Thee, thou and you

Addressing others

 One of the major differences between modern and Shakespearean English is the use of ‘thee' and ‘thou' as well as ‘you' when addressing others.

More on other languages: Languages such as French, German and many others still retain these distinctions, but in modern English they have disappeared — except when found, for example, in church services using the [3Book of Common Prayer3].

 For Shakespearean audiences they would have indicated subtle distinctions in rank and in relationships. In Hamlet there are some telling uses of these variations.


  • is always used when addressing more than one person — in other words, it is always used as the plural form
  • when one is addressing a person of higher rank than oneself
  • it can also be used to an individual when a degree of formality is required.
More on the use of ‘You': For example, in Act I scene ii Claudius calls Laertes ‘you' when he calls him forward — ‘And now Laertes, what's the news with you?' because this is part of a formal court occasion.

‘Thee' and ‘thou'

  • used to friends, intimates and close family.
More on the use of ‘Thou i)': Claudius wishes to show favour to Laertes in Act I scene ii), and so rapidly changes ‘you' to ‘thou' — ‘What would'st thou beg, Laertes?' as a compliment to Laertes.

Some people assume that, because it is an unfamiliar form to us nowadays, the use of ‘thou' when addressing God in the Book of Common Prayer is a sign of formality; in fact, it was just the reverse, acknowledging the concept of God as an intimate Father.

  • can also be used to inferiors — or to imply inferiority and contempt as an insult.
More on the use of ‘Thou' ii): In Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch is discussing with his close friend, Sir Andrew Ague cheek, whether Sir Andrew should send a challenge to Cesario. Sir Toby addresses Sir Andrew as ‘thou' because they are friends, but suggests that it would be a good idea to write the challenge using ‘thou' to Cesario as an insult:

‘If thou “thou'st” him some twice or thrice, it shall not come amiss'.

Shifting relationships

 In Hamlet the shift from ‘thou' to ‘you' or vice versa sometimes gives us interesting insights into relationships.

In Act I scene ii:

  • Gertrude addresses her son as ‘thee', but Claudius uses the formal ‘you' to Hamlet
  • Towards the end of their conversation about Hamlet mourning his father, Gertrude again uses the intimate form of address when asking him to remain at court: ‘I pray thee, stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.'
  • He, however, replies using the formal ‘you' — ‘I shall in all my best obey you, madam' — as indeed he does throughout his bitter interview with her in Act III scene iv
  • This is probably because of her rank as Queen — but it may also imply a distancing of himself rather than acknowledging close intimacy
  • Throughout Act I scenes iv and v Hamlet addresses his father's ghost as ‘thee' and ‘thou'.

In Act III scene i:

  • When Hamlet comes across Ophelia (who has been ‘loosed' to him by Polonius), he at first addresses her using the intimate form, suggesting that they are close: ‘Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.'
  • She, however, having been instructed to rebuff his advances, makes a very formal response: ‘Good my lord, How does your honour for this many a day?'
  • Hamlet immediately takes the hint, and changes his form of address: ‘I humbly thank you, well.'
  • Later in their interview, as he gets more vehement and bitter, he addresses her as ‘thee' — ‘Get thee to a nunnery' — but this now seems to indicate contempt, not intimacy
  • Later, when he meets her again at the viewing of ‘The Mousetrap', he uses only the formal ‘you' form to her.


It is not always possible to be entirely clear why the ‘you' and ‘thou' forms are used on every occasion, but readers of Shakespeare do need to be alert to the possibilities of what such usages may imply.

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