Shakespeare’s false friends
False friends (‘faux amis’) are words in one language which look the same as words in another. We therefore think that their meanings are the same, and get a shock when we find they are not. Generations of French students have believed that demander means ‘demand’ (whereas it means ‘ask’) or librairie means ‘library’ (instead of ‘bookshop’). It is a sign of a mature understanding of a language when you can cope with the false friends, which can be some of its most frequently used words. Having a good grasp of the false friends is a crucial part of ‘learning to speak French’
Shakespeare has false friends, too. A 16th- or 17th-century word may look the same as its Modern English equivalent, but its meaning has radically changed. Naughty doesn’t mean ‘naughty’. Revolve doesn’t mean ‘revolve’. Ecstasy doesn’t mean ‘ecstasy’. Some of these words occur so often in the plays and poems that they can be a regular source of misunderstanding. The obvious solution – as we do in learning a foreign language – is to get to know them in advance, as part of the process of ‘learning to speak Shakespearian’. A succinct account is all that we need, with the chief points of semantic contrast noted and the usage well illustrated.
Here are a few false friends to be wary of…
‘close and open one eye, suggesting a meaning’
In modern usage, the wink is always significant, suggesting that the winker is aware of a secret, a joke, or some sort of impropriety. Although this usage was possible in Shakespeare’s day (‘I will wink on her to consent’, says Burgundy to Henry, of Princess Katherine, in Henry V, V.ii.301), the usual usage was simply to ‘shut the eyes’. Without appreciating this, we can read quite the wrong meaning into an utterance. When York advises his friends to ‘wink at the Duke of Suffolk’s insolence’ (Henry VI Part 2, II.ii.70), he is telling them to ignore it, not to connive with it. And when Othello castigates Desdemona for her supposed wrongdoing, by saying ‘Heaven stops the nose at it, and the moon winks’ (Othello, IV.ii.76), we must avoid the modern implication that the matter is not serious.
‘loved, highly regarded, esteemed’
This word has a range of positive meanings dating back to Old English, and all are found in Shakespeare, including some which are no longer current, such as ‘glorious’, ‘precious’, or ‘heartfelt’. But the major problem comes with the word in its negative meanings – ‘grievous’, ‘harsh’, ‘dire’ – which didn’t last much beyond the end of the eighteenth century. Examples include Hamlet talking about his ‘dearest foe’ (Hamlet, I.ii.182) or Prince Henry reacting to the ‘dear and deep rebuke’ he has received (Henry IV Part 2, IV.v.141). Offences, guilt, exile, peril, groans, and other unwelcome things can all be dear. Usually, the context indicates the right sense, but we have to be careful not to be caught off guard. When Romeo realizes who Juliet is (Romeo and Juliet, I.v.118), he exclaims: ‘Is she a Capulet? / O dear account!’ He isn’t calling her a beloved treasure. It’s a harsh reckoning.
‘badly behaved’ [of children], ‘improper’ [playfully, of adults], ‘sexually suggestive’ [of objects, words, etc]
Modern English has totally lost the grave implications of the words that were normal in Shakespeare’s day. When Gloucester describes Regan as a ‘naughty lady’ (King Lear 3.7.37) or Leonato calls Borachio a ‘naughty man’ (Much Ado About Nothing 5.1.284) we cannot now avoid the impression that these are mild, ‘smack-hand’ rebukes. It is all the more important, therefore, to stress the strong sense the word had in Elizabethan English when referring to people: ‘wicked, evil, vile’. This is especially relevant in contexts where the jocular sense might seem acceptable, as when Falstaff (pretending to be King Henry) calls Prince Hal a ‘ naughty varlet’ (Henry IV Part 1 2.4.420). Concepts – such as the world, the times, and the earth – can also be ‘naughty’, and here too we need to note that the tone is serious not playful, as in Portia’s description of a candle flame in the darkness: ‘So shines a good deed in a naughty world’ (The Merchant of Venice 5.1.91). And where a sexual sense would be relevant, there is always a note of real moral impropriety, as in Elbow’s description of Mistress Overdone’s abode as ‘a naughty house’ (Measure for Measure 2.1.74).
‘actuality, datum of experience’
This word arrived in the language in the 16th century, and quickly developed a range of senses. The one which has survived is ‘actuality’, but in Early Modern English other senses were more dominant. The neutral idea of ‘something done’ gained both positive and negative associations: a noble thing done or a bad thing done. The pejorative sense was commonest – ‘evil deed, wicked deed, crime’ – and fact always has this connotation in Shakespeare. Murder, rape, cowardice, and other transgressions are all referred to as ‘facts’. Gloucester describes the cowardice of Falstaff (the soldier) as an ‘infamous’ fact'(Henry VI Part 1 IV.i.30). Warwick cannot think of a ‘fouler fact’ than Somerset’s treason (Henry VI Part 2 I.iii.171). The rape of Lucrece is described as a ‘fact’ to be abhorred (The Rape of Lucrece 349). And Lennox describes the way Duncan died as a ‘damned fact’ (Macbeth III.vi.10). The old sense hasn’t entirely disappeared, however. It will still be encountered in a few legal phrases, such as ‘confess the fact’.
‘angry feeling; proneness to anger’
This word has developed its meaning over the centuries, from physical state to mental state to a particular kind of mental state. Today, the ‘anger’ meaning is the dominant one, but this is an 18th-century development, and is never found in Shakespeare. The dominant meaning then was ‘frame of mind’ – what today we should call ‘temperament‘. When Aufidius says to Coriolanus, ‘You keep a constant temper’ (Coriolanus, V.ii.90), he does not mean that the latter is always cross. Often there is a clue in the associated adjective: ‘good temper’ (Henry IV Part 2, II.i.79), ‘feeble temper’ (Julius Caesar, I.ii.129), ‘noble temper’ (King John, V.ii.40), ‘comfortable temper’ (Timon of Athens, III.iv.72). The second commonest meaning was in relation to swords, which all have a ‘temper’ – that is, a desirable quality or condition: ‘Between two blades, which bears the better temper’, says Warwick (Henry VI Part 1, II.iv.13). Temper for Angelo means ‘self-control’: ‘Never could the strumpet … / Once stir my temper’ (Measure for Measure, II.ii.185). And when Lear says ‘Keep me in temper’ (King Lear, I.v.44), he means ‘keep me stable’.
David Crystal is co-author of the new Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary, written with his son Ben Crystal. This one-of-a-kind dictionary is the definitive Shakespeare reading companion, designed particularly for students aged 11-16. It contains over 4,000 age-appropriate entries of difficult Shakespearean words and meanings, including warnings about those troublesome false friends, to help students around the world to unlock the language of Shakespeare.