We Three Kings: How Shakespeare Defines Linguistic Borders



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We Three Kings: How Shakespeare Defines Linguistic Borders”

Three of the most often produced and taught of Shakespeare’s plays are The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, The Tragedy of King Lear, and The Life of Henry the Fifth. Because these plays are set in various locations and during many periods of history, it is an interesting exercise to examine them with regard to the way in which Shakespeare differentiates among the dramatis personae in each play. Although it is not usually disputed that because of his tendency toward original wordplay and neologisms Shakespeare’s dramatic “voice” is distinct from the voices of his contemporaries, I argue that there are many different Shakespearean “voices,” each consciously used by Shakespeare to impart to his audience, with an economy of words, the specific traits of the character to whom the lines belong.

In order to illustrate my hypothesis about the way in which Shakespeare portrays different characters with different voices, I have chosen to examine three rulers and three secondary characters: Julius Caesar and Flavius in Julius Caesar, Lear and Tom O’Bedlam (the disguised Edgar) in King Lear, Henry and Pistol in Henry V. All of the eponymous characters are based, at least loosely, on their historical counterparts from different eras and locations: Caesar from the Roman Empire shortly before 44 B.C. (Evans 1101), the legendary Lear from pre-Arthurian Britain (Lee xxiii), and Henry on the historical descendant of King Edward III, who reigned over England from 1422-1461 (Evans 595).

For all of these characters, I want to examine their words with regard to two areas of linguistic analysis. First, each character’s diction denotes his social status. Secondly, the etymology employed loosely matches a character’s country of origin: Caesar and Flavius give significant weight to words in English which are either derived from Latin or borrowed wholesale therefrom, for example.

After examining these issues, I will answer a few additional questions raised by my assertions. Did Shakespeare change some words to fit rhymes or metrical requirements, and thus--according to my hypothesis--rob some lines of their “personality,” or ought that to be an issue at all?

The first part of the task is to see how Shakespeare differentiates linguistically between ruler and subject. In order to show briefly that this is so, I will look at some representative passages, comparing the tone and diction of the elite with those of socially lower characters.

One of Julius Caesar’s more well-known speeches contains these lines:

Cowards die many times before their deaths,

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come. (II, ii, 32-7)

Compare this to an earlier, similarly-thematic speech from Flavius, tribune to the common people:

It is no matter, let no images

Be hung with Caesar’s trophies. I’ll about

And drive away the vulgar from the streets;

So do you too, [Marrelus,] where you perceive them thick.

These growing feathers pluck’d from Caesar’s wing

Will make him fly an ordinary pitch,

Who else would soar above the view of men,

And keep us all in servile fearfulness. (I, i, 68-75)

In each of these two speeches, the speaker concerns himself with a brave, noble thought or action, but Caesar and Flavius attack their problems in different ways. Caesar flouts death itself, while Flavius likewise courts death by showing disrespect to the statues of Caesar. Notice, however, the manner in which each character accomplishes his ends. Where Caesar uses an economy of words, as in calling death “a necessary end,” Flavius repeeats and clarifies. It takes Flavius four lines to enunciate his reasons for going about un-decking the statues of Caesar. Another mark by which Caesar may be seen as a ruler is in his conscious choice of repeated words for emphasis. The ending line, “Will come when it will come” places ennobling emphasis in a needed spot. Flavius, on the other hand, resorts not to his diction for his emphasis, as evinced in the iambic “ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum”1 prosody of “These growing feathers pluck’d from Caesar’s wing,” but to metaphor. Caesar’s speech relies on phenomena, while Flavius uses only the more ephemeral eidola to advance his notions. Caesar also speaks in strophe/antistrophe (Hammond 43), while Flavius is not so careful in his constructions, which sound closer to the extemporaneous wording of everyday speech. In this instance, speech is for Caesar a chance for oratory, while it is merely a chance for communication for Flavius.

A like comparison may be made with regard to the words of King Lear and Tom O’Bedlam. Lear, like Caesar, practices an economy of words, is choosy about what he repeats, and constructs his sentences carefully. Lear meets with Edgar (disguised as Tom) in III, iv:



Edg. Bless thy five wits! Tom’s a-cold--O, do, de, do, de, do, de. Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting, and taking! Do poor Tom some charity, whom the foul fiend vexes. There could I have him now--and there--and there again--and there. . . .

