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A Shakespearian Grammar: An Attempt to Illustrate Some of the Differences Between Elizabethan and Modern English

A Shakespearian Grammar: An Attempt to Illustrate Some of the Differences Between Elizabethan and Modern English

by E. A. Abbott

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The finest and fullest guide to the peculiarities of Elizabethan syntax, grammar, and prosody, this volume addresses every idiomatic usage found in Shakespeare's works (with additional references to the works of Jonson, Bacon, and others). Its informative introduction, which compares Shakespearian and modern usage, is followed by sections on grammar (classified


The finest and fullest guide to the peculiarities of Elizabethan syntax, grammar, and prosody, this volume addresses every idiomatic usage found in Shakespeare's works (with additional references to the works of Jonson, Bacon, and others). Its informative introduction, which compares Shakespearian and modern usage, is followed by sections on grammar (classified according to parts of speech) and prosody (focusing on pronunciation). The book concludes with an examination of the uses of metaphor and simile and a selection of notes and questions suitable for classroom use. Each of more than 500 classifications is illustrated with quotes, all of which are fully indexed. Unabridged republication of the classic 1870 edition.

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A Shakespearian Grammar

An Attempt to Illustrate Some of the Differences Between Elizabethan and Modern English

By E.A. Abbott

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1966 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14873-1




1. Adjectives are freely used as Adverbs.

In Early English, many adverbs were formed from adjectives by adding e (dative) to the positive degree: as bright, adj. ; brighte, adv. In time the e was dropped, but the adverbial use was kept. Hence, from a false analogy, many adjectives (such as excellent) which could never form adverbs in e, were used as adverbs. We still say colloquially, "come quick;" "the moon shines bright," &c. But Shakespeare could say:

"Which the false man does easy."—Macb. ii. 3. 143.

"Some will dear abide it."—J. C. iii. 2. 119.

"Thou didst it excellent."—T. of Sh. i. 1. 89.

"Which else should free have wrought."—Macb. ii. 1. 19.

"Raged more fierce."—Rich. II. ii. 1. 173.

"Grow not instant old."—Ham. i. 5. 94.

"'Tis noble spoken."—A. and C. ii. 2. 99.

"Did I expose myself pure for his love."—T. N. v. 1. 86.

"Equal ravenous as he is subtle."—Hen. VIII. i. 1. 159.

We find the two forms of the adverb side by side in:

"She was new lodged and newly deified."—L. C. 84.

The position of the article shows that mere is an adverb in:

"Ay, surely, mere the truth."—A. W. iii. 5. 58.


"It shall safe be kept." —Cymb. i. 6. 209.

"Heaven and our Lady gracious has it pleas'd."

1 Hen. VI. i. 2. 74.

"(I know) when the blood bums how prodigal the soul Lends the tongue vows."—Hamlet, i. 3. 116.

Such transpositions as "our lady gracious," (adj.) where "gracious" is a mere epithet, are not common in Shakespeare. (see 419.) In

"My lady sweet, arise," —Cymb. ii. 3. 29.

"My-lady" is more like one word than "our lady," and is also an appellative. In appellations such transpositions are allowed. (See 13.)

Sometimes the two forms occur together:

"And she will speak most bitterly and strange."

M. for M. v. 1. 90.

2. Adjectives compounded. Hence two adjectives were freely combined together, the first being a kind of adverb qualifying the second. Thus:

"I am too sudden-bold."—L. L. L. ii. 1. 107.

"Fertile-fresh"—M. W. of W. v. 5. 72.

"More active-valiant or more valiant-young."

1 Hen. IV. v. 1. 90.

"Daring-hardy."—Rich. II. i. 3. 43.

"Honourable-dangerous."—J. C. i. 3. 124. See ib. v. 1. 60.

"He lies crafty-sick."—2 Hen. IV. Prol. 37.

"I am too childish-foolish for this world."—R. III. i. 3. 142.

