Thou and you

In Old English, thou was singular and you was plural; but during the 13th century, you started to be used as a polite form of the singular – probably because people copied the French way of talking, where vous was used in that way. English then became like French, which has tu and vous both possible for singulars, giving speakers a choice. It was usual for you to be used by inferiors to superiors – such as children to parents, or servants to masters; and thou would be used in return. But thou was also used to express special intimacy, as when addressing God, and it was usual when the lower classes talked to each other. Upper classes used you to each other, as a rule, even when they were closely related.
Accordingly, changing from thou to you or you to thou in a conversation always conveys a contrast in meaning - a change of attitude or an
altered relationship. The potential role of thou as an insult, for example, is made clear by Sir Toby Belch, who advises Andrew Aguecheek to demean his enemy by calling him thou a few times (TN III.ii.43). Not all instances can be so clearly interpreted, and attitude glosses given below should be viewed as suggestive only.

The old singular/plural contrast may also still be seen, as in Hamlet’s switch from ‘Get thee to a nunnery’, spoken to Ophelia as an individual (Ham III.i.137), to ‘God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another’, still spoken to Ophelia, but plainly now addressing womankind as a whole (Ham III.i.144).

X and Y both use thou

Example Location Participants Relationship
Whither wilt thou lead me? Ham I.v.1 Hamlet to Ghost son to father
lend thy serious hearing Ham I.v.5 Ghost to Hamlet father to son
Thou needest not to be gone RJ III.v.16 Juliet to Romeo lovers
so thou wilt have it so RJ III.v.18 Romeo to Juliet lovers

X and Y both use you

Example Location Participants Relationship
I thank you TNK II.i.150 Palamon to Arcite cousins
I would hear you still TNK II.i.165 Arcite to Palamon cousins
Have you the lion’s part written? MND I.ii.62 Snug to Quince
Snug to Quince
neighbour to neighbour [as co-actors]
You may do it extempore MND I.ii.64 Quince to Snug neighbour to neighbour [as co-actors]

X uses thou, Y uses you, showing different status

Example Location Participants Relationship
thou art e’en as just a man Ham III.ii.64 Hamlet to Horatio prince to friend
at your service Ham III.ii.63 Horatio to Hamlet friend to prince
as thou sayest AYL I.i.3 Orlando to Adam master to servant
your brother AYL I.i.24 Adam to Orlando servant to master
thou swearest to me thou art honest AYL III.iii.22 Touchstone to Audrey court to country
Would you not have me honest? AYL III.iii.25 Audrey to Touchstone country to court

X and Y switch from you to thou, as a sign of deteriorating relationships

Example Location Participants Relationship
you must not love her TNK II.i.216 Palamon to Arcite formal between equals
I will not, as you do TNK II.i.217 Arcite to Palamon formal between equals
Thou art a traitor TNK II.i.226 Palamon to Arcite then continues with thou throughout the scene
why are you moved thus? TNK II.i.239 Arcite to Palamon tries to keep the peace
Thou darest not TNK II.i.270 Arcite to Palamon finally changes to thou
like a schoolboy you may overawe 1H6 I.i.36 Gloucester [King’s uncle] to Winchester [King’s great-uncle] attacking the role of the Church
thou art Protector 1H6 I.i.37 Winchester to Gloucester reacting to the attack
thou lovest the flesh 1H6 I.i.41 Gloucester to Winchester responding in kind

X uses thou and then you, marking a change of attitude

Example Location Participants Relationship
Get thee to bed Ham I.i.7 Barnardo to Francisco friendly suggestion
Have you had quiet guard? Ham I.i.10 Barnardo to Francisco professional enquiry
Go thy ways to a nunnery Ham III.i.129 Hamlet to Ophelia intimate
Where’s your father? Ham III.i.130 Hamlet to Ophelia suspicion

X uses you and then thou, marking a change of attitude

Example Location Participants Relationship
What is your parentage TN I.v.266 Olivia to Viola as
I’ll be sworn thou art TN I.v.280 Olivia alone, thinking of Viola as Cesario beginning to fall in love
And you are stayed for Ham I.iii.57 Polonius to Laertes father to son; a mock telling off
my blessing with thee Ham I.iii.57 Polonius to Laertes fatherly affection

Complex interaction

In MA IV.i.264,ff, the way Benedick switches from you to thou provides an indication of his feelings and motivation during the scene. Interestingly, Beatrice always uses you to him, as she does to his face throughout the play. (Her one reference to him as thee is at MA III.i.111-13, when she is talking to herself.)

Benedick: I do love nothing in the world so well as you; is not that strange? you tentative
Beatrice: As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you; but believe me not, and yet I lie not; I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin. you proper
Benedick: By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me. thou first attempt at intimacy
Beatrice: Do not swear, and eat it. rebuff
Benedick: I will swear by it that you love me; and I will make him eat it that says I love not you. you aggrieved reaction
Beatrice: Will you not eat your word? you
Benedick: With no sauce that can be devised to it; I protest I love thee. thee second attempt at intimacy
Beatrice: Why, then, God forgive me!
Benedick: What offence, sweet Beatrice?
Beatrice: You have stayed me in a happy hour; I was about to protest I loved you. you proper
Benedick: And do it with all thy heart. thy
Beatrice: I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest. you proper - unusual for an affirmation of love
Benedick: Come, bid me do anything for thee. thee intimate
Beatrice: Kill Claudio.
Benedick: Ha! Not for the wide world.
Beatrice: You kill me to deny it. Farewell. you rebuff
Benedick [taking her by the hand]: Tarry, sweet Beatrice.
Beatrice: I am gone, though I am here; there is no love in you. Nay, I pray you, let me go. you continued rebuff
Benedick: Tarry, good Beatrice. By this hand, I love thee. thee intimate
Beatrice: Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it.
Benedick: Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero? you serious subject-matter
Beatrice: Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul.
Benedick: Enough, I am engaged; I will challenge him. I will kiss your hand, and so I leave you. you business-like

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