Shakespeare’s use of pronominal address terms

Isolde van Dorst, recent graduate from the University of Groningen and the University of Malta, discusses her study on pronominal address terms in Shakespeare’s texts in collaboration with the Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language project.

As part of my masters degree in Language and Communication Technologies, I wrote my thesis on the use of pronominal address terms in Shakespeare. Since my program is focused mainly on computational linguistics rather than literature, I decided to reach out to the team at Lancaster to see if a collaboration was possible. This, as you may have guessed, was successful and I was able to spend four months in Lancaster to do my research under the supervision of Jonathan Culpeper and Andrew Hardie. My partnership with the Shakespeare project has been highly successful. Not only was I able to complete my masters degree and, for the first time, use these particular computational methods to investigate Shakespeare’s pronominal address terms in an objective and extensive way, but I am now offering support to the project directly. Just two months after finishing my thesis, I began working on Shakespeare’s low frequency items with other members of the project team.

In recent decades, there has been a lot of research on Shakespeare’s use of the singular second person pronouns you, thou and thee. However, the results so far were inconclusive as to which features influence the choice of pronoun. Does the speaker’s age have an impact? Or their social status? Or its n-grams? As part of my research, I developed a prediction model to find which linguistic and extra-linguistic features influence the pronoun choice made by Shakespeare. The 23 features used in this study contain speaker and addressee information (e.g. age and status), play and scene data (e.g. play name and genre), and contextual information (e.g. the words used in close proximity of the pronoun).

The three algorithms used in this study, Naive Bayes, decision tree and support vector machine, are selected based on their difference in assumptions and learning biases. Additionally, a binary and trinary prediction was performed. For the trinary classification, the three pronouns thou, thee and you were kept separated. In the binary classification, thou and thee were condensed into one category THOU. The latter is common in YOU/THOU research, while the difference in case of the THOU pronouns supports a trinary approach. Computational linguists may be interested to know that of the three algorithms, the support vector machine models score best on the four scores assessed in this study: precision, recall, F-measure and accuracy. With 87.3% accuracy, the binary support vector machine model scored 24% better than the baseline.

For literary researchers and linguists, I found that there is one group of features that show up as the main predictor of the pronoun, namely the words of the n-gram. In particular the words directly on the right and directly on the left of the pronoun are important, which show that the direct linguistic context of the pronoun is most important when predicting the pronoun. There are several other features that show a positive influence on the pronoun prediction, among which are the names of the speaker and addressee, the status differential, and positive and negative sentiment. Overall, it is clear to me that there is significantly more scope carrying out research in this area, and I am immensely grateful to the project team for allowing me to use the dataset and work alongside them.

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New team members

The Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language project has just welcomed three new members to its team who will be working part-time on low-frequency items. Find out a little more about them below:

Luke Wilding:
I completed my undergraduate degree in English Literature at the end of 2016, and I am now completing a masters through research. During my year off, I worked on the Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language project and focused on demonology, religious, and musical terminology. Pior to university, I worked as a professional classical musician, so this was an good hybrid of my two interests. I also wrote a couple of blog posts for the project last year which are up on the website (here and here). At present, I have returned to Lancaster to complete my masters through research on the topic of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and its relationship to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the rhizome. I am currently working on Shakespeare’s political and economic language. During my prior work on the project, I enjoyed finding interesting early-modern terms which have fallen out of use as well as a number of highly-complex and nuanced ideas which no longer figure in modern thought. I am excited to return to the project for the chance for a similar acquisition of knowledge in an entirely different subject-area.


Isolde Van Dorst
After completing my undergraduate degree in English Language and Culture in both the Netherlands and in London, I then decided to focus more on linguistic analysis in my masters. I completed a double masters degree in both the Netherlands and in Malta in computational linguistics, expanding on my knowledge of statistical/computational approaches to linguistics . Drawing on research from digital humanities, I kept my focus on English and decided to write my thesis on Shakespeare’s use of pronominal address terms. Throughout this period, I worked closely with Jonathan Culpeper and the rest of the team, and spent a few months working in Lancaster to write my thesis. Now I am back on the project, mainly to work on the low-frequency items in the category of “food”.


