In the 16th century, Shakespeare wrote plays to earn a living, using language that was most commonly used at that time. It was his characterization and subtlety while dealing with social issues that carried his legacy through four hundred years after his death. Nevertheless, in the 21st century, Shakespeare’s relevance is continually being questioned, and one of the main reasons for this doubt is his outdated language.
Shakespeare's plays exude aura and charm when they are being enacted on stage. Today, however, his legacy is carried forward by students all over the world studying his plays from a book. The dramatic effect of watching Hamlet contemplate “to be or not to be” as he talks to Yorick’ skull, in the palm of his hand, is lost when one simply reads the script. While reading a Shakespearean play, because of the unfamiliar language, one tends to focus on the words and their literal meanings printed on the page, instead of the actions, motives, tone, mood and depth of the character.
Language is not static but dynamic in nature. As a result, the meanings attached to certain words change over time and context. This is particularly true concerning Shakespearean English, as seen plainly in Romeo and Juliet. Lamenting over the feud between their two families, Juliet utters, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
While a modern English interpretation would have been Juliet asking about whereabouts of Romeo, in Shakespearean terms, wherefore refers to why, and not where.
Shakespeare’s language, though being extraordinarily witty and compelling for the Elizabethan Age, fails to light a similar spark in the 21st century because of the shift in language dynamics.