Explore our Shakespeare dictionary to understand words Shakespeare uses that are not in common usage today, or may have a different meaning. If there’s a word you need to understand that’s not lists, please let us know in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

In many ways Shakespeare is the founder of the modern English that we use. It’s generally accepted that he invented or brought into popular usage thousands of words and phrases, and wrote some of litereature’s most memorable lines. However, Shakespeare wrote almost 400 years ago in Early Modern English, and a number of words that were common in his day have since fallen out of usage. To help you better understand Shakespeare’s works we’ve put together the below Shakespeare dictionary, listing these words, along with a description and example of the word used in context in a Shakespeare play:

Alack

An expression of dismay, sorrow, regret.

Example from Shakespeare:
‘Alack the day, she’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead!’ – Lady Capulet on Juliet’s apparent death. (Romeo and Juliet)

Cozen

To deceive, trick or cheat.

Example from Shakespeare:
‘I will be hang’d, if some eternal villain,
Some busy and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,
Have not devised this slander; I’ll be hang’d else.’ – Emilia on realizing that Desdemona has been slandered. (Othello)

Fie

To express annoyance or disapproval – ‘shame on you!’, ‘rubbish!’ etc.

Example from Shakespeare:
‘ Fetch him off, I pray you; he speaks nothing but madman: fie on him!’ – Olivia when accosted by Malvolio, insinuating that she has sent him a love letter. (Twelfth Night)

Huggermugger

A secret act done too quickly, without thinking it through.

Example from Shakespeare:
‘And we have done but greenly in huggermugger to inter him’ – Claudius regretting having buried Polonius in such a hurry in secret. (Hamlet)

Prithee

‘Please’, ‘if you don’t mind’

Example from Shakespeare:
‘Ay; prithee, sing.‘ – Orsino to Feste, asking him to sing. (Twelfth Night)

Marry

Used in several ways _ it can introduce a statement, meaning something like, ‘listen’, or ‘I agree’, or ‘indeed’ or ‘well’. It’s an oath by the Virgin Mary.

Example from Shakespeare:
‘Marry, sir, I would have some confidence with you that decerns you nearly.’ – Dogberry to Leontes, telling him about Don John’s plot. (Much Ado About Nothing)

Sirrah

An address used to someone regarded as socially inferior – ‘my good man’, ‘fellow’, ‘hey you!’

Example from Shakespeare:
‘You, sirrah, provide your block and your axe to-morrow four o’clock .’ – The judge telling the executioner to prepare an execution. (Measure for Measure)

Sooth

‘In fact’, ‘to tell you the truth’

Example from Shakespeare:
‘O, fellow, come, the song we had last night.
Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones
Do use to chant it: it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love,
Like the old age.’ – Duke Orsino ordering Feste to sing. (Twelfth Night)

Wherefore

Wherefore simply means ‘why’

Example from Shakespeare:
‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’

Zounds

An exclamation in the form of an oath – a swearword, abbreviation of ‘God’s wounds!’ There are many modern forms, such as ‘Jesus Christ!’ or ‘God almighty’ and such constructions.

Example from Shakespeare:
‘Zounds, ye fat paunch, an ye call me coward, by the
Lord, I’ll stab thee.’ – Poins to Falstaff. (Henry 1V Part 1)

Three old looking books standing upright on a shelf, including the complete works of Shakespeare

You’ll probably need a Shakespeare dictionary to fully understand these Shakespeare works!

Have any suggestions of words to add to the Shakespeare dictionary? Lets us know in the comments seciton below.

  • Amy Marshall says:

    She doth teach the torches to burn bright it seems she hangs upon the cheek of night as a rich jewel in an Ethiops ear- beauty to rich to for use, for earth to dear! So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows as yonder lady o’der her fellows shows the measure done, ill watch her place to stand and, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand. Did my heart love till now! Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night

    • Clairissa says:

      Romeo is so in love with love.