Becky Hoddinott
I’m a second-year undergraduate student in both Linguistics and English Language, with a current focus on media and discourse analysis. My role in the project is studying the “foreign” words found within Shakespeare, so I will be looking at items from Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish; defining them; and examining corpus databases to discover whether these words were occurring elsewhere in English over that same period. I’ve really enjoyed working on the project so far; I’ve always enjoyed studying languages, and being part of this project is certainly putting my skills to good use. As a keen historian and avid reader, I was truly excited by the prospect of working on this project in particular, and having completed Lancaster’s online course in corpus linguistics, I was keen to gain some more experience in this particular area of research.

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What did an “alarum” sound like?

Graduate Intern, Luke Wilding, discusses the term alarum, and suggests what it might have actually sounded like…

The term alarum occurs 89 times in Shakespeare’s first folio. The Oxford English Dictionary states that an alarum is “used as a call to arms or warning of imminent danger, esp. of being attacked.” Christopher R. Wilson and Michela Calore’s (2014) invaluable Music in Shakespeare: A Dictionary offers this:

This term literally means ‘to arms’ (from the Italian all’armi). The sounding of alarums by various instruments, especially trumpets, drums or bells is connected with military atmospheres, and is most frequently called for in historical plays and tragedies.[1]

This does not, however, tell us much about what an alarum really is or sounds like. All we know is that an alarum is a sound which usually occurs in military situations in ‘historical plays and tragedies.’ Even Alan C. Dessen and Leslie Thompson’s A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama 1580–1642 gives a limited definition:

A call to arms in the form of sound produced offstage before and during a battle helping to create an atmosphere of conflict and confusion; at Richard III’s call for “A flourish, Trumpets! strike alarum, drums!” is “Flourish. Alarums” (Folio Richard III, 2926, 4.4.151) and evidence indicates that a drum was usually used, although occasionally a trumpet of other instrument is indicated; the signal is most commonly simply alarum – the predominant spelling – with numerous examples in stage plots and playhouse manuscripts[.][2]

This is essentially the same definition given by Wilson and Calore (2014) with a little more detail. The reason that this is such a hard term to define is that it is so broad and general that it can cover a great range of military calls to arms.

To understand what an alarum is likely to have been intended to sound like in a certain passage from the Shakespeare corpus one must consider the context in which the alarum occurs. If we take, for example, the stage direction “Flourish. Alarums” which accompanies Richard III’s call for “A flourish, Trumpets! strike alarum, drums!” (Folio Richard III, 4.4.151) then it is likely that we are dealing with a relatively simple and short but melodic piece of music made up of a simple ostinato (riff) from the trumpets accompanied by simple rudiments played on a snare drum. It is tempting to think of the foxhunting bugle horn call or the military Assembly of Trumpeters For Reveille (recordings are available on the web, e.g.

The alarum call was, however, most likely far less ornamental than these as it was designed for the simple purpose of calling for a unified rouse and advance. Though surviving transcripts of early-modern sheet music for plays which featured alarums are very rare (if sheet music for alarums existed at all and was not simply improvised), the stereotypical modern convention for an advance alarum used on the stage and on television from Game of Thrones to the BBC’s The Hollow Crown series is a sequential interval of a “perfect fifth” performed by a trumpet or horn[3] followed by a marching rhythm performed on the snare drum (various marching rhythm examples can be found online, e.g.[4]. Though it is unlikely that this is a truly synchronic representation of the advance alarum heard by Elizabethan theatre-goers, this simple compositional style fits the function of the alarum in this context.

