So the Internet was flooded with Shakespeariana the last few days, thanks to the big 400-year anniversary of his death last Saturday, April 23rd, 2016. I kind of missed it, as I don’t go online as much on the weekend, which is why I’m only now weighing in on the issue. But my excuse is that today is the Great Man’s Christening Day (452 years! Significant figure!), so that’s still an anniversary and I can still shove in my oar on the celebrations.
Did you know that even though we celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd of April (the same day he died), we don’t actually know exactly when he was born? I think they (whoever “they” are) just picked the 23rd because it’s convenient so we don’t have to remember more than one date for his birth and death. And because he was christened on the 26th, and it was, apparently, traditional that babies were baptised three days after birth. That must be a peculiarly English custom, though; in Renaissance Germany baptism happened just one day post-partum (that’s how they decided Martin Luther’s birthday must be November 10th, based on his baptismal day).
Anyway, with all this Shakespeare stuff floating around the ‘net, I was reminded of one of my pet peeves. This link demonstrates it quite nicely: there’s a quite funny “translation” of some lyrics by Drake (whom I don’t know anything about other than this clip) into “Shakespearean language”. Except that it’s not. The “translator” falls prey to a very common misconception, which is that to make something sound Shakespearean, all you have to do is attach “th” to the end of every verb, and toss in a sprinkling of “thou”. You know, as in “thou randomly chucketh stuff around and hopeth thou soundeth like Romeo.”
Well, I hate to tell you, but all it does it make you sound like the Shakespearean equivalent of a LOLcat (“I has cheezeburger.”). Now, to avoid your embarrassing yourself further on this issue, let me explain how this “thou” and “sayeth” stuff works(eth).
It breaks up into two parts. First, let’s tackle the thou’s and thee’s, because that’s not quite as complicated as the verbs. What we want for the purpose is a nice little grid, like so:
You see, the “thou” is just an old form of saying “you” – in fact, “you” is the old plural, “you two” (or “y’all”, if you’re from the Southern States). Even though “thou” sounds old-fashioned and formal today, it was actually informal and a bit rude, sort of along the lines of “Hey you!”, which is why it fell out of favour. So, what about the “thee” and “thy” stuff? Simple – they’re forms of “thou” just like “me” and “my” are variants of “I”. So whenever you’d say “me”, use “thee”; for “my” or “mine”, “thy” or “thine”: “He hit me, because my face annoyed him; he said the fault was mine,” or “He hit thee, because thy face annoyed him; he said the fault was thine.” To put it in another nice grid:
(he hits) me
(he hits) thee
(he hits) him/her/it
Okay, now what about the LOLcats and their cheezeburger? Where does the “hath” come in? Quite simple: Renaissance people had a perpetual lisp. Wherever we put an “s” on the end of a verb, they put a “th”. (Completely off topic, I just found out there’s a special character for “th”, Þ, and it’s called a thorn. Cool, eh?) The third person singular (see above) present tense verb in modern English takes an -s: he jumps, she walks, it has; in old English, it takes a -th (or -eth): he jumpeth, she walketh, it hath. So, an actual Shakespearean LOLcat, messing up its first and third persons, would say “I hath cheezeburger,” or probably more like “I hath an eel pie” (or some such thing).
Now, in modern English, the third person singular is the only case in which the verb changes. But in old English, the second person singular also got its own verb ending, namely -st (or -est). So, whenever you pull out a “thou”, you also need to slap an “-est” on the verb that goes with it: thou jumpest, thou walkest, thou hast. To grid it:
(modern: you jump/have/do)
(modern: he jumps/has/does)
That’s why you get: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” or if you say it straight to someone’s face: “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”
So, now you know. All you need to do is add a sprinkling of “alas”, “forsooth”, “methinks”, or “knave”, and thou art all set to quaff a flagon of ale with Falstaff, Hamlet and Prince Hal.
Life, the Universe, Thou and Hath. Alas, forsooth, methinks thou hast heard enough of my pontification. I prithee that thou takest it not amiss.