A Post Stratfordian Shake-speare Blog
Random header image... Refresh for more!

A Feast of Languages

O, that’s the Latin word for three farthings:”

says Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost  Act III, sc i.

The phrase evoke’s  Ælfric’s Grammar written in Anglo-Saxon

libra onleden ys ƿund onenglise

Why is Shakespeare referencing an 11th century Anglo-Saxon grammarian in Love’s Labour’s Lost?

The first point to make is that Ælfric is not the only grammarian who receives a nod from Shakespeare in LLL. William Lyly (playwright and Vere secretary John Lyly’s grandfather), whose grammar text was known by every schoolboy learning Latin is quoted by Holofernes.  Arthur Kinney, in the Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare (pg 519) writes;


click to enlarge

Holofernes also mentions the Roman grammarian Priscian in LLL after Nathaniel partially mangles some Latin

“Bon, bon, fort bon, Priscian! a little scratch’d,
’twill serve.”  Act V, sc i.

Shakespeare, it seems, made an effort to recognize a number of famous grammarians in LLL. I believe the reason is that LLL is, in part, a look back at his school days. This idea is not new, much has been written about Holofernes as a model of a grammar school teacher. But I think LLL is modeled on the author’s school days at Cecil house. In the 1560s when Vere lived at Cecil house, there were a number of lords or high-born children pursuing their scholastic studies alongside resident scholars and curates in an environment of constantly visiting dignitaries both foreign and domestic. This make-up roughly mirrors the Dramatis Personnae of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Cecil house doesn’t provides the plot of the play, nor the specific characters, but it is the setting of the play in my opinion.

Rebecca Brackmann in The Elizabethan Invention of Anglo-Saxon England, a book that examines the intellectual circle present in Cecil house at the time tells us what we would find there. (pg 55)

“Many of these [inkhorn controversy] writers were closely associated with Nowell’s employer, William Cecil: Roger Ascham and Sir Thomas Smith had known him for decades; John Hart and Arthur Golding lived, like Nowell, in Cecil’s house. These authors all wrote about the contemporary English Language with an eye to its nationalist potential. Nowell was surrounded by people who argued about the standardization of English vocabulary and spelling,…”

To be in Cecil house in the 1560s was to be in the middle of a grammar argument.

There is a grammar argument mocked in Love’s Labour’s Lost. In Act 5, sc i of LLL, Holofernes inveighs against the ‘rackers of othography.’

“He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer
than the staple of his argument. I abhor such
fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and
point-devise companions; such rackers of
orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should
say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt,–d,
e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf, cauf;
half, hauf; neighbour vocatur nebor; neigh
abbreviated ne. This is abhominable,–which he
would call abbominable: it insinuateth me of
insanie: anne intelligis, domine? to make frantic, lunatic.”

Moth and Costard then comment on the grammar obsession around them.

[Aside to COSTARD] They have been at a great feast
of languages, and stolen the scraps.

O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words…”

There may be another reference to Ælfric’s Grammar in LLL. Ælfric’s Grammar opens with a Latin preface that begins…

“Ego Ælfricus, ut minus sapiens, has excerptiones de Prisciano minore uel maiore nobis puerulis tenellis …”
“I Ælfric have endeavored to translate these extracts from Priscian for you, tender youths…”

When Armado addresses Moth as ‘tender Juvenal’, Moth responds to Armado as ‘tough senior.’

Act III, sc i.

How canst thou part sadness and melancholy, my
tender juvenal?

By a familiar demonstration of the working, my tough senior.

Why tough senior? why tough senior?

Why tender juvenal? why tender juvenal?

I spoke it, tender juvenal, as a congruent epitheton
appertaining to thy young days, which we may
nominate tender.

And I, tough senior, as an appertinent title to your
old time, which we may name tough.”

The passage sounds as it could be a remembrance of an exchange between student and teacher over the Ælfric manuscript. These two passages from Ælfric come from the opening line of the preface, and the closing paragraph of the Grammar. Shakespeare seems to be staking out the ground in Love’s Labour’s Lost that he is familiar with this important Anglo-Saxon work.

Cecil house was a place where young lords and other high-born wards of the state pursued their studies surrounded by scholars, curates, and all sorts of Very Important Persons transiting through Elizabeth’s court. The “feast of languages” ongoing at Cecil house and the author’s schoolboy memories provide the backdrop for Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

In the next installment, I’ll look at how the specific reference to Ælfric’s Grammar could have made it into Love’s Labour’s Lost.


1 comment

1 psi { 02.01.14 at 6:51 pm }

Another great blog entry, Chris. Keep up the great work!

Leave a Comment