In other situations, of course, this kind of melodically structured alarum makes less sense. The surprise attack on Le Mans in Act Two, Scene One of 1 Henry VI, for example, would allow the French army no time to assemble trumpeters and drummers and have them perform their rehearsed alarum. Sentinels, soldiers or guards keeping watch, upon seeing the English army scaling the walls of the city cry, “Arm! Arm! The Enemy doth make assault!” (2.1.38). This would most likely be accompanied by the tolling of an alarum bell rather than a figured piece of music. The bell would be struck as a kind of rude awakening to desperately rouse troops from their sleep and alert them to immediate danger. Even the call of the sentinel itself is a form of alarum in this context. An alarum is often used as a more functional device than as a musical element of military spectacle. The modern equivalents of the alarum are things like the military siren or the security alarm; automatic instruments which make hearers aware of danger and the need to prepare arms. Though no longer the tolling of the bell, the sounding of the trumpet, or the striking of the drum, these modern alarums serve the same function of rousing hearers through the same means of a loud, grating, rhythmic sound. Though somewhat artistic and ornamental in its advancement form, the alarum is, at root, a simple functional device for calling all to arm. It is an alarm.

[1] Christopher R. Wilson and Michela Calore, Music in Shakespeare: A Dictionary (Bloomsbury, London, 2014), pp. 2-3.

[2] Alan C. Dessen and Leslie Thompson, A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama 1580–1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 3.


[4] I.e.

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Summer school reflections

Claire McGann, a first year PhD student in the English Literature and Creative Writing Department at Lancaster University, discusses attending Lancaster University’s Summer School in Corpus Linguistics.

In June I attended several of the events held at Lancaster University’s Summer School in Corpus Linguistics. Andrew Hardie’s introductory session provided a great initial overview of corpus linguistics, and his own CQP web resource. Similarly, Carmen Dayrell’s session on generating collocational networks using GraphColl familiarised me with a range of new terminologies and techniques. Following this introduction, the engaging sessions conducted by Helen Baker and Alison Findlay illustrated how these techniques had assisted their own research on early modern England— my own area of study!

My PhD research explores printed prophecies produced in early modern England. Many men and women gained textual authority through claims to divine inspiration, as numerous pamphlets recorded their ‘messages from God’. Scholars have noted that these prophetic accounts increased during the turbulence of the English Civil War, as the nation sought direct spiritual instruction during a time of upheaval.

The skills I developed during the Summer School in Corpus Linguistics have helped me to trace this phenomena through the Early English Books Online corpus. For example, a quick CQP web search for the keyword ‘prophecy’ displays a sharp increase in appearances of the word in Civil War era publications. Usage of ‘prophecy’ rises from a frequency of 31.58 uses per million words in 1630-1639 to 59.36 uses from 1640-1649. Thus, mentions of ‘prophecy’ nearly double during this period, which corroborates academic arguments for the significance and prevalence of prophecy as a Civil War era discourse.

However, rather than simply providing evidence to support existing hypotheses, it will be interesting to see how corpus linguistics can help me to make new arguments about early modern writing. In his plenary lecture, Jonathan Culpeper discussed using the Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language to not only examine long-held myths about Shakespeare’s language, but also to prompt new research questions and arguments. Importantly, Lancaster’s Summer School provided me with the skills to not only answer my existing research questions, but to start formulating some new ones. Many thanks to everyone involved in running the event!

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Lancaster Summer Schools in Corpus Linguistics and other Digital Methods

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Writing Tips from Shakespeare – Lancaster University’s Language Detectives

Jules Horne, a playwright and attendee of the Lancaster Summer Schools in Corpus Linguistics and other Digital Methods reflects on her visit, and discusses the importance of the Encyclopaedia and Shakespeare’s Language project…

Ever wondered about Shakespeare as a writerWhat techniques did he use? How did he create his effects? What can you learn for your own writing? As a playwright, I’ve always been curious, and was hugely excited to get the chance to go to Lancaster University’s amazing Summer School in Corpus Linguistics, and find out about research going on into Shakespeare’s use of language.

Analysing Shakespeare’s metaphors – Professor Jonathan Culpeper

Imagine forensic detectives sifting through Shakespeare’s words for clues – that’s essentially what the Shakespeare’s Language team under Professor Jonathan Culpeper are up to. Their forthcoming Shakespeare Encyclopedia is set to change the way we think about the beloved bard, thanks to new insights from deep computer analysis of his language.

There are lots of myths surrounding Shakespeare, and Prof Culpeper successfully debunked a few of them. Was Shakespeare’s vocabulary exceptionally huge? Not really – he just wrote more plays, and had a long life to do it in! Using the Shakespeare corpus (aka digitised body of text) alongside other writing from the period, the Lancaster team have analysed the playwright’s vocabulary diversity, and shown that he was no more eloquent than many other writers.

Click here for the full article on…

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Music in Shakespeare

Graduate intern, Luke Wilding, discusses his work researching music in the works of Shakespeare.

I came to work on The Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language through a graduate internship scheme run by Lancaster University. I finished my undergraduate degree in English Literature in the summer of 2016 at Lancaster, and was keen to get some experience of academic research work under my belt before pursuing postgraduate study. After being shown around my new office by Professor Jonathan Culpeper and introduced to my colleagues, I was asked which subject-area of the Shakespeare corpus I was interested in. I had not expected to be given any real options of what I was to research, yet I spotted a dictionary of Music in Shakespeare on the office dictionary shelf. I was classically trained from a young age and have been leading bands, composing, teaching music theory, and touring since my early teens so this was an area in which I could offer some expertise. And, just like that, off I went to research music in Shakespeare.

Music in Shakespeare: A Dictionary (Bloomsbury; 2014) is a particularly thorough work which is designed to be accessible for academics, students, and casual readers. Christopher R. Wilson and Michela Calore have certainly kept in harmony with their mission statement, “to provide a comprehensive survey of Shakespeare’s musical vocabulary – his knowledge of technical terms, his allusions to instruments, musical genres, and performance techniques”. The typical length and detail of each entry exceeds that of other dictionaries in the Arden series. Though these entries are not particularly concise they do, generally, offer only useful, relevant information.

Each entry is divided into three sections. Section A offers a detailed sense for each term and clearly identifies any discrepancies between contemporary and modern usage. The entry for ‘breve’, for example, states:

Not much used today except in church music, the breve was a standard note-value of the Medieval and Renaissance periods in music. It was one of eight separately identifiable notes of white mensural notation used from the mid fifteenth century to the end of the sixteenth. In common time (C or 4/2) it is equal to two semi-breves, four minims, eight semiminims, etc. It was written as a white square note without a tail. Though, paradoxically, it had become a relatively long note-value by the end of the sixteenth century, it is called ‘brevis’ in contrast to the ‘longa’ which was twice its length and notated with a tail, and which in turn was half the value of the maxima.
(p. 67)

The meticulousness of entries such as this (which include the historical development of a term, a visual representation of the described notation, both technical and commonly accessible explanations of meaning, and so on) are to be praised.

Section B is where Wilson and Calore really excel themselves and make this dictionary invaluable for anyone truly interested in Shakespeare’s music. In this section one finds a great breadth of examples from the Shakespeare corpus and explanations of its function, associations, often the significance of its associations with certain characters. Some entries go so far as to offer quite extensive outlines of current critical discourse and commentary. The ‘minikin’ entry, for instance, notes that, ’commentators often observe that these lines [(Lr 3.6.41-4)] refer to the summoning of sheep in order to prevent them from accessing a field, where they can get bloated and die (Foakes, p. 289).’ (p. 277) Wilson and Calore go further still by offering contemporary contexts and accounts of these terms in use from a myriad of other sources from Christopher Marlowe, to John Dowland, to military records, to pamphlets, to the bible, etc. Section C offers an extensive and useful bibliography. This is a particularly nice touch for the academic reader.

There were, however, a few issues with this dictionary which hinder its usefulness. There is the fact that there is no study of the actual songs found in Shakespeare. Though I realise that this is a dictionary intended to define terms and not a casebook of musical analysis, I do feel that, given the length and detail of other entries, the names of each song, where they appear, and a brief analysis of their content, could have been given an entry. Some entries, on the other hand, seem somewhat superfluous. The entry for ‘case’ for example, reads, ‘A case is the wooden box or leather or cloth bag to hold an instrument when it is not being played.’ (p. 82) This would arguably be necessary if Shakespeare often made references to a musical case without offering anything to note its purpose. Based on the textual examples which the dictionary offers, however, this does not seem to be the case. Shakespeare speaks of, ‘a base-viol in a case of leather’; (The Comedy of Errors 4.3.23-4) ‘the case of a treble hoboy’; (Henry VI, Part II 3.2.326) and exclaims ‘God defend/ the lute should be like the case’. (Much Ado About Nothing 2.1.94-95). Equally unnecessary is the distribution between six entries of the Renaissance hexachord to ‘Ut’, ‘Re’, ‘Mi’, ‘Fa’, ‘Sol’, and ‘La’. Surely a single entry explaining the layout of the haxachord would have sufficed here.

