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Welcome to Episode #120 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

One of the most romantic moments from Shakespeare’s plays is when he writes Henry V stumbling his way through a French declaration of love and wedding proposal to Catherine of Valois in Shakespeare’s Henry V. It is gorgeous scene and one of my favorites, but it presents a few questions since England was strongly pro-England at this point in history, even leaning anti-French (having taken measures like banning the import of French playing cards at this time for example) so what was Shakespeare doing when he had one of England’s biggest heroes speaking French on stage? Where did Shakespeare learn French in the first place–and does he get the language right? Here to help us explore the use of French in Shakespeare’s plays, how the language fit into the life of William Shakespeare, as well as the French language history behind not only Henry V, but also the French that shows up in Hamlet as well, is our guest, Jennifer Nicholson.

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Jennifer E. Nicholson is a sessional academic in literary and interdisciplinary studies at the University of Sydney, teaching film, genre, and early modern literature. She researches from the early modern period into the twenty-first century, with a focus on the various “edges” of the English language in a range of literary forms. Her projects currently span Shakespeare studies (particularly Hamlet), Montaigne, early modern drama, Renaissance books, world literature, untranslatability, and comparative translation. Primarily an early modernist, Jennifer’s primary area of interest is currently the presence of French and French English in early modern English play texts. She is currently working on a longer project concerning  English language versions of film produced by Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. Jennifer has work forthcoming and recently published in edited collections spanning from early modern drama to Anglophone translations of Japanese film. She tweets about her work, her cat, and other general interests at @justjenerally 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Jennifer Nicholson about :

  • Today, English is the international trade language that is often taught in multiple schools around the world as part of a necessary education. But for the 16th century, Jennifer, what was the reigning international trade language? Was it French? 

  • Was there a huge market in 16th century England for French texts?
  • Henry V is the obvious choice when examining Shakespeare’s understanding of French since this play (while not the only one to feature French language) does contain entire scenes conducted in French. Students of French will notice that many of the French phrases in that play, however, are considered incorrect by today’s standards. Jennifer, are the phrases in Shakespeare’s Henry V considered incorrect by 16th century standards? 

  • … and more!

Books and Resources Jennifer Nicholson Recommends:

Bourus, Terri. “Enter Shakespeare’s Young Hamlet, 1589.” Actes des Congrès de la Société française Shakespeare 34 (2016): 1-14, doi: 10.4000/Shakespeare.3736. Hamlin, William M. Montaigne’s English Journey: Reading the Essays in Shakespeare’s Day. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199684113.001.0001.
Déprats, Jean-Michel. ““I Cannot Speak Your England”: Sur Quelques Problmèmes de Traduction d’Henry V.” Actes des Congrès de la Société française Shakespeare 18 (2000): 69-83. Doi: 10.4000/shakespeare.545. Rubright, Marjorie. “Incorporating Kate: The Myth of Monolingualism in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth.” In The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race, edited by Valerie Traub, 468-490. Oxford New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

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 I can drink with any tinker in his own language
during my life. 

Henry V

Henry IV Part 1 (II.4)

1550 Drawing of the City of Paris, France. Île de la Cité, Île aux Juifs & Îlot de la Gourdaine ca. 1550. by Olivier Truschet et Germain Hoyau. Source

French, a 16th C International Trade Language

French was one of the international languages in Europe for the 16th century (and potentially in use for other areas of the world as well). Jennifer explains that if you were from England, thus speaking English and you wanted to go to the mainland, English commonly spoken there would have been hard to find. English was broadly considered weird and difficult outside of England. French was spoken much more widely and if you were travelling often, to find someone who spoke French was much easier to find than someone speaking English. However, French was not the primary international trade language for Shakespeare’s lifetime, but instead one of many. Italian was also very widely spoken along with Dutch as the popular trade languages. While not the only language used for negotiating trade deals, French then, as now, carried a reputation for being very elegant and was often used at courts or among royalty. Therefore, if you worked in Royal circles, French was useful. French and Italian were considered very high brow languages to know.

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Henry V

Henry V (V.2)

1577 project for the Pont Neuf as approved by Henry III. Own work by uploader, photographed at Musee Carnavalet. Source


French English

References from the text in French in Shakespeare arrives before the translation in English was available so seems unlikely he was using a translation. Might of had a friend helping him, but it seems he probably could read French and more likely to read rather than speak it, getting a how to speak french book was very common with guides. And the pronunciation was the hard part because unless you knew someone who spoke french, figuring that out from the text would have been hard.

