I will tell thee in French, then

I’ve recently joined a Shakespeare reading group over zoom, and that’s been fun for a number of reasons, not least because I will never get to play Falstaff ever again so at least now I can say I’ve done it. But it’s also given me an excuse to write a post I’ve been thinking of writing for ages (this one), so that’s another plus.

This week happens to be Henry V, my fourth-favorite Shakespeare play. And because I, like an absolute fool, said I was comfortable with a French accent, I’m reading for Alice. But! All is not terrible, because I got a text midway through The French Scene from a friend who shall remain unnamed saying “ryan what is happening when did you learn french,” so clearly all those years of struggling through the IPA for weird French art songs paid off.

But I digress. 1

Once upon a time I would have said – and did say, to many people, and thought I was very clever for saying it – that Shakespeare had tourist French: that when he wrote in French, he did so at a year-1 French student level.

That’s still broadly true. But what I didn’t know at the time is that the reason Shakespeare’s French sounds so elementary is that he’s dumbing it down for the rest of us.

The everyday Elizabethan probably knew at least a few words of French; there was a decently-sized French Huguenot refugee population in London in the 1590s so cross-cultural contact was inevitable. Shakespeare himself must have had at least conversational French, though where he learned it is… could have been anywhere, honestly. 2

But for the average Londoner, there would have been a significant difference between understanding ‘oui, monsieur,’ and comprehending an entire scene in French. So Shakespeare gives his audience a hand.

We might not notice it, but Shakespeare was already adept at pairing new-ish Latinate words with familiar Anglo-Saxon ones in his plays, just to make sure everyone understood his meaning. There was a push in the late 1500s to “improve” English vocabulary by introducing a bunch of new words from the “superior” Latin. They were often called “Inkhorn terms” because they were mostly used by scholars and thought to be a little pretentious by most people.

But you can see them in a line like Leontes’ “for cogitation / Resides not in that man that does not think” – which seems very redundant to us but was a useful way of unobtrusively glossing unfamiliar words for less-educated audiences at the time. Audiences were used to having things clarified for them, and that’s exactly what Shakespeare does with his French scenes.

The infamous “learning English” scene in Henry V is the first time we hear sustained French spoken in the play and, frankly, pretty incomprehensible. That’s okay, though. It sets up Katherine as an outsider and foreshadows the linguistic difficulties King Henry is going to have wooing her at the end of the play. And anyway, the important bits get defined for us:

KATHERINE: Dites-moi l’Anglois pour le bras.
ALICE: De arm, madame.
KATHERINE: Et le coude?
ALICE: De elbow.

In modern performance, at least, the actor playing Alice usually pauses before the English words so we can pick them out of the general French noise.

This scene is helped by the actors’ ability to mime the body parts they’re talking about – particularly the foot (foutre, or fuck) and coun (con, or cunt) joke, with accompanying (in)appropriate gestures. Even if coun isn’t immediately obvious to us as a mispronunciation of gown (it usually is), the French equivalent robe makes things clear enough.

Then we come to the jumbled mess that is the Pistol/French soldier scene that gets cut in almost all productions. Again, the audience doesn’t need to know what the soldier is saying, but this time it’s because the Boy translates every single one of his lines. And that is going to come back and help us out later. 3

The “wooing scene” between Henry and Katherine is where Shakespeare really asks us to listen and figure out things on our own. To make it work, he copies that technique of pairing an unfamiliar word with something that means roughly the same thing, only much sneakier.

The French part of the scene begins like this:

KING: Do you like me, Kate?
KATHERINE: Pardonnez-moi, I cannot tell what is ‘like me.’
KING: An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel.

I think we can safely say that any English person who accidentally bumped into a French person on the street could understand “pardonnez-moi.” But the exchange has given us another important word, and Shakespeare was even kind enough to write it twice. That word is angel.

So when Katherine says, in the next line,

Que dit-il? que je suis semblable à les anges?

