My students often explain to me that the reason that Shakespeare’s writing is somewhat challenging to understand is that he wrote in “Old English.” They are skeptical, incredulous, nay, even horrified when I tell them that he wrote not in Old English, nor even Middle English, but Modern English! Now, of course, Shakespeare’s Modern English was early Modern English—but it was Modern English, nonetheless. By Shakespeare’s time, the Great Vowel Shift was well underway, and the Germanic elements of English (brought by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) had melded with native Celtic elements, and the Latinate elements that made their way to England via the Norman Conquest had thoroughly permeated the language.
Printing came to England less than a century before Shakespeare’s birth, and until William Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, encountered the problem of the lack of standardization in punctuation, spelling, and other language-related issues, no one had worried too much about these things. The standardization of English was still being worked out during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the creative bard took full advantage of the situation, coining not only phrases that we still use today but even words! Some of Shakespeare’s greatest to our language are only two syllables long!
Just imagine being in the audience at the Globe Theatre and hearing, for the first time, the words listed in this article. Would you have thought that they’d become staples of the language and remain in common parlance for centuries to come?