By Anthony Cosgrove

29 December 2015 - 11:32

‘Blood will have blood’ (from Macbeth). Still (c) FutureLearn / British Council.
‘Blood will have blood’ (from Macbeth). Illustration by Danny Butcher, ©

British Council.

The British Council's Anthony Cosgrove, who'll be running a free massive open online course on Shakespeare next month, shares lines from five of Shakespeare's greatest plays to show that they are more accessible to English language learners than you might first think.

Shakespeare’s too difficult for English language learners, right? Well, actually, no – I don’t think he is. Sure, some of the language Shakespeare uses in his plays is old-fashioned and challenging. This is not surprising as he was writing over 400 years ago, and the English language has changed since. However, this doesn’t mean that Shakespeare is too difficult – the vast majority of words he used are still in use today.

In case you don’t believe me, let’s look at lines from five of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. You’ll already know most or all of the words in these quotations.

‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ (from Hamlet)

This is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. To set the scene, Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. Being a prince might sound like fun, but actually, he is not enjoying it. His father, the old king, has been murdered. Hamlet’s uncle killed him, and then married his mother. Poor old Hamlet is so fed up that he considers killing himself. Is it better to be alive, or not to be alive, he wonders? This is what he means when he says, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ It’s a wonderfully simple way to summarise such a complicated situation.

‘Good wombs have borne bad sons’ (from The Tempest)

I don’t think Shakespeare liked uncles. In The Tempest, Miranda – one of the main characters – expresses surprise that a lovely woman like her grandmother could give birth to an evil man like her uncle Antonio. This line means, ‘Good women sometimes give birth to bad sons.’ It’s a bit harder to understand than the first quotation, because of the vocabulary. ‘Womb’ is a word you might not know, if English is not your first language – and it is the part of a woman’s body where a baby grows. It's perhaps not a very common word, but it’s still used, and it’s worth knowing. ‘Borne’ is old-fashioned, but it’s so close to ‘born’ (as in ‘Where were you born?’) that it’s easy to understand.

‘I do love nothing in the world so well as you – is not that strange?’ (from Much Ado About Nothing)

Benedick, the central male character in this romantic comedy, has fallen in love with a woman called Beatrice. He finds it strange, because they used to argue and be horrible to each other all the time. He means ‘There’s nothing in the world I love as much as you. Isn’t that strange?’ All the words in Shakespeare’s original version are still common today, so Benedick’s statement and his question are easy to understand. It’s true that a modern speaker of English would ask ‘Isn’t that strange?’ rather than ‘Is not that strange?’. But this small difference in word order shouldn't cause any problems to a learner of English watching Much Ado About Nothing.

‘What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.’ (from Romeo and Juliet)

You probably know the story already: Juliet loves Romeo, but her family won’t let her be with him, because they hate his family, the Montagues. At this point in the play, Juliet is speaking to herself (Shakespeare’s characters often do!). She’s talking about her love for Romeo, and saying that it shouldn't matter that Romeo is a Montague. It’s only a name, she says. She makes a comparison with a rose – even if a rose had a different name, it would still smell as sweet. All through the play, Romeo and Juliet find beautiful ways to express the tragedy of their impossible love.

‘Blood will have blood’ (from Macbeth)

Here’s a quotation where the words are simple, and where you need to think about the meaning. But when you know the story, the meaning becomes clear. Macbeth and his wife have killed the king of Scotland, so that Macbeth can become king. But now, after the murder, they are worried. Will people find out about it? Will someone try to kill them? Will Macbeth and his wife need to commit more murders, in order to keep their power? This is what Macbeth is predicting when he says to his wife that ‘blood will have blood’.

Join our free six-week online course ‘Exploring English: Shakespeare’, starting on 11 January 2016, to learn more about these five plays, and how Shakespeare still influences the English we speak today.

Find out about the British Council's Shakespeare Lives programme of events and activities celebrating Shakespeare’s work on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016.

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