"Thou" and "You" in Shakespeare's Plays

One can assume that the language used in plays resembles the spoken language of the time when it was written. Brown and Gilman analyse four of Shakespeare’s tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello) with regards to politeness theory. The authors go so far as to state that "dramatic texts provide the best information on colloquial speech of the period" (Brown and Gilman, "Politeness theory", 159). As the tragedies "represent the full range of society" (Brown and Gilman, "Politeness theory", 159), it is possibly to examine the use of "thou" and "you" in different social classes.

Nevertheless it is very probable that certain usages of pronouns of address occur more frequently in drama than in spoken language: Finkensteadt notes that this is not surprising because the dramatic plot is linguistically far more complexly arranged than everyday talk (cf. Finkensteadt, 159). Jonathan Hope questions the above stated assumptions made by Brown and Gilman. By analysing hearings of witnesses made to the Durham ecclesiastical court in the 1560s he comes to the conclusion that " ' thou ' and ' you ' lead separate lives in the written and spoken mediums" (Hope, 148. Read more about Hope’s approach in the section about sources from trials.

To decide why an author (in this case Shakespeare) uses "thou" (for example to underline the social hierarchy or as a marker of affect), first have to scrutinise the particular situation between the characters as well as their more permanent relationship. Are the persons on the same social level? Do thy like, love or hate each other?

In the next section you find some "rules" or conventions which describe the use of "thou" and "you" in Early Modern English.

Read (and hear/see) more about Shakespeare's use of the pronouns of address in the section Explore "thou" and "you" in Shakespeare's plays.