Elizabethan writers did not substitute “thou” and “thee” for “you” at random. A complex code controlled which pronoun to use when, and your understanding that code unlocks another layer of understanding of our plays.
For native English speakers, one of the most difficult things to get used to when learning certain foreign languages (such as French or German) is that there are different ways for people to address each other; these differences usually can be categorized as formal and informal modes of address. In French, for example, vous is used as a formal version of the English you, and tu as informal.
This is tricky because English speakers have only one way to address another person: you.
It didn’t used to be that way. English speakers, once upon a time, were required to know when it was appropriate to address another person as thee, as opposed to you. This difference existed in the Elizabethan era, and since it was a part of everyday speech in 16th-17th century England, it was an inherent part of the speech patterns in the drama of the period.
Understanding the unwritten rules of address forms is absolutely critical for you to get the most out of Elizabethan drama. The rules are subtle, much more nuanced and textured than you might imagine, but once you understand them, it will be as if you have been handed a key to the super-secret code of communication for the Elizabethan era.
Roughly speaking, the choice of address is determined by the relationship between the speaker and the addressee; relationship refers to both the relative rank or status in society of the speakers, and their closeness, familial or otherwise, to each other.
If you are reading this website, than you are likely aware (to some degree) that England is historically a “class-conscious” society. Well, characters in Elizabethan plays are extremely conscious of their class and rank, and that rank controls all of their interactions with other people.
From highest status to lowest status, then, the different strata of the universe of Elizabethan characters might look something like this:
1. the King or Duke, or Queen or Duchess;
2. his or her family;
3. the nobility;
4. the gentry, merchants, and knights;
Generally speaking, you is more formal and respectful, while thee is used more informally. But when we examine the specific rules of usage more closely, we find them to be more intricate and subtle than that, and frankly quite fascinating:
1. Characters use thee when speaking to someone of a lower class or rank; they use you when speaking to someone of a higher rank.
2. Generally, equals of the middle ranks and higher will use you, as a sign of respect, when speaking to each other. Tradesmen and the lower classes will use thee when addressing each other.
3. However, equals of higher rank may use thee with each other when the relationship is especially close or affectionate; upper class family and close friends will often use thee with each other, especially when speaking privately; when communicating in public, however, they may revert to you to demonstrate a more formal show of respect to each other in front of others.
4. A character may choose to use a specific pronoun as a coded way to demonstrate an attitude toward another person. The most dramatic example of this is when a character uses thee as a way to intentionally show scorn or disrespect to someone whom they would normally address as you. To be addressed as thee by someone who you would expect to address you as you was considered highly insulting. Some of the most captivating and dramatic moments in these plays occur when a character, driven by emotion to express his or her disdain for another character, switches address forms, abandoning you, and begins to thee his or her nemesis, while hurling imprecations, criticism, colorful insults, or heavily-laden sarcasm at the other.
Again, I must emphasize, Elizabethan characters are highly conscious of both their own class, as well as the class of those who are speaking to them, and thus always careful and deliberate in their choice of pronouns when addressing each other.
It is therefore great fun, and adds an entire layer of understanding, to be aware ourselves of what pronouns are being used by the characters as we read along.
For those plays on this website that are annotated, I have tried to identify in those annotations particularly interesting developments and changes in pronoun usage as they occur. In particular, I use the phrase “contemptuous thee” to point out when one character uses thee as a way to show scorn for another person.
Included in this section are a number of examples of the various uses of you and thee, all taken from Shakespeare’s Richard II.
(1a) King (highest rank) to noble (lower rank):
He is our subject, Mowbray; so art thou:
Free speech and fearless I to thee allow.
(1b) Noble responds to king:
Add an immortal title to your crown.
(2) York, uncle of the king, addresses the king; note that the fact that York is the king’s subject overrides the closeness of their relationship, and thus he uses you:
O my liege,
Pardon me, if you please.
(3a) Older nobles of similar age and experience, to each other:
Northumberland: Your grace mistakes…
York: The time hath been
Would you have been so brief with him…
(3b) Bolingbroke, a noble member of the royal family, addresses the young noble Percy, who is the son of his friend, with a familiar thee:
And as my fortune ripens with thy love,
It shall be still thy true love’s recompense.
(4) A gardener speaks with his servant: the gardener, being superior, uses thee; the servant responds to his boss with you:
Gardener: Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks…
Servant: What, think you the king shall be deposed?
