As someone trained in early English literature -- that is, works written before 1700 - I find one of my biggest challenges is dealing with those received opinions about writers that my students bring to class. For example, it is one of those eternal truths we learn early in our education that William Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of the English language. When we look at his use of language, this truth seems to be self-evident. As that marvelous series, The Story of English, points out, even in an age that prided itself on inventing new words, Shakespeare was exceptional: his vocabulary was about 34,000 words, about double the number for a normal, educated person. He also introduced more new words into the language than any other author in history. Given the weight of his authority, you can imagine how shocked a friend of mine, an alumna of the College, was to discover gross grammatical errors in Shakespeare's writing. How could the Bard of Avon, someone we are taught to revere as semi-divine, have not known how to compare adjectives? For us, there really is no excuse for writing "more strong," "more strange," and "more sweet" in some plays and "more fitter," "more corrupter," and "most poorest" in others. And while we can forgive Shakespeare for not attending Oxford or Cambridge, can we ever forgive him for not knowing the distinction between "who" and "whom": "Who wouldst thou serve?"; "To who, my lord?" (King Lear l.iv.24, V.iii. 249); "Who does he accuse?" (Antony and Cleopatra Ill.vi.23). If left to our own devices, of course, we still tend to begin questions with "who," whether it is correct or not. But, damn it, we expect more of Shakespeare. For anyone seeking perfection from our most famous writer, this disappointment may be "the most unkindest cut of all"!
When the alumna asked me the reason for these "errors," I somewhat archly replied that Shakespeare didn't observe the rules of grammar because he didn't have them. The look she gave me taught me much about our attitudes towards grammar: it was a mixture of skepticism (after all, she knew I liked to tease her!) and pure horror. In one way, I was teasing her because what we usually call the rules of grammar, those codified do's and don't's that are drilled into us during the serenity of adolescence, are very different from what a linguist or an anthropologist would call grammar, which is really nothing more than usage. Her look also reminded me that we tend to accept these learned rules of grammar as having a divine origin, as if they were a kind of appendix to the Ten Commandments that Moses also brought down from Mount Sinai. Of course, they aren't.
In fact, generations of students have long suspected a more diabolical source for these rules. After all, who would demand that you know when to add "-er" and "-est" to adjectives or use "more" and "most" with them? Who would insist that you know the difference between "who" and "whom"? By now some of you are saying to yourselves, "It must have been a faculty member! Probably in the English Department!" Your paranoia is perfectly understandable, and in this case, it is absolutely correct.
But who were these teachers? And why were they doing this to us? The answers to these questions bring us to a time 150 years after the death of Shakespeare, the middle of the eighteenth century. It was a time very different from the Elizabethan Age when the old cosmology, the old political values of a central monarchy, and the very structure of English society had changed utterly. The idea of change itself was only beginning to be seen as a good thing. Whereas we see change as a sign of health, as a basic element in nature itself, many in the eighteenth century saw it as a sign of decay, a falling away from the perfection of Nature, and a reminder of our own fallibility as human beings. That is why those conservative schoolmasters and grammarians of Britain were obsessed with the changes they saw occurring in English. Most of them recognized that language was in a state of continual change, but for them this was a bad thing. The Elizabethan Age may have gloried in coining new words, but the eighteenth century wanted to define and limit their meaning. Its exemplar was Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose Dictionary in 1755 prescribed both the "correct" pronunciation and the "correct" meaning of a word. It is this age and this mentality that gave us the so-called rules of grammar.
In preparing this speech, I decided to look at one particular handbook of grammar from the eighteenth century, Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). Lowth was a clergyman who rose to become Bishop of London and in his old age even declined the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. As you can see, I wasn't kidding about the connection of religious and grammatical zeal! In his preface, Lowth declares why it is important to know the rules of grammar: "every person of a liberal education . . . should be able to express himself with propriety and accuracy. It will evidently appear from these Notes, that our best Authors for want of some rudiments of this kind have sometimes fallen into mistakes, and even been guilty of palpable errors in point of Grammar." Poor Shakespeare! Some of the diction aside, though, this statement surprised me because it sounded so much like what I had been taught in junior high school, which occurred just after the eighteenth century. Lowth explains that these principles of grammar are especially important for all those "who shall have occasion to furnish themselves with the knowledge of modern languages." In other words, you have to know English grammar before you can learn any foreign language, a sentiment I've heard at least once in the coffee lounge in Benedict.
The wide acceptance of these grammatical rules and the attitudes behind them had far-reaching consequences. No longer could a writer, even a genius like Shakespeare, ignore these rules and be considered intelligent. Because at this time there was no universal education, grammar became an instant marker for social class and acceptability. In the words of England's most famous fictional grammarian, Prof. Henry Higgins, "The moment [an Englishman] opens his mouth he makes some other Englishman despise him." Nor have the colonies fared much better: in America, these rules of grammar underlie what has been termed "standard American English," but as in other countries, this is really just the speech of those who wield the most power, in this case, those who are white, educated, professional, middle- and upper-class. What I hope you see is that there is nothing "natural" about these rules of grammar or our feelings about them: they are every bit as much a cultural construct as a building, a painting, a computer, or a sonnet.
Understanding the origin of the rules and their power in society highlights for me what is one of the biggest challenges in my teaching: how do we treat those received opinions and attitudes, those "givens" of our culture? How do we respect the writings and values of the past without this respect degenerating into an unthinking adoration; or conversely, how can we analyze these things and risk bringing them down off their pedestals without degenerating into cynicism? This same dilemma is occurring in different ways for many academic disciplines, yet I must admit that it is very difficult to discard the approaches you were trained in and the opinions that you've held for a long time. And unfortunately for my freshmen in English 1, this does not mean that we will be casting the rules of grammar to the winds; I have no intention of turning 301 Fletcher into a kind of grammatical Liberty Hall. However, if we as teachers and students can begin to see old things in new ways, perhaps we can see the rules of grammar not as do's and don't's that restrict our expression, but as ways that give us power over language. For instance, I don't know how many times the principle of parallel construction, which, as I informed my nephew, has nothing to do with geometry, has helped me sort out my ideas -- has, in fact, helped me discover exactly what I did want to say. Perhaps we can also see the traditional reputations of writers like Shakespeare not as prison bars that hold back our own opinions but as springboards for controversy. For example, have you ever noticed that the same plays seem to be read over and over again in literature courses? That's because not everything he wrote was a masterpiece. If you don't believe me, read the Henry VI plays, or better still, see them on video; after all, that's closer to the way Shakespeare intended them to be experienced. Let's see if we can't nurture a healthy skepticism towards both the past and the present, but without the chip of cynicism on our shoulders. Perhaps then we can make college less of a museum where tradition is dutifully revered but gathers so much choking dust and more of a laboratory where the past is revitalized and, in turn, enlivens the present. When this happens, we may be astonished to find that often Shakespeare is every bit as good as we have been told. In fact, he may even be "more good" than we expect.