Most problematically, in attempting to make entries accessible to both academics and casual readers, Wilson and Calore have occasionally offered entries which are truly clear to neither. One such example is ‘False (relation)’. The entry explains, ‘The theoretical term ‘false’ is used to describe the movement of two or more parts in counterpoint. It occurs when one part rising has a natural or sharp and the other part falling has a flat or natural’ (p. 167). This is followed by a contemporary definition from the musical theory work A New Way of Making Fowre Parts in Counterpoint by Thomas Campion (c. 1614) which does nothing to clarify the sense. Though the entry is technically true, it seems to say very little except that one part rises as another falls. The entry is attempting to explain the nuanced, theoretical function of accidentals used in an uncommon and exceptional way, but does not seem able to get this across with the desired brevity. In this case and others, it would surely be better to offer a lengthy and technical explanation of the concept with notated examples which more advanced readers could draw meaning from since casual readers are unlikely to require an in-depth working knowledge of the concept in any case.

Overall, this dictionary is a helpful guide to music in the works of Shakespeare. Though it is by no means comprehensive in terms of musical references in Shakespeare, the terms it does cover are generally offered with a detailed analysis and a detailed guide to contemporary contexts and usages. Though it could never be used as the primary basis for an academic study of music in Shakespeare, it functions as a good reference text for students and academics wishing for clarification of early modern musical terms.

Working for the short internship period on The Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language Project has been an eye-opening experience of how complex academic work is really done. It is often a slog through huge volumes of data, working to unravel the over-complicated academic writing to find the simplest of meanings, and striving to maintain a consistent methodology when dealing with inconsistent data. It is, however, incredibly satisfying to break ground on a subject in ways that have never been done before, to detangle all the senses available to find the crux of a meaning, and to be part of a project which will advance and inform our understanding of Shakespeare’s language for years to come. Though my time working on The Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language is at an end for the moment, I am hoping to return to the project as a part-time research assistant next year alongside my studies.

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Shakespeare and social status

Shakespeare and Social Status
Senior Research Associate, Dr Sean Murphy, discusses how he categorised each of Shakespeare’s 1,402 characters according to social status.

Sir Thomas Smith De Repvblica Anglorvm (1583)


Social class matters. Sir Thomas Smith, writing at the time Shakespeare was born, was certainly attuned to such classifications, dividing men [sic] into foure sortes: Gentlemen, Citizens, yeoman artificers and labourers (note the use of capitalization). Given that the population of England grew from just over 3 million to just over 4 million during Elizabeth I’s reign, and estimates for the number of gentry vary from 15,000 to 20,000, then we can safely assume that the vast majority of the population belonged to ranks below the gentry.

Then, as now, social order was not a simple matter. People could rise in status, as does La Pucelle (aka Joan of Arc) in Henry VI Part 1, transforming herself from a shepherd’s daughter into the champion and saviour of France. They could also fall in status, like the eponymous protagonist of Timon of Athens, who goes from being a wealthy nobleman to a misanthropic hermit. Others might have been unaware of their true social status. In Cymbeline, cave-dwellers Polydore and Cadwal turn out to be the King’s sons, Guiderius and Aviragus.

Why is social status relevant to the Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language?
One of the aims of our project is to conduct social analysis of the language of the plays. That means looking at variables such as gender and social status to see what effect, if any, they have on the language characters use. In doing so, we will be able to answer questions such as ‘Is the word ‘forswear’ more commonly used by higher or lower status characters?’; ‘Is Shylock’s language different from that of his social betters?’; and ‘What sort of language is used by servants?’. To do this, we need to add social annotation to our corpus. Put simply, this means adding information about gender and social status for each character. Such a system has not, until now, been systematically applied to Shakespeare, but the methodology has been applied to Early Modern texts (see Archer, et al. 2003).