"You are too senseless-obstinate, my lord."—R. III. iii. 1. 44.

"That fools should be so deep-contemplative."—A. Y. ii. 7. 31.

"Glouc. Methinks the ground is even.


Horrible-steep."—Lear, iv. 6. 3.

In the last example it is hard to decide whether the two adjectives are compounded, or (which is much more probable) "horrible" is a separate word used as in (1) for "horribly," as in T. N. iii. 4. 196. In the West of England "terrible" is still used in this adverbial sense.

There are some passages which are only fully intelligible when this combination is remembered :

"A strange tongue makes my cause more strange-suspicious."

Hen. VIII. iii. 1. 45.

Erase the usual comma after "strange."

"Here is a silly-stately style indeed."—I Hen. VI. iv. 7. 72.

Perhaps "He only in a general-honest thought."—J. C v. 5. 71.

3. Adjectives, especially those ending in ful, less, ble, and ive, have both an active and a passive meaning; just as we still say, "a fearful (pass.) coward," and "a fearful (act.) danger."

"To throw away the dearest thing he owed, As 'twere a careless trifle."—Macbeth, i. 4. 11,

"Such helpless harmes yt's better hidden keep."—SPEN. F. Q. i. 5. 42.

"Even as poor birds deceived with painted grapes, Like those poor birds that helpless berries saw."

V. and A. 604 ; Rich. III. i. 2. 13.

"Upon the sightless couriers of the air. "—Macbeth, i. 7. 23.

"How dare thy joints forget

To pay their awful duty to our presence?"—Rich. II. iii. 3. 76.

"Terrible" is "frightened" in Lear, i. 2. 32; "dreadful," "awe-struck," Hamlet, i. 2. 207; "thankful" is "thankworthy," P. of T. v. 1. 285. So "unmeritable" (act. Rich. III. iii. 7. 155; J. C. iv. 1. 12); "medicinable" (act. Tr. and Cr. iii. 3.44); "sensible" (pass. Macb. ii. 1. 36; Hamlet, i. 1. 57); "insuppressive" (pass. J. C. ii. 1. 134) ; "plausive" (pass. Hamlet, i. 4. 30) ;"incomprehensive" (pass. Tr. and Cr. iii. 3. 198); "respective" (act. R. and J. iii. 1. 128; pass. T. G. of V. iv. 4. 200); "unexpressive" (pass. A. Y. L. iii. 2. 10); "comfortable" (act. Lear, i. 4, 328); "deceivable" (act. R. II. ii. 3. 84; T. N. iv. 3. 21).

"Probable," "contemptible," and "artificial," are active in—

"The least of all these signs were probable."—2 Hen. VI. iii. 2. 178.

"'Tis very probable that the man will scorn it, for he hath a very contemptible spirit."—M. Ado, ii. 3. 188.

"We, Hermia, like two artificial gods Have with our needles created both one flower."

M. N. D. iii. 2. 204.

Hence even "The intrenchant air."—Macbeth, v. 8. 9.

"Unprizable" (T. N. v. 1. 58) means "not able to be made a prize of, captured."

"Effect" (Rich. III. i. 2. 120) seems used for "effecter" or "agent" if the text is correct.

4. Adjectives signifying effect were often used to signify the cause. This is a difference of thought. We still say "pale death," "gaunt famine," where the personification is obvious ; but we do not say—

"Oppress'd with two weak evils, age and hunger."

A. Y. L. ii. 7. 132.

"Like as a sort of hungry dogs ymet Doe fall together, stryving each to get The greatest portion of the greedie pray."

SPENS. F. Q. vi. 11. 17.

"And barren rage of death's eternal cold."—Sonn. 13.

Nor should we say of the Caduceus—

"His sleepy yerde in hond he bare upright."—CHAUC. C. T. 1390. Compare also

"Sixth part of each! A trembling contribution !"—Hen. VIII. i. 2. 95.

Here "trembling" is used for "fear-inspiring."

