Syntax and subtext : diachronic variables, displacement and proximity in the verse dramas of shakespeare and his contemporaries

Michael Anthony INGHAM, Richard INGHAM

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


In this study of serious verse drama (tragedies and history plays) by Shakespeare and his contemporaries of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, language is seen as a resource for achieving immediacy or distance, situating the play either in a contemporary socio-political framework or else in a national-historical past. The empirical basis for this claim lies in a study of archaic versus innovative syntactic constructions. It is shown that in the early 1590s Shakespeare and his contemporaries made very frequent use of verb-second in declaratives, and tended to avoiddo-support in interrogatives. In early Jacobean serious drama, however, "verb-second" had almost disappeared anddo-support rose to around 50% of interrogative contexts. Whereas in the earlier period an archaic effect was created by retaining Middle English constructions that ordinary usage had by now either abandoned, or was in the process of doing so, the language of Jacobean serious drama aligned itself on the respective ambient linguistic norms. It is argued that these syntactic preferences conveyed a stylistic effect suitable for representing distance and/or alterity, either with respect to the past or to a foreign context: both perspectives involved late Elizabethan national identity concerns. Conversely, the adoption of contemporary linguistic norms in Jacobean high drama achieved an effect of proximity, facilitating "here-and-now" allusiveness to contemporary themes, especially those of court intrigue and cynical acquisitive materialism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)214-232
Number of pages19
Issue number2
Early online date23 Jul 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • "Here-and-now"
  • "There-and-then"
  • Archaism
  • Displacement
  • Distance
  • Histories and tragedies
  • Inversion
  • Language change
  • Obsolete and obsolescent
  • Proximity
  • Subtext
  • Syntactic variables


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