Lear Death, traitor! Nothing could have subdu’d nature

To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.

Is it the fashion, that discarded fathers

Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?

Judicious punishment! ‘twas this flesh begot

Those pelican daughters. (III, iv, 58-75)

In this exchange, Lear indeed reserves his speech, so that his words are pithy and full of meaning. “Discarded fathers” succinctly sums up Lear’s entire situation in two words. Edgar’s portrayal of Tom O’Bedlam, on the other hand, is as one might expect it to be: rambling and filled with sing-song and gibberish. His “O, do, de, do, de,” and his attempt to catch the “foul fiend” on his person place him socially beneath even the like of Flavius, who might have been imprudent, but not, as Tom is, mad. As such, Tom becomes an opposite pole to Lear’s inherent (albeit suffering) majesty. The only repeated word in Lear’s speech is “flesh,” which reinforces Lear’s predicament, both physical (the storm) and metaphorical (his daughters). The reiterations in Tom’s speech serve to remind the audience of his child-like verbal skills. Lear’s sentences are carefully constructed in verse, while Tom speaks in disordered prose. The disjunction of Tom’s thought processes are highlighted in contrast to Lear’s use of a hypothesis-question-reformulation structure (Hungerford, et al 44). A counter-argument to this example might be that we are listening to Edgar--Lear’s son, and therefore a “noble” character--in the disguise of Tom; ought we not to be able to detect some strains of his “true” character in Tom’s speech? I must answer this objection only partially for now, by saying that although Edgar feigns the disjunctive reason of madness very well, it is difficult for him to drop the “whom” from his vocabulary. Note that the “real” rustic in Antony & Cleopatra who brings the queen the asp uses “who” consistently.

King Henry’s speech is, of the three monarchs in this study, most similar to the everyday speech of the playgoer at the turn of the sixteenth century who would have heard Henry V performed on stage, although he can be lingustically distinguished easily from his subordinate Pistol by two characteristics: the words which he chooses to repeat and the fact that he speaks in verse.

Henry, even though his claim to the English throne is tenuous, evinces the lingustic marks of kingly character that I have already found in the diction of the two previous rulers. In Act II, scene ii, Henry compares Scroop’s attempt at treasonous assassination to the actions of a man possessed by a “demon” (Charles VI of France):

If that same demon that hath gull’d thee thus

Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,

he might return to vasty Tartar back,

And tell the legions, “I can never win

A soul so easy as that Englishman’s.”

O, how hast thou with jealousy infected

The sweetness of affiance! Show men dutiful?

Why, so didst thou. Seem they grave and learned?

Why, so didst thou. Come they of noble family?

Why, so didst thou. Seem they religious?

Why, so didst thou. . . . (121-131)

Here, the repetition is imitative of similar patterns in the non-secular realm; Henry checks off the semblances and deceits of Scroop like a religious litany. This speech extends the word-repetitions that occur in the previous plays I have examined, turning an entire phrase into the main thrust of Henry’s accusation. Hnery’s calcualted speech may be contrasted againt the mere prolixity of Pistol’s farewell speech to his new wife Mistress Quickly in the next scene:

. . . My love, give me thy lips.

Look to my chattels and my movelables.

Let sense rule: the word is “Pitch and pay”;

Trust none;

For oaths are straws, men’s faiths are wafer-cakes,

And Hold-fast is the only dog, my duck;

Therefore Caveato by thy counsellor.

Go, clear thy crystals. Yoke-fellows in arms,

Let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys,

To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck! (46-46)

Pistol, within the same span of lines as Henry earlier, runs through his own litany, of sorts, but with a crucial difference which indicates that he is not a character of high birth: although Pistol’s speech appears to be in verse, it is not. Henry’s earlier speech scans well; Pistol’s speech is, at times, in iambic pentameter, but some lines run to six feet (as in “Let senses rule. . . Trust none”). The second indicator that Pistol’s speech is not that of a nobly-born character lies in the two last lines. Although the pun on “let,’ in the sense of “let us go” and “blood-letting” shows a macabre comic wit, Pistol’s choice of repetition serves to explain the pun he has made--very unlike the “Why, so didst thous” of Henry, which serve to magnify and enlarge his argument.

