Thee, thou and you

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

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 Book of Common Prayer.

For Shakespearean audiences they could have indicated subtle distinctions in rank and in relationships.


Is 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. For example, Isabella in her interview with Angelo in Act II sc ii always addresses him as ‘you'.

‘Thee' and ‘thou'

  • Used to friends, intimates and close family.
More on ‘thou': 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 informality of ‘thou': In Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch is discussing with his close friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, 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'.

However, in Measure for Measure these distinctions are not always clearly made:

  • For example, Claudio in conversation with Lucio in Act I sc ii, and Isabella talking to her brother in Act I sc ii use both ‘you' and ‘thee', and it is not always clear why Shakespeare might move from one form to the other.

In all Shakespearean drama 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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