Foreigners Understand Shakespeare Better than English-Speakers

by | Sep 6, 2022 | The Early Modern Age, Linguistics & Philology

Shakespeare's Juliet, Romeo and Juliet

Juliet by Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1888

It’s a sad reality, but English-speakers understand Shakespeare less than anyone else. That’s because foreigners regularly translate the bard’s plays — into German, Spanish, Mandarin, etc. — so they’re free to use language they understand. But English-language productions usually refuse to translate or even to edit Shakespeare. So audiences have to wrap their heads around 400-plus years of language change.

Semantic Drift

Most Shakespearean confusion results from semantic drift: changes in the meaning of words. Juliet says, “Romeo, oh Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” To us, it seems Juliet asks, “where are you, Romeo?” (That would actually make some sense for the scene on the balcony.) But “wherefore” meant “why” in Shakespeare’s time. So Juliet asks (rhetorically), “why are you Romeo?” Why does her new boyfriend have a name that ties him to an enemy family?

Hamlet throws us off over and over. In Act 3, King Claudius plans a meeting between his nephew and the girl, Ophelia. “For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither, That he, as twere by accident, may here Affront Ophelia.” The king certainly doesn’t want Hamlet to insult or offend Ophelia (though that’s what happens, more or less). In Shakespeare’s time, “affront” just meant “meet.”

Also in Hamlet, the courtier (and moron) Polonius offers one of my favorite adages: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Polonius seems to offer advice for comedians, but in Shakespeare’s time, “wit” meant intelligence. The same word leaves leaves Twelfth Night audiences confused too. Viola displays her own fine wit (under either definition) when she says: “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, and to do that well craves a kind of wit ….”

Shakespeare's Polonius, Hamlet

Polonius in stained glass

A Light Line Edit

In my humble opinion, 400 years of fealty is enough. I think theatrical productions should make Shakespeare more accessible by translating him into modern English … a little. I’m not suggesting that we abandon the magic of Shakespeare’s language. We’d need only a few updates here and there. How about: “we have closely sent for Hamlet, That he, as t’were by accident, may here meet Ophelia”? Even Juliet could update her query: “Romeo, oh Romeo, why art thou Romeo?” [See the discussion in the comments below for a better idea: “what for art thou Romeo?”]

I’m not the first to suggest this sacrilege. The movies have often updated Shakespeare, probably because they already have to edit his work. It’s time for more stage productions to do the same. Western Civilization would not come crashing down.

© 2022 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.


  1. Robert Horowitz

    Completely agree. The fealty to 400 year old language just means that Shakespeare becomes a chore to suffer through for most.

  2. Kathy & Simone

    You, minion, are too saucy.
    Away you moldy rogue, away.
    Thou flea, thou nit, thou winter-cricket thou!

    Whatever everyone does, let’s not tinker w/the insults.


    Claudius’ line could easily be “translated” as you say, since it’s not that familiar a quote. But changing “wherefore art thou Romeo” to “why art though Romeo” would be sacrilege, IMHO, since it’s so iconic (not to mention it ruins the iambic pentameter of the line). In productions of some of the lesser-known plays, a little judicious editing to lines that aren’t so well known and constantly quoted would probably work okay, but a better choice might be some updating. “Ten Things I Hate About You” is an excellent movie adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” because it was the story that was turned into a contemporary teen movie, but the wording was not used at all.

    • David Tollen

      Janet, I struggled with messing with Juliet’s iconic line too. But I didn’t even think of the iambic pentameter issue. I agree: preserving that monumental achievement — a whole play in IP — is worth some wordsmithing. How about, “why then art thou Romeo” or “what for art thou Romeo”?


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