• Lancaster University

Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

Demystify renowned Shakespeare myths and get introduced to corpus-based methods for analysing his use of language in context.

5,270 enrolled on this course

Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

5,270 enrolled on this course

  • 4 weeks

  • 3 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Open level

Find out more about how to join this course

Debunk and discover common myths surrounding the language of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is a global phenomenon, yet there is actually relatively little work specifically devoted to his language, and even less deploying the latest techniques from linguistics.

On this course, you will explore Shakespeare’s language and, more generally, the language of his time.

Over four weeks, you will be introduced to “big data” corpus methods (methods that use computers to explore large volumes of language data) which you can use for your own investigations, and will explore how words and meanings pattern across plays, characters, and more.

Along the way, you will find out why various beliefs about Shakespeare’s life and language–like that he coined an extraordinary number of new words–are actually myths.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds What do you think of when I say the word Shakespeare? Perhaps the famous Chandos portrait of the man himself. Perhaps the Globe Theatre in London. Perhaps if you visited Stratford-upon-Avon, the place where he was born. Perhaps pain suffered at school. Hopefully not. If you were with me now, in Lancaster, a city in the North of England, I could point you to the figure on the front of the gatehouse of the castle. Here we see John O’Gaunt who was the Duke of Lancaster in the 14th century. On one side of him, is the coat of arms of his son, Henry IV, and on the other side is the coat of arms of his grandson, Henry V.

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds All three of them are characters in Shakespeare’s plays, but none of these, the portrait, the globe, the house in Stratford, the Shakespearean characters would matter a jot if it were not for what Shakespeare crafted in language. And that is precisely what this course will focus on, which means I’m standing in the wrong place. That’s more like it. A library. Libraries are where copies of old books and manuscripts are often preserved for our investigation. Here we might find the first folio of 1623, the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s works. Perhaps a facsimile copy. Many genuine copies of this are held in the Folger Shakespeare library, in Washington DC, in the USA.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds And surely it is in libraries that we will find everything there is to know about Shakespeare’s language. I’m actually standing in Lancaster University’s library, which is typical of many university libraries around the world. On this shelf, I can see dotted about three, four, maybe five books about Shakespeare’s language. But, if we look down these shelves, all of the books we see are about Shakespeare and his context. They may be relevant to his language, but they are not actually focused on his language. All this seems a bit paradoxical of course because it is the language that creates characters that creates plays that are celebrated for their ingenuity and so on. And all of this means I’m standing in the wrong place.

Skip to 2 minutes and 22 seconds That’s more like it. OK. I’m not surrounded by dusty tomes. But that, to some extent, is a romantic image of research from the past. These days, the computer is a key tool, not only accessing research on Shakespeare’s language, but actually doing that research. On this course, you will learn about Shakespeare’s linguistic backdrop, the kinds of words and structures that were available to him, and see how he exploited them. We will focus on what Shakespeare’s words meant to the Elizabethan audiences, how they constructed particular characters, or particular types of character, male or female. Along the way, we will debunk a few myths, such as did he really coin thousands of words.

Skip to 3 minutes and 15 seconds We have been addressing such issues as part of the Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s language project here at Lancaster University. And we have been doing this with computers. That is a key aspect of this course. You will learn how to use a computer to interrogate our resources and do such research yourselves. And, don’t worry. If you can buy a plane or train ticket online, you have sufficient computing skills to do the course.

What topics will you cover?

  • The general features of the English of Shakespeare’s time, from spellings through words to grammar;
  • The nature of Shakespearean texts, including how their production affected their language;
  • How huge collections of texts can be explored by computer to highlight meanings (and in a more subtle and yet empirical way than current Shakespearean dictionaries);
  • The myths about Shakespeare’s language (e.g. that he coined an extraordinary number of new words); and
  • How fresh light can be shed on the linguistic styles of plays and characters through corpus methods.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Demonstrate an understanding of Shakespeare’s language and empirical methods for its analysis
  • Evaluate common myths surrounding Shakespeare’s language
  • Compare the language of Shakespeare with that of his contemporaries
  • Investigate the linguistic traits of characters and plays
  • Apply corpus linguistic concepts and methods

Who is the course for?

This course is for anyone interested in Shakespeare, language, and corpus linguistics. This includes English or literature teachers and students.

What software or tools do you need?

To fully engage with this course, you will need to sign up to use an external tool called CQPWeb provided by Lancaster University. Details of how to do this will be provided during the course.

Who will you learn with?

Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Lancaster University. Editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Shakespeare's Language. Specialist in corpus-based studies of Early Modern English.

Visiting Fellow in English Language and Linguistics at Lancaster University. Co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Shakespeare's Language. Specialist in corpus stylistic analysis of Shakespeare’s language.

Assistant Professor at Vienna University of Economics and Business. Communications Officer for the Encyclopedia of Shakespeare's Language project. Specialist in corpus-based approaches to discourse.

Who developed the course?

Lancaster University

Lancaster University is a collegiate university, with a global reputation as a centre for research, scholarship and teaching with an emphasis on employability.

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Develop skills to further your career

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  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

Cancel for free anytime

Buy this course

$134/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 16 May 2024

Find out more about certificates, Unlimited or buying a course (Upgrades)

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