Between You and I:
Universal Grammar School Standards
You'd think after seven years of public school he'd know more grammar, but he graduated before the new statewide standards of educational reform. Four hundred and twenty years before. I am referring to Shakespeare. Between you and I (as the Bard says), he might not pass Freshman Comp, or even one of the new statewide standards tests. Somewhere in his works he violates most every rule of basic grammar, from Subject-Verb and Pronoun Agreement, to Fused Sentences and even notorious Comma Splices. The standard-bearers of educational reform set a different standard from the Bard. After all, he only had a grammar school education'Latin grammar, about seven years of it. Unlike the ghost of Hamlet's father bent on revenge, Shakespeare's tolerant ghost appears at my elbow while I correct papers. As I chide students for their grammatical errors, Shakespeare pleads for them. While I wax nostalgic, "In my day, even one Fragment, Comma Splice, or Run-on was cause to flunk a paper," I am thinking: Shakespeare's plays do not meet this criterion. I still tell freshmen, 'If your essay contains Basic Sentence Errors, I have no choice but to give you less than an honors grade.' Meanwhile I worry that Shakespeare would earn a "C" right now.
Not to mention how he stacks up on ethnic correctness. Not good. Ethnic insults abound, anti-Scottish, anti-Irish, anti-French, and especially, anti-Welsh. Apparently King James' wife Anne of Denmark laughed heartily at jokes against her husband's native Scotland. The Queen's laughter embarrassed the French ambassador in June of 1604. The King found it easier to outlaw Scottish insults and oaths on the stage than to suppress his wife's amusement. At a recent performance of Merchant of Venice, my wife turned to me with raised eyebrow as we heard, 'between you and I.' This amusing gaffe often issues from the insecure who over-correct themselves. Someone sometime told them that it was impolite to use 'me.' Almost nobody is taught enough grammar to know when objective case pronouns like 'me' should be used. Watching Merchant, I thought it was the actor's mistake, but checked my handy paperback. I was wrong. Antonio writes to Bassanio, Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit. And since in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are clear between you and I'(3.2.315ff).
There he goes with his pronominal respectability. Did Shakespeare mean for this to characterize Antonio as an over-reacher? Maybe, but more probably, it's simply another Bardic error.
Many times Shakespeare's breach of correctness daunts readers,
especially current students who, ironically, make similar errors. Very commonly the Swan of Avon uses the ends
of verse lines as a form of punctuation, as in Iago's
famous racist slur to Brabantio,
...thou hast lost half thy soul
Even now, very now an old black ram
Is tupping thy white ewe
I quote from the posthumous First Folio edited by his friends Hemmings and Condell. Possibly it is the editors' oversight, not Shakespeare's, but it has a kind of immediacy which suggests some of his best effects, too. Many modern editions choose the First Quarto semicolon after 'soul' to clear this up. The question is whether the syntax reads "thy soul even now," which makes what follows a Comma Splice, very common in Shakespeare, or if there should be a semicolon after "thy soul," as the First Quarto reads.
Some of Shakespeare's common grammar solecisms reflect Renaissance usage, though in others usage may not have changed much. People still often use a double comparative, just as Touchstone does, "A more sounder instance" (AYLI 3.2.59). Or in the 1608 quarto of Lear, France stands amazed that Cordelia has fallen so fast, she who was 'most best, most dearest' (1.1.206). Often we find Shakespeare like his many Anglo-Saxon ancestors using infamous double negatives, such as when Celia, again in As You Like It, says, "I cannot go no further"(2.4.9).
For pronoun reference, recall his wonderful sonnet on his own writing style, 'Why is my verse so barren of new pride?'
In the middle of this one, he talks of 'Keeping invention ['creativity'] in a noted weed ['clothes']/ That every word doth almost tell my name,/ Showing their birth and where they did proceed.' Every word shows its birth.
More serious verb agreement problems also appear, as in Measure for Measure, where Lucio coaches Isabella,
Our doubts are traitors,
And makes us lose the good we oft might win,
By fearing to attempt.
If 'traitors' makes' appeared on a Freshman composition, in my early years of teaching it would have flunked, and even now it would keep the essay in the low C range. Perhaps it is the storm that makes Lear slip similarly,
The wrathful skies
Gallow the very wanderers of the dark
And makes them keep their caves.
The 'skies' makes.' I quote from the 1608 Quarto of Lear, which Wells and Taylor call 'the play as Shakespeare originally wrote it' (Complete Works Compact edition 909). Of course, some subject-verb agreement usage has changed in four hundred years: 'news' is always plural in Shakespeare except as noted below. But ' skies' does not appear a collective noun. Later Lear adapts a proverb, but intrudes agreement problems: 'Through tattered rags small vices do appear;/ Robes and furred gowns hides all'(4.5.159). Both these Shakespearean mistakes ('skies' and 'hides') were corrected by his friends Hemmings and Condell when they edited the Folio fifteen years later.
Some examples of Elizabethan usage are Juliet's plural 'news', 'Now, good sweet Nurse'Though news be sad, yet tell them merrily' (2.4.22) likewise in the second act of Lear. Curran asks Edmond, 'You have heard of the news abroad?--I mean the whispered ones,' to which Edmond responds, 'Not I. Pray you, what are they?'(2.1.6ff).
We have all been corrected when like Huck Finn someone 'learned' us to add and subtract. We were told the difference between 'teach' and 'learn,' a distinction apparently lost on the swan of Avon. When her irate father Brabantio upbraids her for lack of filial duty, Desdemona answers,
To you I am bound for life and education.
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you.
Another young woman must have gone to the same school with Desy.
When cousin Celia urges
her to cheer up, Rosalind replies,
Unless you can teach me to forget a banished father you must not learn
me how to remember any extraordinary
Of course, matters of usage such as this depend upon his times, not
Far be it from us to correct, say, the Jacobean use of ablaut past tenses like Goneril's 'The news is not so took' (Lear 4.2.86). Curiously, the 'news' here appears to be singular in number; perhaps this usage was changing during Shakespeare's years, and Lear being a later play reflected the more modern usage. We know that some words were being displaced: in law court records from around the time of Measure for Measure, for instance, we find the Anglo-Saxon word 'bawd' being nudged out by the French word 'pimp'(<pimper, to inflate purposing sale). Here Shakespeare prefers the older usage, which has the advantage that it applies equally to both genders, to pimps as well as madams.
So far I have focused on published versions of Shakespeare's writing, edited mostly by his friends Hemmings and Condell. What about his manuscript or 'foul papers'? These, from what we can gather, had almost no punctuation except the verse line. Consider the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, a play many Shakespeareans consider in the Bard's authentic hand'the 'D' hand section, that is, one of six playwrights'. This play was censored because of its uprising scene, some of which reads:
What rebell captaine
as mutnes are incident, by his name
can still the rout who will obey th a traytor
or howe can well that pclamation sounde
when there is no adicion but a rebell
to quallyfy a rebell, youle put down straingers
kill them cut their throts possesse their howses
and lead the matie of the law in liom
to slipp him lyke a hound;'(Evans, The Riverside Shakespeare, 1692)
('Matie' is 'majesty.') Clearly, if this is Shakespeare writing at white heat, blotting very little, he required a good deal of editing from the first. At the very least, the second of the two commas here creates a Comma Splice. And a Comma Splice is a flunkable commodity.
Just between you and I, I cannot go no further because it is
getting more later and my ideas is running out'which never
happened to Shakespeare. After all, reading Shakespeare for grammar
errors is like listening to Beethoven for
performers' errors. Well, it's not really like that, it's more
like 'Will, can you help me out here?