Pet peeve alert: It drives me crazy when I hear people refer to Shakepeare’s language as “Old” English. It is not Old English. It is not even Middle English (which is, or was, indeed a real language). Shakespeare spoke and wrote in early Modern English. Sure, he was flowery and poetic. Yes, he used unfamiliar words and familiar words in unfamiliar ways. And his syntax could get a little funky. Nevertheless, he spoke the same language that speakers of English do today. I won’t bore you with an entire history of the English language, but to demonstrate just how modern he is, here’s something we all know, the Lord’s Prayer, as it was written in real Old English, then in Middle English, and finally in Shakespearean English.
Lord’s Prayer in Old English
(About the year 1000—around the time Beowulf was written)
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum
si þin nama gehalgod
tobecume þin rice
gewurþe þin willa
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele. soþlice.
Lord’s Prayer in Middle English
(About the year 1384—Chaucer’s time)
Oure fadir þat art in heuenes halwid be þi name;
þi reume or kyngdom come to be.
Be þi wille don in herþe as it is doun in heuene.
yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred.
And foryeue to us oure dettis þat is oure synnys
as we foryeuen to oure dettouris þat is to men þat han synned in us.
And lede us not into temptacion but delyuere us from euyl. Amen.
Lord’s Prayer in Early Modern English
(About the year 1602—Shakespeare’s time)
Our Father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdome come. Thy will be done euen in earth, as it is in heauen.
Giue vs this day our daily bread.
And forgiue vs our debts, as we also forgiue our debters.
And lead vs not into temptation, but deliuer vs from euill. Amen.