Actors and Performers

'You' and 'Thou' in Shakespeare
Shakespeare and Meisner
Shakespearean Rhetoric
'You' and 'Thou' in Shakespeare
Shakespeare and Meisner

Introducing the Arden Performance Companions series

This month our sister imprint, The Arden Shakespeare, is publishing an exciting new series, perfect for actors: Arden Performance Companions.

These brilliant companions to Shakespeare’s work offer practical advice for any performer of Shakespeare. Covering topics from Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric, to applying Meisner’s techniques to Shakespearean performance, these short, practical and expert guides illuminate his texts for actors and directors, opening up the interpretative and performative possibilities they offer.

The first books we are publishing are:
Shakespeare and Meisner, by Aileen Gonsalves & Tracy Irish
‘You’ and ‘Thou’ in Shakespeare, by Penelope Freedman
Shakespearean Rhetoric, by Benet Brandreth

Here’s a sneak peak of Penelope Freedman’s ‘You’ and ‘Thou’ in Shakespeare, which tells us why Romeo and Juliet always use ‘thou’ to each other, but they are the only pair of lovers in Shakespeare to do this; why all the women in Richard III address Richard as ‘thou’, but no man ever does; and why when characters address the dead, they use ‘thou’ – except for Hamlet, who addresses Yorick as ‘you’.

As modern audiences, readers, students, teachers, actors or directors, we are the poorer for being deaf to the differences between you and thou and ignorant of their implications. If we think about them at all, we often assume that thou is more formal than you: we connect it with the language of the Bible, hymns and prayers, and 19th century poetry. The first surprise for students and actors is to discover that thou was generally less formal and more intimate, the pronoun used between lovers, close friends, parents and children.

The reasons lie in the history of you and thou. Up until the 13th century, thou was the only way to address one person and you was used only when addressing more than one. With the Norman Conquest came a French-speaking upper class and, as the French influence began to spread into the English language, English speakers began to imitate the French habit of using their plural, vous, as a polite singular in place of the more intimate tu. So, from the 13th century onwards, you started being used in the singular as well as the plural. It was a special usage, aping courtly language, intended for expressing particular politeness and respect. However, it quickly spread down the social strata and though, for a while, thou continued to be the ‘default’ singular, the use of you rapidly became more common until, by the 16th century, you had actually replaced thou as the normal singular.

By the time Shakespeare was writing, then, you was the ordinary, neutral form, while thou was now  ‘marked’, and carried a rather divergent range of special meanings. It is appreciating the ‘specialness’ of thou that is the key to understanding the way Shakespeare and his contemporaries used it.

Thou was used to close friends, lovers, family members and children; it was, in other words, the informal, intimate form of address.

Thou was used by the aristocracy to patronise social inferiors, servants and so on, and they were addressed with the respectful you in return.

• Thou was used for insults, and to express anger or contempt; it marked the deliberate refusal to use you, the choice not to be polite.

The first three Arden Performance Companions are now available for purchase at:

The series runs parallel to the Arden Performance Editions series of annotated play texts, together providing an invaluable resource for performers, directors and students of Shakespeare’s drama.