I have begun trying to read Shakespeare.

My problem is I can't understand the writing at all.

Why is Shakespeare so hard to understand? I hope that I am not the only one that finds it hard to read.

For example, I don't understand the uses of study in the following. And all my attempts at consulting dictionary definitions have not helped. Is "study" a noun or a verb here? Is the author saying that "study" means "common sense"? And how can study have a "recompense"? And what about "forbid"? Shouldn't it be "forbidden"?

Long. You swore to that, Berowne, and to the rest.

Ber. By yea and nay, sir, then I swore in jest.
What is the end of study? let me know.

King. Why, that to know which else we should not know.

Ber. Things hid and barr'd, you mean, from common sense?

King. Ay, that is study's god-like recompense.

Ber. Come on then; I will swear to study so, To know the thing I am forbid to know;

  • First thing, it's off topic. Second it was old time, the grammar is right according to their time. If you read poetry, then yes sometimes it is hard to understand, i believe poets have a different mind than us. So, yes it is sometimes hard for all of us.
    – MihirUj
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 18:29
  • 1
    Questions that don't have real answers, like "Do you find Shakespeare hard to understand too?" are off-topic here - this SE blog post might help explain. Some folks don't find Shakespeare hard to understand, or find it hard to understand for different reasons than others do. If you have a specific question about language, we might be able to help. This thread on meta has some good advice meta.ell.stackexchange.com/q/439/9161
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 19:50
  • 7
    Because Shakespeare's plays are 400 years old and because he uses poetic language which is new to you. You can't read Shakespeare the way you read a modern detective novel. It is a lot of work to learn Shakespeare's vocabulary and his artistic language. Many editions of Shakespeare's plays have a lot of annotations as to vocabulary and expressions.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 20:19
  • I think this is an excellent question about learning English, and I'm sad to see it closed. There are valuable, specific things to point out about Shakespeare to explain why his writing is so hard to understand. A thoughtful answer to this question could be one of the best answers ever posted to ELL.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 23:27
  • 1
    @J.R. Would that I knew enough of Shakespeare's works to write an answer worthy of the question! Can only hope 'tis met by one that lurks more wise than I--but thanks for the suggestion.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 10:18

3 Answers 3


Perhaps because Shakespeare (early modern English) uses a lot of different grammar, pronunciations, sentence constructions and word meanings than we do. His texts are not "full of grammatical errors" according to the way English was used back then.

  • 4
    In addition to the time in which it was written, it's worth mentioning that most of the plays were written in poetic form to some extent. Shakespeare isn't "hard" merely because the language is "old". Back then, I doubt people spoke in pubs as though they were on Shakespeare's stage.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 20:37

This bit is not nearly as obtuse, arcane or archaic as commenters make it out to be. "study" as a verb means the same as it does in modern English. The third instance is clearly a verb, in its infinitive form: I will swear to study.

The other instances of "study" are noun forms. These days, we would probably use the gerund "studying" instead. For example, "What is the end (i.e., the aim, purpose or result) of studying?"

And no, studying is not "common sense"; it is the means to discern things which are "hid" (hidden) and "barr'd" (barred) from common sense; i.e., things which are normally not accessible to common sense.


The excerpt comes from Act 1, scene 1 in the play and can be paraphrased as follows:

Biron: What is the purpose of study(ing)? Tell me.

Ferdinand: Well, to know/learn that, which we would not know otherwise.

Biron: Things that are hidden and obstructed from ordinary understanding?[1]

Ferdinand: Yes, that is the godlike reward of studying.

Biron: OK then, I swear to learn the thing(s) that I am not allowed to know.

[1] Shakespeare uses a different meaning of "common sense" than the modern one.

Shakespeare used Early Modern English, which was characterised by certain differences in grammar and word meaning than those that are used today. Some words that Shakespeare used have gone out of fashion, while a number of others have changed in meaning. For this reason, it can be helpful to read Shakespeare's plays in editions that are annotated, such as The New Penguin Shakespeare (a bit old now, but still useful), the RSC Shakespeare (edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen) or the Norton Critical Editions (which does not cover all the plays, but which is useful if you also want excerpts from sources and criticism).

A number of other resources on vocabulary and grammar can also be helpful, such as

  • ShakespearesWords.com for word definitions,
  • A Shakespeare Glossary by C. T. Onions, enlarged and revised by Robert D. Eagleson (Oxford University Press, 1986),
  • Original Pronunciation: a website by the linguist David Crystal about how Shakespeare's works may have been pronounced in Elizabethan times, which can help you understand why things that don't rhyme now may have rhymed originally.

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