Early Modern English Exemplified In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act V Scene 1

1428 words - 6 pages

Early Modern English Exemplified in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act V Scene 1

The period of Early Modern English occurred from approximately Fifteen Hundred to some time between Sixteen Fifty and Sixteen Seventy. While this period was characterized mostly by the translation of texts from other languages into English, the language saw its first prominent writer in William Shakespeare contribute works of literary significance to the world. Hamlet Prince of Denmark, in its abbreviated, performed version, was originally included in the quarto of 1603. The current version of the text is based on the 1604-05 version of the text, which is believed to be printed from Shakespeare's own draft (Farnham). Lines 241-280 of Act V scene 1 in Hamlet are an example of Early Modern English as written (and possibly spoken) in the early Seventeenth century; it illustrates aspects of the language such as vocabulary, spelling, syntax and grammar relative to this time period.

The dialogue in Hamlet would be recognizable to readers from the Seventeenth century to the present: although Shakespeare's style may differ from the spoken and written dialects of these time periods, his vocabulary is not totally alien. The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary indicates many of the words in this passage had the same or similar meanings when Shakespeare wrote as they do presently. Some examples include madness, "mental disease or insanity"; dangerous, "Fraught with danger or risk; causing or occasioning danger; perilous, hazardous, risky, unsafe"; and whine, "To utter a low somewhat shrill protracted sound or cry, usually expressive of pain or distress." The concept of madness, the adjective dangerous, and the infinitive 'to whine' originate prior to the Early Modern period and are used to mean the same in Late Modern English; thus one must wonder, did Shakespeare affect usage, or did the period's language dictate his lexicon? The majority of the words in this section of Hamlet are used widespread and even at present; however, there are several words that appear unfamiliar. The online version of the Oxford English Diction provides these words' meanings: splenitive, "of fiery temper"; prate, "speaking much or long to little purpose"; pate, the head as intellect; esil, "vinegar"; anon, meaning now, at this time, as opposed to the chronological orientation of "at that time." Finding how Shakespeare employs these terms greatly improves comprehension, especially of lines such as 267-269: "And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw/Millions of acres on us, till our ground,/Singeing his pate against the burning zone" which theatre-goers and readers of his time would likely have understood. Two words in lines 261-262 are especially absent from modern usage: 'Swounds is a "euphemistic abbreviation of God's wounds" (OED) and woo't is a contraction of wilt thou. 'Swounds is consistent with the religious presence in the play's dialogue that also includes 'devil' and 'God';...

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