The thing for which to watch, it seems, in attempting to ascertain by their diction whether characters in Shakespeare are members of high or low social classes, is the extent to which the character’s repetiton of words serves to expand (or, conversely, more narrowly define and explain) his point.

A secondary issue to that of determining the nobility of Caesar, Lear, and Henry is that of determining whether it is possible to distinguish Roman from Briton from Anglo-Norman, based solely on their diction. I conjecture two possible means by which this may be accomplished. The stage devices of costume, accent, and mannerism (Gell-Mann & Hawkins 59ff) notwithstanding, Shakespeare reveals the nationality of the three rulers through the etymology of their diction.

When Caesar speaks, it is with authority; we know that the crowd is hushed when Casca proclaims “Peace, ho! Caesar speaks!” (I, ii, 2). In Caesar’s speech to Decius upon being summoned to the Senate, Caesar’s use of words whose etymological roots are Latin is especially evident:

The cause is in my will, I will not come:

That is enough to satisfy the Senate.

But for your private satisfaction,

Because I love you, I will let you know.

Calphurnia here, my wife, stays me at home:

She dreamt to-night she saw my statuë,

Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,

Did run our blood; and many lusty Romans

Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.

And these does she apply for warnings and portents

And evils imminent, and on her knee

Hath begg’d that I will stay at home to-day. (II, ii, 71-82)

Many words in this speech are derivative of Latin words. The words “satisfy,” “fountain,” and “bathe” come from satisfactionem, fontanus, and balneae, respectively. Likewise do “portents” and “imminent” come from portentii and iminent (Pinkster cf. 22-40). Although there are other key words in this speech that do not derive from Latin, Shakespeare often pairs them with Latin or Latinate phrases. Note that the speech does not say merely “warnings,” but “warnings and portents.” It is not “private” thought that Caesar divulges, but “private satisfaction.”

The character of King Lear is based loosely on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century account of the early Brittanic kings (Lee 47). The section in Monmouth on “kinge Leir” went through a number of changes before it reached Shakespeare, passing through The Faerie Queene and a few minor playwrights’ works before being chronicled in Holinshed--from which Shakespeare most likely drew much of his material in writing King Lear. Shakespeare’s Lear is, however, definitely an English king; he receives as foreign dignitaries the king of France and the duke of Burgundy (I, i, cf. 190-205). The difficulty in “placing’ Lear linguistically is a question of whether he should sound more similar to an archaic Frenchman or Anglo-Saxon. The answer, in part, comes from a study of some of the other characters in the play. The minor characters in the story of the historical “kinge Leir” were all of French origin, and had Gallic-sounding names, according to Peter Saccio. Except for the king of France, Saccio argues, Shakespeare has Anglicized or changed all of the secondary characters’ names, liberally sprinkling recognizable English names such as Cornwall, Albany, and Oswald (4).

Thus, in the speech where Lear curses Goneril for turning him out of doors, we might expect the use of archaic British diction:

Hear, nature, hear, dear goddess, hear!

Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend

To make this creature fruitful.

Into her womb convey sterility,

Dry up in her the organs of increase,

And from her derogate body never spring

A babe to honor her! If she must teem,

Create her child of spleen, that it may live

And be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her.

Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,

With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,

Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits

To laughter and contempt, that she may feel

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is

To have a thankless child!--Away, away! (I, iv, 275-289)

Lear’s words are those of an archaic (with respect both to Shakespeare’s and our own times) British king. Lear has been Anglicized to the point of the exclusion of many French words. “Goddess,” “intend,” “womb,” “spleen,” “thwart,” “stamp,” and “fret” are all words which survived the gradual vowel shift from Middle to Modern English almost intact (Baugh and Cable 238, ff.). Where the “frenchied man” (to borrow a phrase from Bacon) would say, perhaps, “bear issue,” Lear chooses the archaic “teem”; instead of the French “terrible,” we hear the Old English “thwart.” Lear, and by extension Shakespeare, understands (at least obliquely, through word derivations) the diction of twelfth-century England.

