Do You Understand Shakespeare?

Vivian Cook   English Tests

People often assume that they understand what Shakespeare’s characters say. But the meaning of many words have changed considerably over the past 400 years. See if you can discover what each of the following words means in the quotations and type in a brief equivalent. Rate yourself out of 14 for understanding of Shakespeare. Answers below. 

1 For several virtues have I lik’d several women. The Tempest III/i 42     
2 we of the offering side must keep aloof.  Henry IV Part 1 IV/i 69
3 through all her veins shall run a cold and drowsy humour. Romeo and Juliet IV/i 95-96
4 Our hint of woe is common. The Tempest II/i 3-4
5 conference about some gossips for your highness.  Winter’s Tale II/iii 40-41 
6 This is Monsieur Parolles the gallant militarist. Alls Well IV/iii 142
7 Buy food and get thyself in flesh. Romeo and Juliet V/i 84 
8 thou comest in such a questionable state.  Hamlet I/iv 43 
9 You have a holy father, a graceful gentleman. Winter’s Tale V/i 170-171 
10 Horation and Marcellus, the rivals of my watch. Hamlet I/i 13 
11 ‘twas caviare to the general. Hamlet II/ii 442 
12 they are brokers, not of  that dye which their investments show. Hamlet I/iii 128
13 buckle in a waist most fathomless. Troilus and Cressida II/ii 30
14 some villain mountaineers? I have heard of such. Cymbeline IV/ii 89-90


1. several = separate/distinct 
2. offer = to attack 
3. humour = bodily fluid 
4. hint = occasion  
5. gossip = godparent 
6. militarist=soldier  
7. flesh = fit  
8. questionable = inviting questions 
9. graceful = full of divine grace 
10. rival = partner
11. the general = people in general 
12. investments = clothes 
13. fathomless = can’t be encircled 
14. mountaineers = people who live in the mountains

Based largely on C. T. Onions (1911), Shakespeare Glossary, OUP
Shakespeare's New Words
Dr Johnson's Words

Chaucer's New Words

Words index
Vivian Cook