      • Kevin says:

        He is in love with beauty, not the person who happens to be beautiful. How quickly Rosaline was forgotten when next his eyes alighted on yet other beautiful younger girl. It is a great play, but not for the reasons a surface reading would suggest.

    • Alex Kern says:

      Does that mean, “She makes the torches burn bright. It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night as a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear-beauty to rich to use, for dear Earth! It shows a snowy dove with many crows. As this daring lady shows to her fellows that it is done, I’ll watch her place to stand and, touching hers, make blessed my hand that makes rude gestures. Did my heart love until now! Reject it, sight! For I never saw true beauty until this night.

  • naseerahmadwani says:

    the love of romeo and juliet is touching

  • pretzie says:

    i have read some DiD YOU KNOW FACTS and accordingly .. “assassination” and the word “bump” was also included from the shakespere’s dictionaire. 🙂

  • Faeo Lyre Clive says:

    Literature is lost without Shakespeare.

  • Rose says:

    I love each and every word of Shakespeare he is my inspire my motivate my everything a single word from him changes my attitude

    • Jcob says:

      Lady that’s lame and your illiterate.

      • Ya mum says:

        WOW. I can’t believe you just said, “… your illiterate.” You chastise others for illiteracy and can’t differentiate between ‘you’re’ and ‘your’. #Fail

        • Mia says:

          Why is Shakespeare such a big deal? I understand 4 languages other than English and every single one of them is much richer and deeper than English. Besides, it is a fairly new language that is being murdered early by the modern “txting” language.

          • Excuse My English says:

            Because Shakespeare’s writing conveys multiple meanings. One phrase could relate comedicaly to current events in England, tragicly to the play, and spiritually to some pre-enlightenment philosophical idea. He was a master of conveying a story through not just pretty and big words, but through a form of hot-topic poetry that means something new every time you go back to read it. And criticizing Shakespeare on a Shakespeare site is a one-way ticket to stupid. and why at 3am?

          • Satyanandan says:

            Nothing is a ‘big deal’ in the absolute sense. You just love a language and a great poet.

          • R W says:

            English is a fairly new language? Which history of the English language did you read? It’s changed, but it’s not new. Read Old English.

          • R W says:

            You wondered why Shakespeare is a big deal. Good question. But you start from the wrong premise. You think (mistakenly) that people like him because he wrote in English, so you disagree with their appraisal because you believe that other languages (at least four!) are way better than English.

            Shakespeare is great, not because of the medium he used (the English language) to create his art, but because of several correlated factors.

            (1) He had an extraordinary facility with language–he had a way with words, even when those words were in crummy old English. (2) He knew how to create striking, memorable, complex characters. (3) He knew how to construct very exciting, very complex plots and subplots. (4) He knew how to write realistic, poignant, psychologically and emotionally rich dialogue. (5) He was an extremely keen observer of human nature, and commented on the human condition is well as (or even better than) any philosopher, psychologist, or sociologist.

            Those are a few reasons why we still read Shakespeare. He was a truly unique writer.

        • Alex Kern says:

          How did I fail? I didn’t mix anything up.

      • Alex Kern says:

        I’m not a lady, so why do you think I am? Also, I’m not illiterate.

  • Donald M. says:

    I always thought ‘zounds’ was simply a word meaning intense shock. Whether for ill or good depended on it’s use, though usually for rebuke or to indicate something distasteful.

  • Mya says:

    The fact that Shakespeare was able to create stories, poems, and sonnets that are still around and referred to today is truly amazing.

  • Alex Kern says:

    I’m making a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, but I’m having trouble with “zounds” as used for the first time. Please help!

    • JH says:

      Conjunction of “God’s Wounds” if that helps.
      A trinitarian Christian might picture Jesus'(God’s) wounds from the crucifixion. A punitive Judeo-Christian might picture God’s avenging wounds upon a sinner or a foe of Israel . . . In either case it became part of the daily Elizabethan idiom. Like “Goddamn” or “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” today.

  • cliff jones says:

    how ’bout ‘wherefore’, as in wherefore art thou romeo/