Teaching Shakespeare’s Language: Thou & You

Thou & You: Rank and Emotion

 

My students know well in advance that I love teaching Shakespeare and drama, so they’re a little surprised when they confront Shakespeare’s language. They always assume I’m some sort of super genius if I can possibly understand that. Who could possibly understand all of those thous and wherefores and yons? Well, I’m not a super genius, but I can teach my students a few tricks to help them feel like geniuses. One of the most important aspects of teaching Shakespeare’s language is helping students understand the meaning of thou and you.

 

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Analyzing the use of pronouns in a play can tell students a great deal about the status of characters and about the relationships a character has to other characters. The balance of these relationships can evolve or shift from scene to scene (and sometimes during the same scene: that’s the most fun!). Knowing how Elizabethan pronouns work will help understand and play characters more fully and effectively.

 

To start students off, it’s important to introduce the Elizabethan idea of peerage. This is essentially the concept of societal rank. A character’s rank and relationship to another character is what determines their pronoun usage. Likewise, Shakespeare’s characters often show us whether they’re being respectful, subservient, or quarrelsome through their language! We can miss a lot of subtlety if we don’t understand these points.

 

Want to integrate more drama in your ELA classroom?
Check out Shakespeare in 30!

 

Here’s the peerage breakdown:

 

NOBILITY

Highest rank: Royal family including King, Queen, Duke, Duchess, Prince, Princess

2nd highest rank: Marquess and Marchioness

3rd highest rank: Earl and Countess

4th highest rank: Viscount and Viscountess

5th highest rank: Baron and Baroness

 

GENTRY

These classes had the right to be called Lord (Sir) and Lady (Mistress).

Knights

Esquires (Squires)

Gentlemen

 

Members of the clergy are often given more respect, but everyone else is essentially commoners.

 

Who Uses “You” and Who Uses “Thou”?

 

“You”

People of equal higher status use YOU during formal meetings with each other. It conveys respect.

People of lower status always use YOU when addressing someone of higher status.

 

“Thou”

People of equal higher status use THOU during informal interactions with each other. It conveys intimacy.

People of equal higher status can use THOU as an insult. (Example: Tybalt to Romeo – “Thou art a villain”)

People of higher status use THOU when addressing people of lower status.

People of lower status use THOU when addressing equals.

 

As with anything, the lines can also be given a sarcastic tone to convey mockery or disdain. At the beginning of As You Like It, Orlando uses ‘sir’ and ‘you’ with his brother, but is anything but respectful! Take a look at this example from The Tempest. This is pulled from Shakespeare in 30: The Tempest and you can grab the FREE Close Reading here.

 

ANTONIO           Where is the master, boatswain?

Boatswain         You mar our labor. Keep your cabins.              You do assist the storm.

GONZALO          Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.

Boatswain         Out of our way, I say.

SEBASTIAN        A pox o’ your throat, bawling, blasphemous, uncharitable dog!

Boatswain         Work you then!

ANTONIO           Hang, cur! hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker!

 

Now, let’s walk through it. This is a great example to model with students because it comes from the very beginning of the play. All they need to know is that the ship is in a storm, and that there are nobles onboard. The crew is trying mightily to save the ship, and the nobles are getting in the way.

 

ANTONIO           Where is the master, boatswain?

Boatswain         You mar our labor. Keep your cabins.              You do assist the storm.

 

Initially the Boatswain uses the correct pronoun for those above his station. He needs the passengers not interfere with the crews’ attempts to keep the boat from sinking. However, he also orders them around, so the nobles are offended anyway.

 

GONZALO          Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.

 

Gonzalo reminds the Boatswain (a good man) to be good and remember who the passengers are (no less than the King!). He emphasizes this by using the pronoun thou.

 

Boatswain         Out of our way, I say.

SEBASTIAN        A pox o’ your throat, bawling, blasphemous, uncharitable dog!

 

When the Boatswain insists, Sebastian insults him and uses the respectful YOU in a highly ironic way. He does not mean to show respect to the Boatswain but to point out that the man is wrong to order them about.

 

Boatswain         Work you then!

ANTONIO           Hang, cur! hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker!

 

Knowing he’s in trouble but still needing to do his job, the actor playing the Boatswain has a choice: his “Work you then” can either be a kind of desperate plea or an angry bark. Either way, Antonio also insults him and uses YOU ironically. Antonio (the Duke of Milan) is not saying “Hang” in a powerless, dismissive way (the way we might say “Go hang yourself”). Antonio is saying he will have the Boatswain hung for such insolence.

 

Final Thoughts

 

Teaching Shakespeare’s language can be a daunting task, but isolating a few key concepts for students will really improve their comprehension and their “takeaways”. The difference between thou & you is a great example of a really productive lesson since it helps students understand characterization in Shakespeare.

 

You can grab my worksheets for teaching Shakespeare’s language at my TpT store. You can also read more Tips & Tricks for Teaching Shakespeare. If you’d like to read more about how I use drama in ELA, check out Staged Readings and Improv Games.

 

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