Native English speakers can understand Shakespeare, though most will need footnotes to cover some of the more exotic usages in his texts. Most students are required to read a number of Shakespeare’s plays in their school days — I had a middling education and was required to read Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream before graduating high school at age 18.
But that doesn’t mean Shakespeare’s English isn’t often confusing to English speakers! We can take for example one of the most famous lines of all of Shakespeare’s works, from Romeo and Juliet. Here Juliet has already fallen in love with Romeo. She is standing at her balcony, wistfully looking out into the night, thinking of how unfortunate it is that she has fallen in love with the one boy she can’t have, a boy whose family — the Montagues — are the sworn enemies of Juliet and her family, the Capulets. In a sigh of frustration and longing, Juliet exclaims to the night:
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo!
These lines are so famous that they are a cliché in English, known to almost everyone. Yet even as English speakers are comfortable with Shakespeare’s art’s and thou’s, many misunderstand the word “wherefore” to mean “where,” and believe Juliet is looking out into the night and saying “Where are you, Romeo?” This interpretation is coincidentally supported by the fact that Romeo appears to Juliet just after she gives this speech. But “wherefore,” like German “wofür,” actually means more like “why,” (technically “for what”) as in “Romeo, why did you have to be Romeo!” Juliet is actually saying: “Why couldn’t Romeo have had a different name?” This reading becomes clearer when you look at the line in the context of the speech in which it is given:
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot
Nor arm nor face nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Here you can see how poetic Shakespeare’s English is, and yet how similar to modern English it can be. But even as many English-speakers have this speech memorized word-for-word, they may still misunderstand the meaning of the first line!
As with the wherefore/wofür relationship, there is actually much interest in Shakespeare for German speakers. Shakespeare’s English, for instance, conjugates the second-person ending the same way as German does. So, for example, where modern English would call for “you speak,” Shakespeare’s English instead demands “thou speak’st,” exactly as German’s “du sprichst.” In fact, the relationship is so close that sometimes the words are exactly the same! For Shakespeare, modern “you have” is “thou hast,” exactly as German’s “du hast,” and this is not exotic for English speakers — none would need footnotes to understand “remember whom thou hast” (The Tempest). Shakespeare’s English also still preserves a formal and informal “you,” as in German, with “thou” standing for informal second-person and “you” for the formal. By reading Shakespeare, we can really see how English has evolved from its roots in German — it’s such a eureka moment every time I’m reading and I make these connections! It’d fill a book to catalogue them all.