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


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

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.

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’, in Romeo’s name. An actor could play this line in lots of different ways, but the repetition of the 'O' 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.

Christoper Eccleston as Macbeth. Richard Davenport (c) RSC

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 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.
  • 'Valiant Cousin'

  • 'Worthy Gentleman'

  • 'Brave Macbeth'

  • 'Worthy Thane'

  • 'Noble Macbeth'

  • 'Peerless Kinsman'

  • Create a simple drawing of Macbeth, based on the descriptions above and label it with the quotations. Try adding to this with two or three adjectives of your own, based on the overall impression you gain from these lines.
  • These descriptions of Macbeth are all taken from Act 1 Scene 2 of the play, before the audience meets Macbeth themselves. Above your drawing write one line, completing this sentence: 'Shakespeare uses characters' descriptions to tell us about Macbeth before we meet him in order to ...'

Questions to ask yourself

Do the descriptions above give the audience a good or bad impression of Macbeth?
Do you think the audience will have the same impression of Macbeth once he appears?

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.

Activity 3

Having looked at how words and sounds are used to help us understand the world of the play and introduce characters, here we’ll look at how a character uses language and rhythm to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas.

In the second video in this lesson you watched an actor talking about the sounds in the first line of Juliet’s speech in Act 2 Scene 2.

Below, you can see this speech in full.

  • Read the speech once from beginning to end - don't worry about understanding everything.

  • At the end of this, write down what words you remember. What impression do they give you?

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name,

Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy,

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? It is not hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other word would smell as sweet,

So Romeo would, were he Romeo not called.

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for thy name, which is no part of thee,

Take all myself.

Now, unless you are using a tablet or mobile device you may need to print or write out the speech so that you can read it while moving.

  • Read the speech to yourself while walking around the room, in whatever space you have, changing direction each time you reach a punctuation mark.

Does it feel like Juliet is in control, or is she moving and changing her direction a lot?

A character who uses a lot of punctuation, questions or thoughts, can often come across as restless or unsure.

  • Imagine you are Juliet. Write down two sentences from her point of view, explaining how she feels here.

If you want to find out more about the play and how Juliet is feeling, check out this Bitesize plot summary.

Questions to ask yourself

Are there any repeated words or sounds, and what impact does this have?

Do you think Juliet has planned this speech or is she thinking out loud?

Top tip!

A really great way to get a sense of what a speech is about quickly, is to look at the last word of each line. Themes can sometimes become clearer when you do this.

For example, in Juliet’s speech here, the word ‘name’ comes up three times, along with ‘called’, ‘Romeo’, ‘Montague’ and ‘Capulet’. Together, these are really helpful in telling us quickly what’s on Juliet’s mind.

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 8 and S2
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