(5) Gaunt, the noble father, uses affectionate thee when speaking to his son, Bolingbroke; but Bolingbroke addresses his father with respectful you:
Gaunt. O, to what purpose dost thou hoard thy words,
That thou returnest no greeting to thy friends?
Bol. I have too few to take my leave of you.
(6) Bolingbroke and Mowbray, with bitter, mutual hatred, use the contemptuous thee when addressing each other:
Bol. Now, Thomas Mowbray, do I turn to thee…
Thou art a traitor and a miscreant…
Mow. I’ll answer thee in any fair degree….
(7) Prevented by the king from fighting a duel with Bolingbroke, the hotheaded Mowbray switches to disrespectful thee when addressing the king; his words are, on the surface, formal, but the use of thee signals his frustration, anger and scorn:
Myself I throw, dread sovereign, at thy feet,
My life thou shalt command, but not my shame.
(8) This example is from Richard III; in front of Clarence’s noble escort, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, addresses his brother George, the Duke of Clarence, formally:
Brother, good day. What means this armed guard
That waits upon your Grace?
…Alack, my lord, that fault is none of yours.
But once he is alone, Richard, who is actually plotting Clarence’s death, speaks to the absent Clarence using thee, revealing his true feelings toward his brother:
Go tread the path that thou shalt ne’er return…
In this edited excerpt from Richard III, two murderers approach the Duke of Clarence in his prison cell, and discuss with each other, and with him, their intended murder of the duke. Comments on the left highlight the subtle changes of form of address between the parties (ellipses indicate a jump in the text).
|– The murderers converse with each other; being of||Murd.1. I thought thou hadst been resolute…|
|the lowest class, they use thee.||How dost thou feel thyself now?…|
|Murd.2. Take the devil in thy mind, and relieve him not: he|
|would insinuate with thee but to make thee sigh.|
|Murd.1. Tut, I am strong-framed, he cannot prevail with me,|
|I warrant thee…Hark! he stirs: shall I strike?|
|Murd.2. No, first let’s reason with him.|
|– Clarence calls to his jailer using thee, as the jailer is||Clar. Where art thou, keeper? give me a cup of wine.|
|of a lower status than the duke.|
|– The murderers are respectful to Clarence: you.||Murd.2. You shall have wine enough, my lord, anon.|
|– Clarence, seeing his visitors are not noble, addresses||Clar. In God’s name, what art thou?|
|them appropriately: thee.|
|Murd.2. A man, as you are…|
|– When Clarence realizes they mean him harm, he,||Clar. How darkly and how deadly dost thou speak!|
|realizing he is within their power, switches to the||Your eyes do menace me: why look you pale?|
|more deferential you.||Who sent you hither? Wherefore do you come?|
|Both. To, to, to–|
|Clar. To murder me?|
|Both. Ay, ay…|
|Clar. Are you call’d forth from out a world of men|
|To slay the innocent? What is my offence?…|
|Murd.1. What we will do, we do upon command.|
|Murd.2. And he that hath commanded is the king.|
|– When Clarence’s attempts at persuasion fail, he gets||Clar. Erroneous vassal! the great King of kings|
|angry, and switches back to thee.||Hath in the tables of his law commanded|
|That thou shalt do no murder: and wilt thou, then,|
|Spurn at his edict and fulfil a man’s?|
|– Now the murderers are getting annoyed, and address||Murd.2. And that same vengeance doth he hurl on thee,|
|the duke with contemptuous thee:||For false forswearing and for murder too:|
|Thou didst receive the holy sacrament,|
|To fight in quarrel of the house of Lancaster…|
|– Eventually, the parties calm down, and they revert||Murd.1. Make peace with God, for you must die, my lord…|
|to the polite you.|
|Clar. Relent, and save your souls…|
|Clar. Not to relent is beastly, savage, devilish…|
|– Clarence, seeing that the second murderer may be||My friend, I spy some pity in thy looks:|
|wavering, appeals to him with one last try at||O, if thine eye be not a flatterer,|
|persuasion, addressing him with a kindly, intimate||Come thou on my side, and entreat for me,|
|thee.||As you would beg, were you in my distress|
|A begging prince what beggar pities not?|
|– The second murderer’s warning is too late; the||Murd.2. Look behind you, my lord.|
|first murderer stabs Clarence, killing him.|