As Lear’s diction locates him in a far British past, Henry’s word etymology and sentence construction locate him in a near. The soldiers who fight under Henry may serve as the most intersting example of the manner in which Shakespeare differentiates from among the Scottish, the Irish, and Welshmen using word origin. In Act III, scene ii, Fluellen’s Welsh speech can be identified by the superfluity of direct addresses to his listener, and by the archaic form “unto”:

. . . Tell you the Duke, it is not so good to come to the mines; for look you , the mines is not according to the disciplines of the war; the concavities of it is not sufficient. For look you, th’ athversary--you may discuss unto the Duke, look you--is digt himself four yards under the counter-mines. By Chesu, I think ‘a will plow up all, if there is not better directions. (III, ii, 57-64)

That Fluellen’s native tongue is Welsh can also be seen in his ignorance of plural verbs, unnecessary in Welsh. The Welsh “Chesu” for “Jesus,” along with such phonetic spellings as “athversary” and “digt” are bald clues toward the proper pronunciation of the speech, assumedly to be followed by the actor for whom the part was originally written. In the same scene, MacMorris shows himself an Irishman by some of the same linguistic tokens that Fluellen uses to exhibit his Welsh-ness:

By Chrish law, ‘tish ill done! The work ish give over, the trompet sound the retreat. By my hand, I swear, and my father’s soul, the work ish ill done; it ish give over. (III, ii, 88-92)

Like Fluellen, MacMorris uses a linguistically locating oath--”Chrish” for “Christ.” The pronunciation clues are also evident here in the flat O of “trompet” and the ∫-phoneme endings on “‘tish” and “ish” to denote the Irish lilt and lisp, respectively. The “Scots captain, captain Jamy” is even more strongly lingustically located:

It sall be vary, gud, gud feith, gud captens bath, and I sall quit you with gud leve, as I may pick occasion; that sall I, mary. (III, ii, 102-104)

The phonetic spellings are here plainest to see of all three soliders, and the oath of “mary” is milder than the by-Jesus and by-Christ-ing of the Irishman and the Welshman, but it is there, I think, to show that these three speeches are meant to be viewed as exemplars by which to compare the three characters. Jamy’s speech relies most heavily on the written cues, posibly because a Scottish brogue is furthest removed of the three accents from the pronunciations of then-standard English. Although these three soldiers are not the only nationalities represented in Henry V, they serve the purposes of this study more than amply.

The characters of Caesar, Lear, and Henry use the diction appropriate to their stations in society. The question still remains, however, as to how valid my research is, because I have admittedly glossed over a few rather crucial points in my arguments, such as that Julius Caesar often does not speak his lines in a Latin object-subject-verb sentence pattern.

Such an objection to my hypothesis might be answered by an examination of the meter of Shakespeare’s verse. Pentameter is easily done in Latin, as in portions of Virgil’s Aeneid (Hammond 212). The tricky part for Shakespeare is that the “natural rhythm” of English is iambic, while Latin is characterized by a trochaic emphasis pattern (Hammond 212). Fitting Latin words and phrases, which are traditionally pronounced in a manner opposite to that of English, into his verse may have caused problems enough for Shakespeare to necessarily abandon traditional Latin sentence patterns in many of Caesar’s lines.

Another possible argument about the inconsistencies in the sentence patterns of Caesar (and, by extension, Lear) may be found in the emphasis which Latin would have necessitated at certain points in Shakespeare’s lines. Latin sentences tended to place important--and thus more heavily stressed--words at the beginning of a sentence (Hammond 69), which are denoted by inflectional endings. English sentences are usually constructed more evenly in terms of where important parts of speech are positioned, because emphasis is derived from sentence position and inflectional signal, rather than the Latin method of reliance upon word endings. Sir Thomas Urquhart comments on this phenomenon in his Logopandectei∫ion of1653, saying that “some languages have copiu∫ne∫s of di∫cour∫e, which are barren in compo∫ition: ∫uch is the Latine. Others are compendious in expre∫∫ion, which hardly have any ƒlexion at all: of this kind are the Dutch, the Engli∫h, and Iri∫h” (40). In the case of Caesar’s speeches, Shakespeare may have made the necessary concessions to the English language in order to make it easier for his audience to follow the argumentative meaning of Caesar’s sentences. Shakespeare, does, after all, write in English, and not in Latin.

Henry V, on the other hand, fits in well with my idea about the association of diction with national origin. Representative lines--all written, of course, by Shakespeare

--are spoken by characters from France, England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, all within a few lines of one another (cf. III, i-iv). Thus, I argue, even if historical clues are lacking

--or unnecessary, as is the case with Henry--Shakespeare still uses diction as a means by which to tell those of one nationality from those of another.