We know that anges probably means angel(s). And we hear that semblable sounds like resemble or semblance. So we can guess that the second half of her sentence probably means something like “I resemble an angel?” Not quite sure about the first half, though.

That’s why her nurse follows it up with,

Oui, vraiment, sauf votre grace, ainsi dit il.

We all know what oui means, I hope. And the nurse helpfully ends her line with an affirmation and repetition of Katherine’s initial question, dit il. It doesn’t really matter what dit il means – it could be “is this guy for real?” and it wouldn’t change our understanding of the line. All that matters is that we hear Katherine ask a question and her nurse say yes.

But wait! We do know what que dit-il means, because we’ve heard it before, multiple times. The French soldier says it twice, once to monsieur Pistol and once to le petit monsieur Boy (it’s really not clear why the Boy speaks fluent French). Pistol, in return, asks the Boy “what are his [The French soldier’s] words?” After every one of these questions, the Boy translates.

So if we were paying attention seven scenes ago, we remember that que dit-il means what are his words? 4

That leaves us with Katherine saying something like “what did he say? I resemble an angel?” and the nurse replying “yes, (mumble mumble mumble grace), he said that.”

Then Henry confirms our suspicions:

I said so, dear Katherine, and I must not blush to affirm it.

Since that’s basically what we assumed from hearing it in French, we feel smart for having figured it out before we were told it explicitly.

The actual exchange goes like this:

KING: Do you like me, Kate?
KATHERINE: Pardon me, I cannot tell what is ‘like me.’
KING: An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel.
KATHERINE: What’s he saying? That I’m like an angel?
ALICE: Yes, exactly, saving your grace, that’s what he said.
HENRY: I said so, dear Katherine, and I must not blush to admit it.

Katherine is confused here because Henry took her request for him to clarify an English phrase she didn’t understand and turned it into wordplay instead. The Elizabethan audience, who loved wordplay and for whom the “like me/like you” joke was low-hanging fruit, would have felt smarter than Katherine, and then doubly smart when they were able to understand her too.

This trick absolutely still works on us, and it’s why we can still watch Henry V without the translation projected on the proscenium like an opera (if you’re weak. True fans memorize the libretto beforehand). An Elizabethan audience would have had an even easier time, since they were much more used to listening than we are – and because 16th-century French hadn’t yet developed the back-of-the-throat R that modern French has, making it closer to the kind-of-growled R of Elizabethan English than it is today.

On the other hand, we’ve all be exposed to enough French through cultural osmosis that we’ve got a stronger background starting off, so in the end it probably evens out.

Sometimes Shakespeare does give up and just have one character ask another to interpret:

KING: Madam my interpreter, what says she?
ALICE: Dat it is not be de fashion pour les ladies of France, – I cannot tell vat is baiser en Anglish.
KING: To kiss.

But we still feel alright about it, because if the people in the play have to ask, we’re not stupid for not getting it.

Katherine and Alice know just enough English, and Henry just enough French, that between the three of them they’re able to cobble together a conversation that all of us can understand. And it’s always an exchange; one character never has the linguistic upper hand over another for long. It’s a complex interplay of language, and that shifting of power and prominence from French to English and back is what allows us to follow along even when the words themselves are beyond our understanding.


  1. To be clear, the one and only thing I can say in French is “where is the library” (thanks dad), so if you feel like I’m talking down to you in this post because you don’t understand French… I don’t understand French either.
  2. His friend Richard Field, who printed both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, had married a French woman, but since she helped him out in his print shop she must have spoken English fairly fluently so the only way Shakespeare could have learned it from her would have been to ask.
  3. There’s also a couple proverbs spoken by the French military leaders sandwiched in between a whole bunch of English puns, and it kind of feels like the French lines are just there to remind us that these people are the bad guys.
  4. Except we don’t, because I’ve literally never seen a production that didn’t cut that scene. Oh well.

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