What are the social categories and how do you assign them to characters?
Our project team devised a classification system of nine social groups. Our system is largely based on a scheme used in a study by Archer, et al. This consists of six groups (Nobility, Gentry, Professional, Middling, Commoners, Lowest), derived from historical accounts of social hierarchy. Figure 1 (below) shows our expanded version of this categorisation, including categories for Monarchy, Supernatural and Problematic, together with prototypical character examples for each group.

Figure 1: Social groups in Shakespeare and prototypical characters in each group


Monarchy merits a separate social status on the basis that, in Renaissance social theory, only God was superior to the sovereign; everyone else was a subject of the Queen or King (Innes, 2007). The Supernatural category was necessary to cover in excess of 40 ghosts, gods, fairies, etc. in the plays, as was the Problematic grouping for characters whose status was uncertain at the time, e.g. actors, or characters who undergo a significant change in status during the play, such as those mentioned in the introduction.

As regards assigning status (indicated by a number from 0 to 7, or ‘p’ for problematic’) to individual characters, in many cases, titles were clear indicators: Queen (0), Duke (1), etc. In the absence of such a title, I consulted the Arden Shakespeare list of Dramatis Personae for each play to glean as much information about the character as I could. I was also greatly aided by specialist Shakespeare dictionaries and other academic sources listed in the References section at the end of this post. These helped me to gain a sense of the relative social position of a herald (3), a marshal (2), a beadle (5), and many others, as seen through the eyes of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Most importantly, I am fortunate in that we have Shakespeare scholar Professor Alison Findlay on our team. Alison provided expert advice and many invaluable insights as to the social status of individual characters.

How many characters are there in each social group?
Figure 2 (below) shows the numbers of characters per social group. The largest group is that of the Nobility (379 / 27% of all characters), closely followed by the lowest social group (324 / 23.1%). Together with the Gentry (263 / 18.8%), these three groups account for nearly 70% of all the characters in Shakespeare’s plays. The remaining categories account for between 3 to 7% of characters each. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the higher social ranks are vastly over-represented compared to the actual population in Shakespeare’s day (see Introduction), whilst the middling and lower orders are perhaps under-represented. Then, as now, drama often concerned itself with the high and mighty – What great ones do the less will prattle of, says the Captain in Twelfth Night. That said, perhaps Shakespeare’s enduring popularity can partly be accounted for by the relative prominence of characters from the lower social orders.

Figure 2: Number of characters per social group


How do social groups compare across genres?
A number of interesting findings emerge by comparing social categories across genres (see Figure 3). First, the nobility are proportionally best represented in histories. This is probably because historical drama largely concerns itself with factions made up of nobles belonging, for example, to the Houses of York and Lancaster, competing for supremacy. Comedies, by contrast, show higher proportions of gentry, professional ranks and commoners. The characters in comedies are perhaps easy for audiences to relate to, and closer to everyday life than those in histories and tragedies. Tragedies, and to a lesser extent, histories, contain higher proportions of characters belonging to the lowest social groups – servants, messengers, soldiers, etc. This may be due to their requirement for the plot to function (messengers are a good example), or to provide a change of mood (e.g. the Porter in Macbeth).

Figure 3: Percentage of characters per social group by genre


What problems did you encounter?
Although assigning gender to characters is generally a straightforward task, it becomes more complicated when characters assume a disguise. We identified 36 such cases in the plays, mostly in comedies and tragedies (well-known examples include Viola as Cesario in Twelfth Night, or Edgar as Poor Tom in King Lear), with only one instance in histories, when Henry V disguises himself as a common soldier on the eve of the battle of Agincourt. Assumed identities often imply a change in social status, and sometimes gender. In As You Like It, Rosalind as herself is female and the daughter of a Duke (status 1); in her disguise as Ganymede, she is male and a shepherd (status 5). The fact that all women’s parts were played by boys in Shakespeare’s day was fortunately not a consideration I had to deal with in assigning gender to characters.

