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Early Modern English verbs (part 2)

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain grammar – here specifically, and further to the previous talk, verbs – and how Shakespeare was able to exploit it.
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This talk is the second on verbs. We will be touching on three areas– expressing the idea that an action is continuous through the progressive, expressing the idea that an action is complete to the perfective, expressing the idea that something is hypothetical, wished for, doubtful, et cetera through the subjunctive. Don’t panic about terminology. We’ll be going through it all. One kind of meaning groups of verbs can express is whether or not the action involved is continuous. This is the progressive. Let’s take Polonius’s line to Hamlet, “What do you read, my Lord?” Actually, the way we would put it today is, “What are you reading, my Lord?”
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That is how we would express the ongoing continuous action of reading implied in the original in one. Today, the progressive involves using part of the verb “to be”, here are, and also adding “ing” to the end of the verb, “reading”. In early modern English, both ways of doing it existed– the implied version in one and the explicit version in two. At that time, there seems to have been a slight tendency for explicit progressive forms, such as “are reading”, to occur in more informal contexts. Here in this example, perhaps such a form does not suit Polonius’s rather pompous style. There’s also the issue of the verb expressing whether the action is completed or not, whether it is perfected.
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Today, we would expect some part of the verb “have” to accompany the main verb. “She has arrived”, “I had changed”, and so on. But there was much more normal variation in Shakespeare’s time, variation that was not an attempt to represent dialect or something non-standard. We find cases like, “My Master Sir John is come in at your back door”, rather than what we would expect today, “My Master Sir John has come in at your back door.” The preference at the time seems to have been to use the “be” auxiliary, as in the example with “is”, with verbs of motion and change of state– for example, “become”, “grow”. Perhaps the use of “be” puts more focus on the result of the action.
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Today, there are various ways of expressing the subjunctive when dealing with hypothetical things, wishes, suggestions, doubts, and so on. If I say, “God save the queen”, note that it is not “God saves the queen”, despite the fact that the third person is involved here. It lacks the “s” ending. This is because it is the subjunctive. And the meaning is something like “May God save the queen.” The point to note with regard to early modern English is that although the subjunctive was dying out, there were rather more cases around than there are now. You will find most very easy to interpret in context.
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Watch out for the fact that the verb “be” had more options available than there are now in most dialects. At that time, you could contrast subjunctive “I”, “thou”, “he”, “she”, or “he be”, with “I am”, “thou art”, “she” or “he is”, et cetera. Which are more regular non-subjunctive forms.
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The subjunctive “be” is actually a statistically based keyword in Juliet’s speech, when compared with the speech of other characters in the play Romeo and Juliet.
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It expresses her anxieties about what may or may not be the case, as in this example– “Go ask his name: if he be married, My grave is like to be my wedded bed.” You will find out more about statistically based keywords in week four. In this talk and the last talk, we have looked at two groups of features– third person present singular endings “-eth” versus “-s”, the second person present singular ending “-est”, the past tense ending “-ed”, and various irregularities– expressing the progressive– continuous action, expressing the perfective– completed action, expressing the subjunctive– hypothetical, wishes, suggestions, doubt.
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The crucial point, however, is not to remember all this detail but to get a sense of the variation and also some of the motivations for using one thing as opposed to another. All of the things we have been talking about can easily be investigated further using the methods that we will introduce in following weeks.

There is much more to be said about verbs, and this is why we return to the topic here. Verbs can be adjusted to express particular meanings.

We can say “what are you reading?” today to indicate that somebody is engaged in the continuous action of reading. The combination of “are” (part of the verb “to be”) and another verb ending -ing, the progressive form, does the job of conveying that continuous action. But in Shakespeare’s time saying “What do you read my Lord?” could also imply continuous action, even though there is no progressive form. In fact, progressive forms did exist in Shakespeare’s time. They were the new kid on the block, and as such tended to be more suitable for informal contexts.

Another particular meaning that can be expressed is whether the action expressed in the verb has been completed (“perfected”) or not. Today we might say “Jonathan has come”, but back then one might also hear “Jonathan is come”. There are subtle shades of meaning accompanying one as opposed to the other. For example, the choice of “is come” might put more focus on the result of the action.

Finally, verbs can be formed to express the hypothetical, wishes, doubts, and so on. This is the subjunctive. Shakespeare used the subjunctive regularly to capture the anxieties of the character Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (e.g. “if he be married” she worries, rather than saying “if he is married”).

All these areas of grammar involve subtle shades of meaning which can readily elude the modern reader. Keep an ear out for the issues in the video-talk, and mention anything you don’t understand in the comments.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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