Jennifer E. Nicholson is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Sydney. Her thesis conceptualises Shakespeare as a translator of French sources in “Hamlet”, with reference to texts like Montaigne’s “Essais” and Belleforest’s Amleth myth. She intends to situate her research between Shakespeare studies and world literature to discuss multilingual influences on Renaissance literary production. Additionally, Jennifer is currently working on an article about French language acquisition in early modern London. She is also interested in untranslatability and comparative translations, and has a forthcoming chapter with Bloomsbury Academic on English versions of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Mononoke-hime” (Princess Mononoke).

Guest contributor: Jennifer E. Nicholson

When my family sits down to play Scrabble, someone inevitably argues for the right to use or spell a word on the grounds that Shakespeare did, and it therefore must be both “correct” and “English”. Shakespeare’s work does not easily escape this kind of categorisation, even though it has been translated widely and travelled great distances beyond England’s borders. There are several reasons for this. Its geographical origin is London, and the popularity of his work greatly influenced the development of English literary studies, which is a young field in the scheme of scholarship worldwide. Thankfully, Bardolatry is no longer at the centre of scholarly conversation. However, Shakespeare’s reach still seems to epitomise Anglo-centrism. One such example of this is the way his work has been wielded, intentionally or otherwise, as a colonial tool. In her recent excellent book, How Shakespeare Became Colonial: Editorial Tradition and the British Empire (2017), Leah S. Marcus makes a compelling case for the effects of colonial editing practices of Shakespeare’s texts both abroad and on English soil. Shakespeare as an author of English work, in the sense of both nationhood and language, seems unyielding.

Title page from A Table Alphabeticall by Robert Cawdrey (1604)

Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall (1604) was the first monolingual English-language dictionary. Title page image via the British Library

Fortunately, developments in postcolonial, translation, literary, and cultural studies internationally have begun to chip away at this reputation. However, if we revisit Renaissance London, what exactly was “an author”, “English”, or “Englishness”? London’s print culture was dependent on the practice of translation, sometimes known as “Englishing” texts, because in comparison with other global powers, English was a minor language. The word most commonly in use to describe translation was the Latin “translatio”, meaning not only the movement between languages, but movement more broadly. It might be used to describe trade routes, travel, or any aspect of “displacement”, and exemplified the linguistic anxiety plaguing many writers in Renaissance London, where English was yet to be codified.[i] By necessity, borders for translations were fluid, allowing ideas to move geographically and linguistically. Latin and English were the two most printed languages in London, but a brief glance at the Stationers Register for Shakespeare’s lifetime reveals that texts were available in Dutch, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Italian, too. This multilingual setting is indicative of the way that English worked – and perhaps still works – as a language between languages, which George Watson describes as “based on a system of double derivation […] at once Germanic and Romance”.[ii] A singularly Anglophone dictionary was not printed until 1604. Instead, English was defined only in relation to other languages.

Taking Shakespeare’s tragedies as a sample, we see that their plots exist in other sources: those by Plutarch, as translated by Thomas North, (Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus), Holinshed (Macbeth, King Lear), and Arthur Brooke (responsible for the source poem for Romeo and Juliet). However, many of these sources and others, though available in English translations, existed and were read in their original language. The narrative source of the Danish Amleth myth, for example, was most widely available in London in its francophone version: François de Belleforest’s Les Histoires Tragiques. A play called Hamlet was its first Anglophone iteration.[iii] Other examples of non-Anglophone sources include several of Plutarch and Ovid’s original Greek texts, as well as Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi (the source for Othello) in Italian and then French, and Seneca’s plays in Latin.

Historically, analysing Shakespeare’s language and sources has mostly been undertaken in light of his English, but connections between these French texts and Shakespeare’s ideas and word choices indicate that there is interesting work to be done by considering Shakespeare as a translator. In my own research I have been examining ways in which Shakespeare’s “English” draws heavily on French, at a linguistic level, as well as on how he translates, or transfers, ideas from non-Anglophone texts. In the case of Hamlet, Belleforest’s language seems to influence the English being used. Hamlet has also been frequently cited in connection with Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, but this is almost always in light of the English translation done in 1603 by John Florio.[iv] External to these sources, Shakespeare’s London spoke an English that relied even more heavily on other languages than our more formalised English today. An example of this is evident in Horatio’s early description of the Ghost in the first act of Hamlet. When Horatio describes the Ghost to Hamlet as “a figure like your father / Armed at point, exactly, cap-à-pie“, Shakespeare has written a version of a French phrase meaning head-to-toe or head-to-foot (I.ii.390-391). Other plays also feature direct correlations between French and English, and in ones like Henry V it is prominent in a different way. The best phrase to describe much of the play’s language is from French: double entendre. For example, the conversation between Princess Katherine and Alice in Act III Scene 2 becomes progressively more rude as the princess repeats English words in a stylised accent which makes it sound as if she is swearing in French.

Given these examples, we might do well to call Shakespeare a translator. Today, “author” implies both singularity and originality. However, if we continue reading Shakespeare only as an English author, we miss exciting multilingual aspects of his texts. Keeping Shakespeare at the centre of Anglophone literature is strange in light of his work written at its edges of a language not yet codified. By contrast, identifying him as a translator steers the focus away from Shakespeare’s problematically – and at worst, incorrectly – “universal” authorship, which Jack Clift warned about in a previous post. Translation need not be kept separate from Shakespeare’s existing reputation. Instead, acknowledging these things alongside each other opens up further possibilities for discussing a multilingual London, then and now, and an “un-Englished” Shakespeare who was not limited to either a single locality or language.

[i] Liz Oakley-Brown, “Translation,” in A new companion to English Renaissance literature and culture, ed. Michael Hattaway (Chichester Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 121. Ebook edition. Doi: 10.1002/9781444319019.

[ii] George Watson, “Shakespeare and the Norman Conquest: English in the Elizabethan Theatre,” Virginia Quarterly Review Online 66.4 (1990): 617. URL:

[iii] Hamlet has historically been attributed to an “ur-text”, but I would agree with the ways that some recent criticism challenges this framework. Among many examples, see Marcus’ Unediting the Renaissance: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton (London: Routledge, 1996), Terri Bourus’ “Enter Shakespeare’s Young Hamlet, 1589”, Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare 34 (2016): 1-14, doi: 10.4000/Shakespeare.3736, and Richard Dutton’s Shakespeare, court dramatist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[iv] For a recent example of the relationship between Florio’s translation and Shakespeare’s work, see Stephen Greenblatt and Peter G. Platt’s Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays (New York Book Review: New York, 2014).

Marcus, Leah S. How Shakespeare Became Colonial: Editorial Tradition and the British Empire. London New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Oakley-Brown, Liz. “Translation”. In A new companion to English Renaissance literature and culture, edited by Michael Hattaway, 120-133. Chichester Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Ebook edition. Doi: 10.1002/9781444319019.

Watson, George. “Shakespeare and the Norman Conquest: English in the Elizabethan Theatre.” Virginia Quarterly Review Online 66.4 (1990), 613-628 URL: