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The great beauty of Abbott's study is that it is pre-eminently readable. Still, there's no pleasing some people. One reviewer has criticised Abbott's book as 'unreadable.' Perhaps it is, if you can't be bothered to stretch your mind to embrace the quite difference nuances of Shakespearian English - as against our own.But - wasn't that the purpose of the book, anyway?
Whoever you are - if you like Shakespeare, your appreciation of his work - plays and poems alike, will be enhanced by digesting the lessons and examples cited in Abbott's book, which has served us valuably since its first appearence - in 1869. It is, admittedly, a painstaking work. As such, it contains an abundance of detail which may - on first sight, seem rather overwhelming. But after all, would any reader be happy to find that the author has reneged on his duties? With Shakespeare, much often hinges on the nuance of simple particles. Abbott has carefully collated material exemplifying Shakespeare's use of grammatical particles and their place in sentence construction - spanning adverbs, adjectives, articles, conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, relative pronouns, verbs, inflections, tenses, ellipses, prefixes, contractions, word lengthenings etc. - with supplementary observations about prosody, pronunciation thrown in for good measure.
If certain grammatical useages have left you wondering about the nuance of a particular line or passage in Shakespeare's work, Abbot's study will surely help. Quite obviously, idioms no longer in current use are likely to be among the first we wish to check out. However, more importantly, in a sense, this book will yield unexpected discoveries when it comes to the understandable but regrettable error, of reading a contemporary nuance into terms or idioms which had an entirely different meaning in Shakespeare's age. In short, as against idioms which are unfamiliar and therefore elicit conscious doubt, some of the trickier parts of Shakespeare are to be found in sentences which seem to resemble modern English - but carry another meaning. The fact that Abbott had to devote seven or eight pages to explaining the multivalent potentiality of a simple term like -'but,' is instructive viz. -
"And, but she spoke it dying,
I would not believe her lips.' Cymb. v. 5. 41
- meaning "unless she spoke it dying. . ."
"Have you no countermand for Claudio yet
But he must die tomorrow? " M for M. iv. 2. 95
- meaning 'to prevent that he must die' (or prevent his death).
" It cannot be but I am pigeon-livered"
Hamlet, ii. 2. 605
i.e. " It cannot be that I am otherwise than a coward."
" Her head's declined and death will seize her, but
Your comfort makes her rescue." A. & C. iii, 11, 48
- i.e. "only your your comfort. . . . "
Or consider this use of the relative pronoun:
"I hate the murderer, love him murdered. "
- Rich. 11. v. 5. 40
- which seems to mean "I love the fact that he is
murdered, " when it actually means "I loved him that was
Again, without a primer such as Abbott's, we are unlikely to negotiate our way through the semantic minefield represented by the varied nuances of 'thou, thee and thine' etc. We might suppose that they all signify a straightforward equivalent for 'you' and 'yours' etc. in modern English - but, a repeated use of 'thou' is sometimes pejorative, especially when addressed to strangers, something we would not suspect, unless alerted to this convention. Even more complex, perhaps, is the alternate use of 'thou' and 'you' - in compound sentences. This was not - as we might be tempted to think, a shift between 'formal' and casual forms of address. The 'you' was also formal. In this respect, the subtle nuances of Elizabethan English resemble Japanese, insofar as the stress upon - or relative neglect of - an honorific, can convey approval or contempt, without having to say too much in the process. This is the other side to Shakespearian English, which is not always expressed in 'crisp' epithets of the 'much-ado-about-nothing' or 'all's-well-that-ends well' type. These subtle inflexions are an essential aspect of Shakespeare's English and despite its relatively dated origins, Abbott's study remains one of the best places to look for a guide to the grammar of Shakespearian English.