The Roman plays also presented a challenge in terms of comparing Early Modern social status with that of Ancient Rome. Nevertheless, Elizabethan audiences must have recognised and understood social hierarchies in the Roman plays. Careful consultation of sources cited in the References allowed us to map categories to status in the following manner: nobility – aristocrat, patrician, nobleman, triumvir; gentry – consul, senator, general; professional – praetor; other middling groups – tribune, aedile; ordinary commoners – citizen, plebeian.

A third problem we faced was in assigning social status to characters who did not easily fit into one of our categories. We identified over 50 such problematic cases, including speakers of prologues and epilogues, soothsayers, actors, musicians, poets and characters who undergo a radical change in status over the course of the play, Timon of Athens being a good example (wealthy nobleman to hermit).

What further applications might this classification have?
Project team member Jane Demmen has already applied the same classification to the characters in our corpus of plays written by contemporaries of Shakespeare (Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, etc.). This will allow us to compare how Shakespeare’s linguistic representation of different social ranks compares with that of his fellow dramatists. Given that dramatic texts are probably the closest we can get to authentic speech in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, linguistic analysis based on social stratification may provide insights into how those Gentlemen, Citizens, yeoman artificers and labourers actually spoke.

Amussen, S. (1988). An ordered society: Gender and class in early modern England (Family, sexuality, and social relations in past times). Oxford, UK ; New York, NY, USA: B. Blackwell.

Archer, D., Culpeper, Jonathan, Wilson, A., Rayson, P., & McEnery, A. M. (2003). Sociopragmatic Annotation: New Directions and Possibilities in Historical Corpus Linguistics.

Berry, R. (1988). Shakespeare and social class. Atlantic Heights, NJ: Humanities Press International, Inc.

Edelman, C. (2001). Shakespeare’s Military Language. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Hassel Jr, R. C. (2015). Shakespeare’s religious language: a dictionary. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Innes, P (2007) Class and society in Shakespeare: A dictionary. London: Continuum.

Smith, T (1583), De Repvblica Anglorvm: The Maner of Gouernement or Policie of the Realme of England. London: Printed by Henrie Midleton for Gregorie Seton.

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Constructing the comparative corpus

Constructing a corpus of other Early Modern English plays for comparison with those by William Shakespeare.
– Dr Jane Demmen

Although Shakespeare’s plays have a uniquely high profile in English literature and language, he was in fact one of a number of successful and popular playwrights of his day (others including, for example, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson). A distinctive feature of our Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language project is that we’re not looking at Shakespeare’s language in isolation, but comparing it to language in wider use at the time, notably that in some of the works by Shakespeare’s peers in the playwriting world of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Considering the language in Shakespeare’s plays relative to that in others produced around the same time gives us a more rounded view, and helps us to see to what extent Shakespeare and his contemporaries constructed the language of drama in similar (or different) ways.

The question of whether Shakespeare’s language is “special” compared to that of his peers is not a new one, but one which continues to fire enthusiasm for research. We know from existing linguistic studies using computational techniques that Shakespeare’s vocabulary was similar in size to that of his playwriting peers (not substantially larger). So the exceptionality of his language must lie elsewhere (if it exists, and Shakespeare’s continuing popularity is not simply due to happenstance: perhaps the result of a greater familiarity with his plays amongst audiences who have encountered them on school syllabuses, and then later taken up opportunities to see them performed). We must therefore look further than vocabulary in order to capture it.

It’s not just the words we choose, but what we do with them that makes language memorable (or not). Language varies in other ways apart from the lexical (vocabulary) level, including grammar and syntax, semantic meaning and pragmatic meaning (that is, the meaning and effect of language over and above the semantic content of the words used). Figurative language (including metaphors and similes) is another important language aspect, particularly in dramatic dialogue. There is a considerable body of existing research on Shakespeare’s plays which takes in these different areas of language, some of which is detailed in the bibliography on our website here.

We won’t be able to cover all these aspects in detail our Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language, but it’s our hope and aim to add to what is known about the language of Shakespeare’s plays by making some comparisons with other plays of his era. To achieve this we constructed a comparative set (or corpus) of plays which shared some common ground with the Shakespeare canon. As far as possible, we included playwrights who, like Shakespeare, were popular, and works which were successful (either at the time they were first produced, and/or in later revival). We also focused closely on dating and genre to narrow down our choice of plays to include.

