (Act I, Scene i, 1). The speaker Antonio doesn’t know why he has become so glum.
A child flunks a test and tells his mother that the material is just too difficult for him. As soon as she is out of earshot, the child might confide in a friend: “In sooth, I do understand it, but I spent the whole test period drawing pictures of Spiderman and ran out of time.”
Vouchsafe-means to give. King Lear tells his daughter that when he is too old to run his kingdom, he hopes “that you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food” (Act II, Scene iv, 156), meaning that she would give home clothing, housing and food.
Using Shakespeare’s word today’s teen might announce, “My parents are going to vouchsafe me a car for my birthday.”
Zounds-(pronounced zwoons, rhyming with loons)-is another interjection, this time a word that comes from “His wounds” (Christ’s wounds on the cross). This can be used as a positive or negative expression, much like the current “Holy Crap!” in America.
I’m surprised we don’t hear “Zounds, gas costs a lot of money” more often.
Learning the meanings of just a few words of Shakespeare at a time can make the meaning of the entire play much clearer. And using such words in daily modern life can help students learn the meanings that much faster.