Jennifer’s research indicates Hamlet uses words that she classifies as “French English” meaning “words that share a combination of pronunciation, spelling, and meaning.” Jennifer explains that there are some words that we would consider English words because of the etymology of English coming from French/Latin anyway. She gives the word “Silence” as an example. Silence is the same in both spelling and pronunciation in both English and French.

This is an example of how there is a blend to languages to construct the language what we recognize as English. The standard for what constitutes English was still being worked out and established during Shakespeare’s life.

There are some phrases and ideas expressed in the same words in French being used in English.

Key example:
born= birthed or carried
borne = bank or edge of a river
born = edge or limit

There’s a suggestion by Travis Day Williams, that defining born with the definition of edge is the one Shakespeare uses in Hamlet’s to be or not to be speech. There, Hamlet is talking about death. From the sentence alone, there is room for debate about what the word means in that context. Jennifer points out, however, that it is notable that “born” in French means edge or limit. Applied to Hamlet, it could mean he is hitting a wall, arriving at an ending, or a place where you cannot go further nor from which return. That entire concept is based on Montaigne’s essays, and is a possible source for Shakespeare bsed on Williams’ research.

he can speak French; and therefore he is a traitor
Jack Cade

Henry VI Part II (IV.2)

Lord Saye and Sele brought before Jack Cade |  “depiction of the English rebel Jack Cade, as represented in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2. Painting by Charles Lucy, entitled “Lord Saye and Sele brought before Jack Cade 4th July 1450” Source

Ben Jonson and Shakespeare’s Language Skills

There is a lot of both French language learning books which were being published and widely circulated during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Jennifer calls some of these books “the French for Dummies type books” which were manuals for how to speak French and she points out there were also plenty of books and texts published in the French language for French language conoussieurs in England. (not to mention French immigrants like the Hugeunots) Jennifer provides the example of John Calvin’s religous tracts and reformation documents, which were written in French in London. Those documents would have been avialable to William Shakespeare. There were additional translations available of books and papers written in English originally and then translated into French for the London market, which Jennifer points out speaks to a demand for French literature in London at this time in history.  As Jennifer’s dissertation points out, Ben Jonson wrote a memorable description of Shakespeare, saying that he “hadst small Latin and less Greek” Scholars often cite this reference as proof that Shakespeare did not use many languages beyond English. However, Jennifer proposes a different theory about the bard. Jennifer suggests that
“Shakespeare definitely had very good facility in Latin (not surprising even without school records, grammar school students learned Latin). Jonson’s comment makes it sound like he didn’t know any Latin, but what’s key is that Shakespeare didn’t go to university. Many other playwrights of the time did. He’s separate from other playwrights in this situation. If you did go to university, you would have done even more Latin as well as other key texts/authors that were standard at university. At University you also learned Greek, Jonsons’s dig was at his lack of college, not his languages in Latin and Greek.”

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Henry V (V.2)

Catharine learns English from her gentlewoman Alice in an 1888 lithograph by Laura Alma-Tadema. Act III, Scene iv. Source

French in Henry V

Henry V is the obvious choice when examining Shakespeare’s understanding of French since this play (while not the only one to feature French language) does contain entire scenes conducted in French. Students of French will notice that many of the French phrases in that play, however, are considered incorrect by today’s standards. Jennifer explains that many of the phrases in Shakespeare’s plays are incorrect, but not because Shakespeare was uneducated in French, but instead because the language standards were different in the 16th century from what is established today.
It is highly likely that the actors themselves did not speak French. Jennifer posits that the dialogue for the actors may have been phonetic guides designed to tell the actors how to make the noises necessary to speak French on stage without knowing the French words themselves. Additionally, spelling is extremely flexible at this time in both French and English. It wouldn’t be until 1630s that L’Academie Francais standardized French Grammar. Some of the evidence in Shakespeare presents a show of the words/spelling being fluid at this point in time.

Entrée du roi Henri IV dans Paris le 22 mars 1594 par la porte Neuve près du Louvre, au pied de la fr:tour du Bois. Revêtu d’une cuirasse et coiffé d’un chapeau à panache, le roi et ses soldats chassent les Espagnols qui occupaient la ville. Gravure (burin et eau forte) extraite du tome V des Monuments de la monarchie françoise de Bernard de Montfaucon (1733). Source