We limited the comparative plays to ones which were first produced approximately between the 1580s to 1630s, to avoid going too far outside the period in which Shakespeare’s plays were originated (although dating of plays in this period can be difficult, and is not an exact science). By doing this, we minimise the possibility that language differences in plays by Shakespeare and others could be due simply to wider changes in language use over time. We also included a range of earlier and later plays, to reflect the dating of Shakespeare’s plays pre- and post-1600.

Shakespeare’s plays are, broadly speaking, grouped into three genres or types: comedies, tragedies and histories. They don’t all fit neatly into these categories, of course, and other groupings can be used, but we know from existing research that language varies between these three major play types (for example, that dialogue in comedy plays is closer to natural speech of the period than dialogue in history and tragedy plays). So, to make sure that language differences we find between Shakespeare’s plays and plays by his peers are not due simply to an imbalance in the proportions of dialogue from one genre or another in the comparative set, we included approximately comparable amounts of comedy, tragedy and history plays by other playwrights to the amounts of comedy, tragedy and history plays by Shakespeare (using word count as the measurement). These all had to fit our target date span, and have been arguably popular/successful, leaving us with a fairly small pool of plays from which to choose. We included 46 plays in all, to create a set of plays of similar size to our Shakespeare corpus, some of which are:

Francis Beaumont: The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613)
George Chapman: The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1598); An Humerous Dayes Myrth (1599)
Thomas Heywood: The Fair Maid of the West Part I (1599); How a Man May Chuse (1602)
Ben Jonson: Volpone (1616); Bartholomew Fayre (1631)
John Lyly: Alexander and Campaspe (1584); Gallathea (1592)

Thomas Dekker: Sir Thomas Wyatt (1607)
Robert Greene: The Scottish History of James the Fourth (1598)
Christopher Marlowe: Tamburlaine Part I (1590), Edward II (1594)
George Peele: The Famous Chronicle of Edward I (1593); The Battle of Alcazar (1594)

Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy (1592)
Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta (1633); Dr Faustus (1604)
John Webster: The White Devil (1612); The Duchess of Malfi (1623)

We sourced the plays in digital format for our comparative corpus from Early English Books Online.

Farmer and Lesser’s online Database of Early English Playbooks is a great resource of details of historical English plays – useful for research and interesting to browse.


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On Valentine’s Day

By Sean Murphy.

Each numbered phrase is from a Shakespeare play, but which one? Answers below:

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine[i].

I am so love-shaked[ii] that I need a remedy. My love-thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers[iii]. I am an old love-monger[iv], who speaks skilfully. I relish a love-song[v], and wish to write a love-line[vi]. I imagine myself a don Cupid, a regent of love rhymes[vii] in love-letters. I aim to loose my love-shaft from my bow[viii], plead my love-suit[ix] and interchange love-tokens[x] with my true love before love-devouring death do what he dare[xi].

Ah, if only I could end the heart-ache[xii] I feel for that rose-lipped cherubin[xiii]. I am a true lover[xiv], a hot lover[xv]! I am a lover, sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad, made to my mistress’ eye-brow[xvi]. Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow![xvii] If my passion change not shortly[xviii], then I will kiss your lips[xix].

Enough, no more![xx]

The 15th of February, I can say at last:

Good morrow, friends – Saint Valentine is past![xxi]

[i] Hamlet
[ii] As You Like It
[iii] Twelfth Night
[iv] Love’s Labours Lost
[v] The Two Gentlemen of Verona
[vi] All’s Well that End Well
[vii] Love’s Labours Lost
[viii] A Midsummer Night’s Dream
[ix] Henry V
[x] A Midsummer Night’s Dream
[xi] Romeo and Juliet
[xii] Hamlet
[xiii] Othello
[xiv] As You Like It
[xv] The Two Gentlemen of Verona
[xvi] As You Like It
[xvii] A Midsummer Night’s Dream
[xviii] Much Ado About Nothing
[xix] Henry V
[xx] Twelfth Night
[xxi] A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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