Shakespeare in focus: Shakespeare's words and language

Home learning focus

To develop confidence in discussing Shakespeare’s language and word choice.

This lesson will feature examples from Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth.

This lesson includes:

  • two videos of actors discussing scenes from Romeo and Juliet
  • one video summarising the plot of Macbeth
  • three activities

Created in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company


When you begin to look at Shakespeare's plays the language he uses can be difficult to understand when you look at it on the page, or when you read it for the first time, but these plays were written to be performed. How the words make you feel, and how they sound, can give important clues to help us understand what the words mean and how the character is feeling.

This is something you can experience by speaking them out loud, something the activities in this lesson will ask you to try for yourself.

Watch this short clip to hear from actors about the importance of how words sound and how they make you feel.

RSC actors discuss how acting out Shakespeare's words helps to give them meaning.

‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo’ is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines and is taken from the tragedy Romeo and Juliet. In the play the teenagers Romeo and Juliet come from warring families, they meet at a party and fall in love. The play tells the story of their attempts to be together, but sadly everything is destined to go wrong in the end.

When a character begins a line with ‘O’ it often suggests they are struggling with their own emotions. When saying the line out loud you can also hear that vowel sound, ‘O’, which you can hear in Romeo’s name. An actor could play this line in lots of different ways, but the repetition of the sound draws out Juliet’s speech, which could suggest she is taking her time over it.

This repetition of the same vowel sound is called assonance.

Watch the video below to find out more about the power of Juliet's soliloquy.

RSC actors discuss Juliet's soliloquy.


Activity 1

Shakespeare’s words are sometimes unfamiliar.

Look at the list of insults from Romeo and Juliet below.

  • 'Ratcatcher'

  • 'Dishclout'

  • 'Pish, you mumbling fool'

  • 'Young baggage'

  • Try saying each phrase out loud into a mirror or record yourself and watch each insult back. Don’t worry if you don’t know what some of the words and phrases mean. Listen for the strongest sounds within each word.
  • Then repeat each insult and add a gesture or movement that you think might go with it. This could be pointing or shaking your fist, for example.

Things to think about

Does the gesture or movement weaken or strengthen the words you chose? Which sounds are the most satisfying?

Useful context

Shakespeare uses language, sound and action to build the world of his plays.

Romeo and Juliet opens with lots of insults and violent language. This helps to quickly get across a sense of the conflict between the two warring families the Capulets and the Montagues.

Activity 2

Having looked at how Shakespeare uses words and sounds to establish the world of the play in Romeo and Juliet, the following activity will look at how phrases and descriptions are used to create a sense of character in another of Shakespeare's famous plays - Macbeth.

At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is the Thane of Glamis (a thane is a Scottish lord, given a title and land by the king). He is a captain in King Duncan's army, is famous for being a tough soldier and is well-liked by King Duncan.

  • Read the descriptions of Macbeth in orange below. Note how each one begins with an adjective. These descriptions of the main character Macbeth are all taken from Act 1 Scene 2 of the play, before the audience meets Macbeth themselves.
  • Based on the descriptions, create a simple drawing or a collage using pictures from magazines of Macbeth, and label it with the descriptions.
  • Try adding extra labels using two or three adjectives of your own, based on the overall impression you gain from these lines.
Christoper Eccleston as Macbeth. Richard Davenport (c) RSC
  • 'Valiant Cousin'

  • 'Worthy Gentleman'

  • 'Brave Macbeth'

  • 'Worthy Thane'

  • 'Noble Macbeth'

To find out for what happens next take a look at this plot summary video. The play includes battles, swordfights and murder - so this cartoon clip does contain some violence.

Watch a fun plot summary of Macbeth.

Where next?

In this lesson you have explored the impact of Shakespeare’s word choices in creating setting and character.

There are other useful pages resources that will help you to explore Shakespeare's language choices.

There's more to learn

More lessons for Year 7 and S1
More from KS3 English
11 - 14 English Literature
Explore RSC productions of Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare: Text Detectives - Live Lesson
Shakespeare Learning Zone
Home learning with the RSC