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.

More on case distinctions: 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.


‘You' 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.
  • To an individual when a degree of formality is required. For example:
    • even though they are close friends, Leontes addresses Polixenes in I. ii. as ‘you' because both are kings
    • Hermione also addresses Polixenes as ‘you'
    • She also speaks to her husband as ‘you', because he is the king, though when he speaks to her in affection he uses ‘thou', as in:
'Three crabbed months had sour'd themselves to death
Ere I could make thee open thy white hand
And clap thyself my love' (I. ii.) [Italics editor's]

‘Thee' and ‘thou'

Thee and thou are used:

  • When addressing one person – in other words, it is always used as the singular form.
  • 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.

  • To inferiors – or to imply inferiority and contempt as an insult

More on thou as an insult: 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 The Winter's Tale these distinctions are not always clearly made: for example, Leontes in conversation with Mamillius in Act I, sc ii, uses both ‘you' and ‘thee' :

‘How now, you wanton calf! Art thou my calf?'

It is not clear here why Shakespeare might make Leontes move from one form to the other, though perhaps Leontes' voice has added fatherly tenderness as he asks the question.

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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