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Grammatical Theatricality in Richard III:
Response to Lynne Magnusson

Jonathan hope’s seminar exploring “Shakespeare’s Sentences” invited attention to the deployment of unexpected word orders via formal linguistic work on Shakespearean and early modern syntax and morphology, punctuation, textual transmission, and editing. Lynne Magnusson’s outstanding paper for that seminar, “Grammatical Theatricality in Richard III,” addresses Latin school grammars, with their coercive and long-lasting effects on any child who had learned by heart an apparatus that suffered in translation or indeed mistranslation: parts of speech, tense, mood, and aspect and the optative.

Lynne Magnusson has previously used the optative to analyze arguments about potentiality, as well as Shakespeare’s characters’ usage of optatives as problematic markers in discussions of authorship. Like Jonathan Hope, she enumerates and judges the ways that characters express thought, react to other characters, and characterize themselves through the modal auxiliaries among their linguistic choices. In this essay, though, she does something quite unexpected—as if, in a symphony, one suddenly discovered a carefully inscribed theme hidden in the bass line, and thus not obvious to the ear. This is not a theme, in either the musical or literary method, but a game of variations.

Her argument begins from the observation that the attempt to apply Latin rules were mistranslated and misapplied to English, with its syntactic rather than analytic structures. She then proceeds to focus on the optative as a constructed future and as a structure implying “wishing,” not simple volition. In the course of the essay she illustrates precisely how this system upholds a play full of people hoping for future events, future punishments for the wicked, and future salvation for the female characters who form such an important chorus of commentators. What is most striking is her turn at the end toward an old argument about providentialism, long disregarded by many Shakespeareans on grounds of its thoughtless crudity and cruelty, to make it something wished for—or rejected by—characters otherwise powerless. Her essay offers a source of notes for directors and actors who can learn (not by heart) to understand “grammar” in a large sense. She also reminds us of the requirement for scholars to use this knowledge, and this literary criticism, to discriminate the data generated by computational study. [End Page 44]

Ruth Morse  

Ruth Morse is professeur des universités at the Université Paris-Sorbonne-Cité (Diderot). She has edited two volumes—Great Shakespeareans, volume 14 (Pasternak, Brecht, Césaire, and Bonnefoy) and Medieval Shakespeare: Pasts and Presents (with Peter Holland and Helen Cooper)—forthcoming in 2013. Morse is a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and a judge for the United Kingdom’s Crime Writers Association.

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Subject Headings

  • English language -- Study and teaching -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Language.
  • English language -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- Grammar.
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