Shakespeare's Grammar

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Usage Shifts

Editor's Note: The following points are liberally paraphrased from A Shakespeare Handbook, edited by Raymond Alden (New York: F. S. Crofts & Co., 1925). This is a work now in the public domain, but I like to give credit where due. The minor problem with doing a straight reprint of this material is that Alden's book is A) British, and B) 75 years old, and the grammarians of the times used terms such as "pluperfect," "subjunctive," and "ethical dative." In an effort to bring this material more into layman's terms, I've attempted a more friendly paraphrasing of the material.

§ One part of speech is often substituted for another; this is most frequent with nouns and verbs. (See also "anthimeria" in the Rhetoric section.)

In the dark backward and abysm of time. Temp., I, ii, 50
That may repeat and history his loss. 2 H 4, IV, i, 203
This day shall gentle his condition. H 5, IV, iii, 63
Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle. R 2, II, iii, 87
My death's sad tale may yet undeaf his ear. R 2, II, i, 16

§ Adjectives don't always mean what they seem to say; active and passive forms are sometimes interchangeable, as are those that signify cause or effect.

Wherever in your sightless (= invisible) substances. Macb., I, v, 50
          There's something in 't
That is deceivable (= deceptive).
T.N., IV, iii, 21
Oppressed with two weak (= weakening) evils, A.Y.L., II, vii, 132

§ Pronouns have irregular inflections; often the nominative case (he, she, who) is used instead of the objective case (him, her, whom).

And he (= him) my husband best of all affects. M.W.W., IV, iv, 87
Yes, you may have seen Cassio and she together. Oth., IV, ii, 3
Making night hideous, and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition.
Haml., I, iv, 54
Pray you, who does the wolf love? Cor., II, i, 8

§ Verbs don't always agree with their subjects; most frequently a singular verb is used with a plural subject.

These high wild hills and rough uneven ways
Draws out our miles, and makes them wearisome.
R 2, II, iii, 4-5
Their encounters, though not personal, hath been royally attorneyed. W.T., I, i, 28
          Three parts of him
Is ours already.
J.C., I, iii, 154-55

§ Omission of the relative pronoun (e.g., "the woman that I love" becomes "the woman I love") is much more frequent than in modern English, being applied to the nominative case as well as the objective.

I have a brother is condemn'd to die. M. for M., II, ii, 34
Besides, our nearness to the King in love
Is near the hate of those love not the King.
R 2, II, ii, 129

§ Note that the use of the subjunctive mood of verbs (e.g., "If I were you") is still strong; we barely use it in contemporary modern English, and the subjunctive mood has all but disappeared. Also in Shakespeare's time, the subjunctive mood could be used in independent as well as subordinate clauses.

§ The infinitive (to + verb, e.g., "to have" or "to eat") is used as a noun more frequently than in modern English; it is also frequently substituted for a gerund (verb + -ing).

Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed [i.e., leave off feeding]. Haml., III, iv, 66
Too proud to be so valiant [i.e., of being so valiant]. Cor., I, i, 262

§ Double-negatives are often used for emphasis of a point.

Nor never could the noble Mortimer
Receive so many, and all willingly.
1 H 4, I, iii, 110
You may deny that you were not the mean
Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment
[i.e., deny that you were the mean].
R 3, I, iii, 90

§ There is a high frequency of using "more" and "most" before words ending in -er or -est. Also, there are times when the -ly or -est ending is only used once when there are two modifiers that should take it.

And his more braver daughter could control thee. Temp., I, ii, 439
With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome. J.C., II, i, 121
And she will speak most bitterly and strange. M. for M., V, i, 36
The generous and gravest citizens. M. for M., IV, vi, 13

§ There is often the omission of "to" or "for" preceding a personal pronoun. Although this usage is largely disappeared in contemporary speech, renmants still do exist (e.g., "Do me a favor").

Let me remember thee what thou has promis'd
Which is not yet perform'd me.
Temp., I, ii, 244
Who calls me villain...
Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs, who does me this?
Haml., II, ii, 601

§ The possessive of the neuter pronoun it ("its") is regularly written as his, and sometimes as simply it.

How far that little candle throws his beams! M.V., V, i, 90
Since nature cannot choose his origin. Haml., I, iv, 26
The innocent milk in it most innocent mouth. W.T., III, ii, 101
It hath it original from much grief. 2 H 4, I, ii, 131

§ "That" often takes the place of "so that," "in that," "why," or "when" in certain clauses.

The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That (= so that) the fix'd sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other's watch.
H 5, IV, Chorus, 6
Albeit I will confess thy father's wealth
Was the first motive that (= why) I woo'd thee, Anne.
M.W.W., III, iv, 14
          Is not this the day
That (= when) Hermia should give answer of her choice?
M.N.D., IV, i, 140

§ The pronoun "other" is used as both singular and plural.

For the other, Sir John, let me see. 2 H 4, III, ii, 131
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron'd and spher'd
Amidst the other.
T. & C., I, iii, 91

§ Occasionally "near" substitutes for "nearer"; likewise, sometimes verbs ending in an "s" sound take no change of form for the plural.

Nor near (= nearer) no farther off, my gracious lord. R 2, III, ii, 64
My lord your son had only but the corpse (= corpses),
The shadows and the shows of men to fight.
2 H 4, I, i, 192