So other Elizabethan authors (Walker): "idle agues," "rotten showers," "barren curses."

5. Adjectives are frequently used for Nouns, even in the singular.

"A sudden pale usurps her cheek."—V. and A.

"Every Roman's private (privacy or private interest)."

B. J. Sejan. iii. 1.

"'Twas caviare to the general."—Hamlet, ii. 2. 458.

"Truth lies open to all. It is no man's several."—B. J. Disc. 742 b. "Before these bastard signs of fair (beauty) were born."—Sonn. 68.

So "fair befal," Rich. II. ii. 1. 129 ; Rich. III. i. 3. 282. But see 297.

"Till fortune, tired with doing bad, Threw him ashore to give him glad."—P. of T. ii. Gower, 37.

"That termless (indescribable) hand

Whose bare outbragg'd the web it seem'd to wear."—L. C. 95.

"In few" = "in short."—Hamlet, i. 3. 126; Temp. i. 2. 144.

"Small (little) have continual plodders ever won."

L. L. L. i. 1. 86.

"By small and small."—Rich. II. iii. 7. 198;Rich. III. i. 3.111.

"Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true."

M. for M. ii. 4. 170.

"I'll make division of my present (money) with you."

T. N. iii. 4. 380.

If the text were correct, the following would be an instance of an adjective inflected like a noun:

"Have added feathers to the learned's wing."—Sonn. 78.

But probably the right reading is "learned'st."

"Wont," the noun (Hamlet, i. 4. 6), is a corruption from "woned," from the verb "wonye" E. E., "wunian" A.-S., "to dwell." Compare [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

6. Adjectives comparative. The inflection er instead of more is found before "than."

"Sir, your company is fairer than honest."—M. for M. iv. 3. 185.

The comparative "more wonderful" seems to be used, as in Latin, for "more wonderful than usual," if the following line is to be attributed to Cicero as in the editions:

"Why, saw you anything more wonderful ?"—J. C. i. 3. 14.

In Hamlet iv. 7. 49, "my sudden and more strange return," means "sudden, and even more strange than sudden."

7. The comparative inflection-er was sometimes used even when the positive ended in-ing,-ed,-id,-ain,-st,-ect. These terminations (perhaps because they assimilate the adjective to a participle by their sound) generally now take " more."

"Horrider," Cymb. iv. 2. 331; "curster," T. of Sh. iii. 2. 156; "perfecter," Coriol. ii. 1. 91; "certainer," M. Ado, v. 3. 62.

8. Superlative. The superlative inflection est, like the Latin superlative, is sometimes used to signify "very," with little or no idea of excess.

"A little ere the mightiest Julius fell."—Hamlet, i. 1. 114.

"My mutest conscience" (Cymb. i. 6. 116) may perhaps mean "the mutest part or corner of my conscience," like "summus mons."

9. The superlative inflection est is found after-ent,-ing,-ed, -ect. Thus, "violentest" (Coriol. iv. 6. 73);"cursedst" (M. of V. ii. 1. 46); "lyingest" (T. of Sh. i. 2. 25);"perfectest," (Macb. i. 5. 2).

This use of -est and -er (see 7) is a remnant of the indiscriminate application of these inflections to all adjectives which is found in Early English. Thus, in Piers Plowman, we have "avarousere" (B. i. 189), "merveillousest" (B. viii. 68).

10. The superlative was sometimes used (as it is still, but with recognized incorrectness) where only two objects are compared.

"Between two dogs which hath the deeper mouth, Between two blades which bears the better temper, Between two horses which doth bear him best, Between two girls which has the merriest eye."

1 Hen. IV. ii. 4. 15.

"Not to bestow my youngest daughter Before I have a husband for the elder."—T. of Sh. i. 1. 50.

"Of two usuries, the merriest was put down, and the worser allowed."—M. for M. iii. 2. 7.

Here it seems used for variety to avoid the repetition of the comparative.

