When we talk about literature legacies, there are few whose name resound greater than Shakespeare’s. While his works are widely-known in name and reputation, how many of you possess a true and in-depth understanding of his works, reading them directly from the pages instead of SparkNotes or LitCharts?
As we celebrate Shakespeare Day today, 22 April, we thought it would be fun to introduce the basic pronouns that William Shakespeare used in his works: Thee, Thy, Thine, Thou.
Shakespeare’s influence on literature and the English language remains highly significant today. His works are pertinent and timeless, no matter when they are read.
'Archaism' is a characteristic feature of Shakespeare's writing. Thou, thee, thy, thine and ye are archaic personal pronouns which are generally articulated in the form of subject and object.
Thou is a singular informal subjective case. Thou means you, however, it is analogous to the use of he and I in modern English.
"Blow, blow, thou winter wind! Thou art not so unkind as man's ingratitude"
- As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII
Thee is a singular objective case. It means (to) you. Thee is used in situations where you are the object and not the subject.
"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date"
- Sonnet 18
3. Thine and Thy
Thine and thy are analogous to your and yours of today.
Thine is to be used before a vowel while thy is used before a consonant.
"This above all: to thine own self be true"
-Hamlet, Act I, Scene III
“In thy face I see the map of honour, truth and loyalty.”
― Henry VI
Ye acts as both the singular and plural form of you, and is specifically a nominative pronoun. This means that ye is used for the subject of the sentence, unlike thee.
In Shakespeare's time, late 17th century, ye and you had varying levels of formality, with the latter at one point being the more formal and polite variant.
On top of this technical understanding of these pronouns, it is also important to note the cultural and social poignance of them.
Ben Yagoda summarises this neatly in his article explaining '“You”, “Thou” or “Ye”: An Outline of the Modern Usage of the All-Purpose Second Person in English', and I quote him:
David Crystal writes in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English that by Shakespeare’s time, you “was used by people of lower rank or status to those above them (such as ordinary people to nobles, children to parents, servants to masters, nobles to the monarch), and was also the standard way for the upper classes to talk to each other. […] By contrast, thou / thee were used by people of higher rank to those beneath them, and by the lower classes to each other; also in elevated poetic style, in addressing God, and in talking to witches, ghosts and other supernatural beings.”
The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1675 quotation: “No Man will You God but will use the pronoun Thou to him.”
Needless to say, this ambiguity and variability were gold in the hand of a writer like Shakespeare, and he played with it endlessly, sometimes having a character switch modes of address within a speech to indicate a change in attitude.
Shakespeare's works are amongst all, critiques on societal conventions, where he often takes jabs at the performative nature of gender roles and social hierarchies, all of which are applicable to a reading of today's society still. It would thus add great pleasure and nuance in your understanding of his works with this knowledge on pronouns usage.
Have fun (re-)reading some of Shakespeare's works this month!