Familiarity of Pronouns in Lear (& others)In King Lear, the pronouns Lady Macbeth uses to speak to her husband change radically throughout the play.  For example, in Act I, she frequently uses...

Familiarity of Pronouns in Lear (& others)

In King Lear, the pronouns Lady Macbeth uses to speak to her husband change radically throughout the play.  For example, in Act I, she frequently uses the familiar, "thou" to indicate closesness to her husband.  (For example, in 1.1.54, she says, "Thy letters have transported me.")  But later, in Act II, the formal is inducted, "Why have you left the chamber?" (1.7.29). 

As David Crystal and Ben Crystal point out, after 1.7, the familiar "thou" is never used again.

Similarily, in Julius Caesar, Caesar uses the familiar "tu" rather than "vous" when he, in shock, says, "Et tu, Brutus?" 

Where else do you find this shift of pronoun use?  As modern readers and teachers, do we miss these subtle shifts and does it matter, or not, to our understanding?

Expert Answers
sagetrieb eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I miss the nuances all the time and as a result I don't call much attention to the switches, although students often do.  I found this reference: "By the time of Shakespeare, you had developed the number ambiguity it retains today, being used for either singular or plural; but in the singular it also had a role as an alternative to thou / thee. It 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. There were also some special cases: for example, a husband might address his wife as thou, and she reply with you."  I continue in a subsequent post for this is too long!

sagetrieb eNotes educator| Certified Educator

And I continue:

"Of particular interest are those cases where an extra emotional element entered the situation, and the use of thou or you broke the expected conventions. Thou commonly expressed special intimacy or affection; you, formality, politeness, and distance. Thou could also be used, even by an inferior to a superior, to express such feelings as anger and contempt. The use of thou to a person of equal rank could thus easily count as an insult, as Sir Toby Belch well knows when he advises Sir Andrew Aguecheek on how to write a challenge to 'the Count's youth' (Viola): 'if thou thou'st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss' (Twelfth Night, III.ii.42), himself using a demeaning thou in a speech situation where the norm is you. Likewise, the use of you when thou was expected (such as from master to servant) would also require special explanation."


accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Very interesting point made here. To be honest, this is not necessarily something I have majored on in my teaching. So much effort seems to go into making students understand what is going on that any in-depth analysis of the Shakespearian use of pronouns seems to only be reserved for AP classes. However, I do believe that the nuances of such an approach can reveal serious fruit, as you have demonstrated, when we consider relationships and how they change in such plays.