What is reversed sentence structure in reference to Shakespeare?
The typical, simplest English sentence structure takes the subject (S), verb (V), object (O) grammatical pattern, which is frequently abbreviated to SVO. In other words, a typical English sentence starts with the subject followed by the verb followed by the object. The subject is defined as the person or thing doing the action; the verb is the action; and the object is defined as the person or thing receiving the action. The following is a simple example:
- The kitten (S) played (V) with the yarn (O).
Here, kitten is the one doing the action, so kitten is the subject. The word played is the action, so played is the verb. The yarn is the object the kitten is playing with and the object receiving the action, making it the object of the verb.
In contrast to the typical English sentence grammatical structure, Shakespeare creatively changed the normal word order. Often, he would invert normal word order by using an SOV pattern. One reason is because English verbs have a multitude of possible rhymes; therefore, it's much easier to create rhyming couplets with sentences ending in verbs than ending with nouns. As a result, he often also used the OSV pattern.
Plenty of examples can be found all throughout Shakespeare's plays. Let's look at some examples found in Romeo and Juliet:
In the opening scene, Benvolio uses the OSV pattern in his speech in which he first speaks of Romeo, particularly when he refers to Romeo's apparent emotional distress:
Towards him I made, but he was aware of me And stole into the covert of the wood (I.i.111-12).
The opening clause is a perfect example of the OSV pattern; "him" is the object, "I" is the subject, and "made" is the verb.
A more unusual example can be found in Benvolio's very first sentence when speaking of Romeo. Here, Shakespeare uses a VSO pattern:
So early walking did I see your son (I.i.110).
In this sentence, the verb phrase "did see" is separated by the subject "I" followed by the object "your son," making this the VSO pattern. The normal word order would be, I did see your son. The more unusual grammatical word pattern serves to place equal emphasis on both the early morning hour and Romeo.
In the next speech in this same scene, Romeo's father, Lord Montague, makes use of the SOV pattern when speaking of Romeo's distressing behavior:
Many a morning hath he there been seen (I.i.118).
Here, "he" is the subject, "there" functions as the object, and "been seen" is the verb phrase, making this the perfect SOV pattern example.
Reversion of the word order, also called inversion or anastrophe, is a technique in which an author deliberately reverses the normal word order in a sentence, line or phrase. The purpose is to create a particular effect, either for emphasis or to retain the meter or rhyme. Shakespeare in particular used this technique extensively.
There are different ways in which this can be done:
- Placing the verb before the subject in a sentence: instead of I said, we write, said I.
- Using a qualifying adjective after the noun: instead of an intelligent idea, we write, an idea intelligent.
- Placing a noun directly before its preposition: instead of the captain stood below deck, we write, the captain below deck stood.
There are numerous examples of this technique in Romeo and Juliet:
In the prologue, for instance, we have the following examples:
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Do with their death bury their parents' strife...
Samson says, in Act 1, scene 1:
I strike quickly, being moved
Me they shall feel while I am able to stand
Fear me not.
The Prince, in addressing the feuding Capulets and Montagues, says:
If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.
Lord Montague, in talking about Romeo, mentions:
Away from the light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself...
Also, from Romeo himself:
Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still
This love feel I, that feel no love in this...
These extracts are all quoted from Act 1, scene 1 only, and there are many more examples throughout the play.
In modern English, we utilize a sentence structure that gives the subject of the sentence first, the verb second, and the object, last.
For example, we would say, "Mary ate soup."
"Mary," is the subject, "ate," is the verb, and "soup," is the object.
However, Shakespeare utilizes a different type of sentence structure in his plays and poetry. Instead of saying, "Mary ate soup," Shakespeare might choose to say "Soup, Mary ate." Or, he might choose to write, "Mary, the soup ate."
Shakespeare may have reversed his syntax for different reasons. First, he may have done this to heighten the language and make it sound more poetic. Second, some believe he reversed the syntax to achieve a certain meter. Third, he may have done it to make the lines more memorable.