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All's Well That Ends Well /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: All’s Well That Ends Well

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not, and, worse, some of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth century. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of All’s Well That Ends Well, for example, you will find the words prejudicates (i.e., condemns in advance), discipled (i.e., trained), approof (i.e., proof), and sithence (i.e., since). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In All’s Well That Ends Well, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes of All’s Well That Ends Well, for example, the word want has the meaning of “lack,” simpleness is used where we would say “innocence,” livelihood is used where we would say “liveliness,” and taxed where we would say “reproved” or “reprimanded.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build dramatic worlds that have their own space, time, and history. In the first two acts of All’s Well That Ends Well, for example, Shakespeare conjures up a number of different worlds—those of the court, the military, and the medical profession. The first and principal setting is that of the court, both the provincial court of Rossillion and the royal court of the King of France. Power relations within these courts are determined by the accidents of birth (i.e., lineage or “blood”) and death. Because of his father’s death, Bertram, an “unseasoned courtier,” is “in ward, evermore in subjection” to the King of France. Yet to Helen, by birth “a gentlewoman” to an “honorable mistress” and therefore below Bertram in social hierarchy, he is “a bright particular star.” Helen laments the “difference betwixt their two estates”—between her “humble” and his “honored name”—and wishes that their “qualities were level.” For Bertram, the adventure of a foreign war offers the promise of deliverance from subjection. “The Florentines and Senoys are by th’ ears,” and Bertram and other young courtiers who are “sick for breathing and exploit” and who desire to “wear themselves in the cap of the time” will compete to be the “bravest questant” and to survive as “well-entered soldiers.” In “the Tuscan service,” they will risk being forever disfigured by a “cicatrice” but will also be thrilled by “the bound and high curvet / Of Mars’s fiery steed.” Helen will attempt to change the fate of her birth and find “the luckiest star in heaven” through her practice of medicine or “physic,” using the “applications,” “prescriptions,” “receipts,” “appliance,” and “empirics” that she has inherited from her father against the “malignant cause” from which the French king suffers. In so doing she will best the “schools” or “congregated college” of the “artists . . . both of Galen and Paracelsus,” “learned and authentic fellows.”

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. In reading for ourselves, we can do as the actor does. That is, when we become puzzled by a character’s speech, we can check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Shakespeare often, for example, rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In All’s Well That Ends Well, when Bertram says of his dead father “So in approof lives not his epitaph” (1.2.57), he is using such a construction. So is Parolles when he says simply “say I” (2.3.15). The “normal” order would be “His epitaph lives not so in approof ” and “I say.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). The Countess’s statement “Her dispositions she inherits” (1.1.41–42) is an example of such an inversion, as is the French king’s “his plausive words / He scattered not in ears” (1.2.60–61). The “normal” order would be “She inherits her dispositions” and “He scattered not his plausive words in ears.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word. Take, for example, “Then I confess / Here on my knee before high heaven and you / That before you and next unto high heaven / I love your son” (1.3.201–4). In these lines, the adverb “Here” and the phrase “on my knee before high heaven and you” separate the verb of the main clause (“confess”) from its object (the clause “That . . . I love your son”). (Within the clause that forms the object of the main clause, the phrases “before you” and “next unto high heaven” delay the appearance of the clause’s subject and verb [“I love”]. For more on delaying the appearance of the principal sentence elements, see below.) Or take the King’s lines to Bertram quoting the young man’s father:

              “Let me not live”—

This his good melancholy oft began

On the catastrophe and heel of pastime,

When it was out—“Let me not live,” quoth he,

“After my flame lacks oil. . . . ”


Here after one sentence begins with the first quotation of Bertram’s father’s words, the sentence is interrupted, as marked in our text by the first dash, so that another entire sentence can be inserted (“This his good melancholy . . . was out”) before the original sentence begins again. Thus Shakespeare is able to create the flavor of spontaneous conversation in the medium of blank verse.

Sometimes, although not often in All’s Well That Ends Well, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Shakespeare puts this kind of construction in the mouth of the King when he again addresses Bertram, this time about Helen:

                 If she be

All that is virtuous, save what thou dislik’st—

“A poor physician’s daughter”—thou dislik’st

Of virtue for the name.


Holding back the essential sentence elements, the subject, the verb, and the completion of the predicate (“thou dislik’st / Of virtue for the name”), the King first establishes the terms according to which Helen is to be presented. For him, she is a paragon of virtue, “All that is virtuous”; he dismisses the issue of her inadequate lineage by reducing it to his quotation of the phrase that Bertram has earlier used to characterize her, “ ‘A poor physician’s daughter.’ ” The King turns Bertram’s evaluation into just so many words.

Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In All’s Well That Ends Well, a number of speakers implicitly claim to voice wisdom by speaking in a carefully balanced elliptical way. For example, when Lafew tells the Countess and Bertram that they have nothing to fear from the French king, he states his opinion in a sentence so formulated that the very structure of his words seems a guarantee of his authority: “You shall find of the King a husband, madam; you, sir, a father” (1.1.7–8). Fully expanded the sentence would read “You shall find of the King a husband, madam; you, sir, shall find of the King a father,” but such flabby repetition would strip it of its power to persuade. The Countess’s elliptical statement at 1.3.133, “Our blood to us, this to our blood is born,” shows that proverbial-sounding utterances can employ omission in a way that reverses the pattern of Lafew’s statement. This time words are omitted from the first clause in the balanced structure, rather than from the second. Expanded in normal word order, the Countess’s sentence would read “[As surely as] our blood is born [i.e., is innate] to us, so this is born to our blood.” Again by omitting words Shakespeare lends an aura of wisdom to the Countess’s declaration.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. Puns in All’s Well That Ends Well usually play on the multiple meanings of a single word. When Parolles addresses two lords on their way to war, he puns on the word metals: “Noble heroes, my sword and yours are kin. Good sparks and lustrous, a word, good metals” (2.1.46–47). This speech exploits metal’s association with swords and swordsmen and its meaning (always now, but not then, conveyed under the spelling mettle) of “character” or “spirit.” The Fool’s conversation, like Parolles’, is generously sprinkled with puns. When the Countess asks him, “Will your answer serve fit to all questions?” the Fool answers with a series of analogies that begins “As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney, as your French crown for your taffety punk . . .” (2.2.20–22). The Fool’s “French crown,” as the context alerts us, refers both to a coin (just as “ten groats” also refers to money) and to syphilis, which the English represented (falsely) as of French origin. This second meaning of “French crown” is indicated by its association with a “punk” or prostitute.

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. For instance, when Helen, in the context of speaking of the impossibility of her achieving the marriage to Bertram she desires, says “The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love” (1.1.96–97), it is clear that she is “the hind” and he “the lion.” Later, when the King quotes Bertram’s father to Bertram, the speech the King recalls is itself composed of a set of metaphors:

              “Let me not live,” quoth he,

“After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff

Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses

All but new things disdain, whose judgments are

Mere fathers of their garments, whose constancies

Expire before their fashions.”


First, vitality is compared to the oil that is burned in a lamp; once that oil is consumed, all that remains in the lamp is its wick, or “snuff,” which was Bertram’s fathers term for himself imagined as old. Then the speech switches to a metaphorical characterization of shallow young men who care for nothing but their clothes. These men are represented as having only enough “judgment” to choose their “garments,” which become the children of the otherwise childless men. In yet another metaphor, the men’s “constancies” of purpose are like living things with a life span shorter than the time their clothes remain in fashion.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We should always try to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. Consider, for example, the stage action that is suggested by the following exchange between the Countess and her son Bertram in the play’s first scene:

COUNTESS    . . . Farewell, Bertram.

BERTRAM   The best wishes that can be forged in your thoughts be servants to you. Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her.


There are several clues in this exchange indicating that the first sentence in Bertram’s speech is addressed to his mother, who then must leave the stage, the second sentence in the speech then being addressed to Helen. The clue that the Countess is about to exit is her “Farewell” to Bertram. The clue that she has exited is provided in the switch from Bertram’s use of the second person to address her in the first sentence of his speech (“your . . . you”) to his reference to her as “my mother, your mistress” and “her” (the third person) in the last sentence of his speech. The clue that the last sentence is addressed to Helen, and not the Countess, is Bertram’s use of “your mistress” in the sentence. These indications are so clear that we, as editors, add the stage direction “Countess exits.” between the two sentences of Bertram’s speech. This is one place, and there are others, where the dialogue allows us to be reasonably confident in adding, in brackets, a stage direction suggesting the action.

On other occasions in All’s Well That Ends Well, the signals for stage action are not so clear. Indeed the play seems sometimes to offer a unique challenge to readers’ capacity to imagine the action that accompanies its dialogue. Take, for example, the scene in which Helen addresses herself to the young lords presented to her by the King as those from among whom she can choose a husband, her reward for having healed him. There is an obvious discrepancy between the lords’ actual words to Helen and Lafew’s representation of their behavior. For example, when Helen says to the Second Court Lord “Love make your fortunes twenty times above / Her that so wishes [i.e., Helen herself], and her humble love,” and the Second Lord replies “No better, if you please,” the response appears to say frankly that he desires a wife with no greater fortune than Helen’s; that is, he is perfectly happy to have her as his wife. Yet Lafew comments “Do all they deny her? An they were sons of mine, I’d have them whipped . . .” (2.3.94–95). It is hard to know whether Lafew is to be placed onstage at such a distance from Helen that he cannot actually hear the conversations about which he is commenting and that he is therefore misinterpreting Helen’s decision to pass over the Court Lords as their rejection of her, or the scene is to be staged so that the gestures and vocal inflections of the Court Lords are at odds with their words and Lafew is right to judge that they are turning her down. Because this ambiguity is undecidable, we, as editors, have added nothing to the text of the play, leaving this interpretive issue for readers, directors, and actors to judge.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.