Recently, we’ve gotten a few requests from teachers looking for an ideal Shakespeare dictionary or lexicon. There are several excellent resources available, but before I list them, I do want to point out that in order to teach a play, it is generally not necessary to know the meaning of every word.
We know for certain that the audience at the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s lifetime (especially the Groundlings) didn’t know the meaning of every word. There are examples in some of his plays, of Shakespeare defining some words for the groundlings. My favorite is from Macbeth 2.2 when Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth about his blood-stained hands:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
Since “my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine” might (literally) go over the heads of the groundlings, the actor playing Macbeth might have then looked down to the perplexed groundlings and said, “Making the green ones red.”
When students are simply reading the play along with you, the teacher, it’s perfectly fine to skip over some words. When we attend a live performance or a film of a Shakespeare play, we can usually follow all the action without the need for footnotes or a glossary. But if you are having your students perform scenes (and we strongly suggest that you do), it’s a good idea to have several reference books available for them to determine how a line is to be delivered.
So here they are, in no particular order and in the case of the first two, have been somewhat revised and updated:
- A Shakespeare Glossary (originally published in 1911) by C. T. Onions is a needed reference aid for anyone studying the works of William Shakespeare. This handy book helps to define or explain those words or phrases that are unfamiliar to the modern reader. Author C. T. Onions was one of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary.
- Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary (originally published in 1874) by Alexander Schmidt was produced by a leading nineteenth-century Shakespeare scholar and lexicographer. This massive two-volume work is a standard in the field, providing full definitions, locations, and meaning to the words in Shakespeare’’s plays and poems.
- Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion (2001) by David and Ben Crystal is the most recent glossary and it can also be found online at www.Shakespeareswords.com. The book is a great classroom resource, but Website integrates the full text of the plays and poems with the entire Glossary database, allowing you to search for any word or phrase in Shakespeare’s works. David Crystal even has a video on YouTube in which he reads excerpts of his “play” written mostly with Shakespeare’s Idioms.
So please leave comments and tell us what resources you use in your classroom and how you use them.