It is not merely a novelty to Shakespeare scholars to know that we can pinpoint characters--at least the three which I have here examined--in time and place by examining their diction. I am curious to examine other of Shakespeare’s characters for the same sorts of textual “clues” toward a reconstruction of characters as set within a cultural and temporal milieu. This kind of stable basis from which to make such examinations is perhaps necessary in order to move toward a broader understanding of the political and social dynamics which are present in Shakespeare’s plays.



Fun Bedtime Reading

Abbott, E. A. A Shakespearean Grammar: An Attempt to Illustrate Some of the Differences Between Elizabethan and Modern English, for the Use of Schools. 3rd ed. London, 1883.

Baugh, Albert C. and Cable, Thomas. A History of the English Language. 3rd ed. London: Prentice Hall, 1978.

Blake, N[orman] F[rancis]. Shakespeare’s Language: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1981.

Burton, Dolores M. Shakespeare’s Grammatical Style. Austin: U of Texas P, 1973.

Cable, Thomas Monroe. “The Old English Origins of Modern English Poetic Rhythms.” The Joseph S. Schick Lecture Series in Language, Literature, and Lexicography. Indiana State University, Terre Haute. 23 Mar. 1995.

The Chronicle History of King Leir: The Original of Shakespeare’s King Lear. 7 vols. Ed. Sidney Lee. London: Chatto and Windus, 1909. Vol. 7.

Donoworth, Jane. Shakespeare and the Sixteenth-Century Study of Language. Chicago: U of Illinios P, 1984.



English Linguistics: An Introductory Reader. Ed. Harold Hungerford, Jay Robinson, and James Sledd. Atlanta: Scott, Foresman, 1970.

Evans, Ifor. The Language of Shakespeare’s Plays. University Paperbacks Series. London: Methuen, 1965.



The Evolution of Human Languages. 24 vols. Ed. Murray Gell-Mann and John A. Hawkins. Santa Fe: Santa Fe Institute P, 1992. Vol. 11.

Hammond, Mason. Latin: A Historical and Linguistic Handbook. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976.

Henry V: A Concordance to the Text of the First Folio. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1971.

Holinshed, Raphael. The Firste Volume of the Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, Conteyning the Description and Chronicles of England, from the First Inhabiting Unto the Conquest. The Description and Chronicles of Scotlande, from the First Originall of the Scottes Nation, Till the Yeare 1571. The Description and Chronicles of Yrelande, from the First Originall, Untill the Yeare 1547. N.p., 1578.

Hulme, Hilda M. Explorations in Shakespeare’s Language: Some Problems of Lexical Meaning in the Dramatic Text. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962.

King James I. Daemonologie. Edinburgh, 1597.

Joseph, Sr. Miriam. Rhetoric in Shakespeare’s Time: Literary Theory of Renaissance Europe. New York: Harcourt, 1962.

---. Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. 2nd. ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1949.

Julius Caesar: A Concordance to the Text of the First Folio. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1971.

King Lear: A Concordance to the Text of the First Folio. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1971.

Land, Stephen K. The Philosophy of Language in Britain. New York: AMS P, 1986.

The Linguistic Atlas of Scotland: Based on the Scots Section of the Linguistic Survey of Scotland. 2 vols. Ed. J. Y. Mather and H. H. Speitel. Trowbridge: Archon Books, 1975. Vol. 1.

Macbeth: A Concordance to the Text of the First Folio. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1971.



Papers in Contrastive Linguistics: The Second International Conference of Applied Linguistics, Cambridge, England, 1969. Ed. Gerhard Nickel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971.

The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare’s English Kings. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Smith, Sir Thomas. De Recta et Emendata Ligvæ Anglicæ Scriptione, Dialogus. London, 1568.

Studies in Language, Companion Series: Latin Linguistics and Linguistic Theory. 22 vols. Ed. Harm Pinkster. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1983. Vol. 12.

Urquhart, Sir Thomas. Logopandecti∫ion: An Introdvction to the Vniversal Langvage. London, 1653.



1 Thomas Cable said that “There are two rules to English Prosody: one is that it goes ‘ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum,’ and the other is to try not to sound like that” (Cable).


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