Talking like Shakespeare

Allusions to Shakespeare abound in newspapers. The quotes are familiar to many readers, and the Bard knew how to turn a phrase. But we sometimes misuse Shakespeare.

Last week in a graphic the front of the North Raleigh News we asked, “Where for art thou, Clay?” (For a PDF version of the graphic, click here.)It was a playful reference to Clay Aiken’s keeping the location of his North Raleigh house a secret. The allusion was to a line in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”: “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

But many people would fault that allusion, and not just because it was misspelled. Juliet wasn’t asking where Romeo was; she wanted to know why Romeo was Romeo, a Montague. In Shakespeare, “wherefore” means “why.”

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We 21st century English speakers can stumble into trouble when we try to use the language of the 16th century. Some years ago, a copy editing job candidate pointed out in her critique of The N&O that a headline had misused “cometh.” The headline was about the new hockey team, the Carolina Hurricanes. The headline alluded to the Eugene O’Neill play “The Iceman Cometh.” The head was “the Icemen Cometh.” The critique pointed out that “cometh” is a singular verb, so it should not have been used with the plural “icemen.” (The word “cometh” is the older version of “comes.”) That comment led me to look up the grammar of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. It’s fascinating to read about the changes in English grammar, pronunciation and spelling.

Here is an online explanation of some changes from the Cambridge History of English and American Literature. At the Shakespeare Resource Center you can read more about the grammar of the greatest English playwright. Here is a Wikipedia article about the pronoun thou.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.