11. Comparative and superlative doubled.—The inflections -er and -est, which represent the comparative and superlative degrees of adjectives, though retained, yet lost some of their force, and sometimes received the addition of more, most, for the purpose of greater emphasis.

"A more larger list of sceptres."—A. and C. iii. 6. 76.

"More elder."—M. of V. iv. 1. 251.

"More better."—Temp. i. 2. 19.

"More nearer."—Hamlet, ii. 1. 11.

"Thy most worst."—W. T. iii. 2. 180.

"More braver."—Temp. i. 2. 439.

"With the most boldest."—J. C. iii. 1. 121.

"Most unkindest."—J. C. iii. 2. 187.

"To some more fitter place."—M. for M. ii. 2. 16.

"I would have been much more a fresher man."

Tr. and Cr. v. 6. 21.

Ben Jonson speaks of this as "a certain kind of English atticism, imitating the manner of the most ancientest and finest Grecians."—B. J. 786. But there is no ground for thinking that this idiom was the result of imitating Greek. We find Bottom saying :

"The more better assurance."—M. N. D. iii. 1. 4.

12. The Adjectives all, each, both, every, other, are sometimes interchanged and used as Pronouns in a manner different from modern usage.

All for any :

"They were slaine without all mercie."—HOLINSHED. "Without all bail."—Sonn. 74. "Without all reason."—ASCH. 48.

(Comp. in Latin "sine omni, &c.") Heb. vii. 7 : Wickliffe, "with-outen ony agenseiyinge ;" Rheims, Geneva, and A. V. "without all contradiction."

This construction, which is common in Ascham and Andrewes, is probably a Latinism in those authors. It may be, however, that in "things without all remedy," Macb. iii. 2. 11, "without" is used in the sense of "outside," "beyond." See Without (197).

All for every :

"Good order in all thyng."—ASCH. 62.

"And all thing unbecoming."—Macb iii. 1. 14.

We still use "all" for "all men." But Ascham (p. 54) wrote : "Ill commonlie have over much wit," and (p. 65) "Infinite shall be made cold by your example, that were never hurt by reading of bookes." This is perhaps an attempt to introduce a Latin idiom. Shakespeare, however, writes :

"What ever have been thought on."—Coriol. i. 2. 4.

Each for "all" or "each one of :"

"At each his needless heavings."—W. T. ii. 3. 35.

So every (i.e. "ever-ich," "ever-each"):

"Of every these happen'd accidents."—Temp. v. 1. 249.

And "none :" "None our parts."—A. and C. i. 3. 36.

Each for "both :"

"And each though enemies to either's reign Do in consent shake hands to torture me."—Sonn. 28. "Each in her sleep themselves so beautify."—R. of L. 404. "Tell me In peace what each of them by the other lose."—Coriol. iii. 2. 44.

This confusion is even now a common mistake. Compare

"How pale each worshipful and rev'rend guest Rise from a Clergy or a City feast."—,Imit. Hor. ii. 75.

Each for "each other :"

"But being both from me, both to each friend."—Sonn. 144.

(i.e. both friends each to the other.)

Both seems put for "each," or either used for "each other," in

"They are both in either's powers."—Temp. i. 2. 450.

There may, however, be an ellipsis of each after both :

"They are both (each) in either's powers."

Compare "A thousand groans.....

Came (one) on another's neck."—Sonn. 131.

It is natural to conjecture that this is a misprint for "one or other's." But compare

"I think there is not half a kiss to choose Who loves another best."—W. T. iv. 4. 176. (See 88)

Every one, Other, Neither, are used as plural pronouns:

"And every one to rest themselves betake."—R. of L.

"Every one of these considerations, syr, move me."—ASCH. Dedic.


In readiness for Hymenæus stand."—T. A. i. 1. 325. "Smooth every passion That in the nature of their lord rebel."—Lear, ii. 2. 82.


Excerpted from A Shakespearian Grammar by E.A. Abbott. Copyright © 1966 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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