How long will a man lie i' the earth ere he rot?

The quoted line is Hamlet's. I wonder why the "rot" is not "rots".

  • 4
    rot is used in the subjunctive, so the simple present inflection is not present. compare, for example, Heb 8:5 and Lk 14:12 in the King James Bible for thou makest vs. thou make.
    – user31341
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 21:07
  • 4
    Hamlet didn't speak in today's English. It's rather surprising he spoke English at all. Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 21:22
  • 6
    Because ere triggers the subjunctive, just as lest does. “Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.” “Lest there there be any doubt, I have no intention of crossing that bridge.”
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 21:49
  • @EdwinAshworth [Hamlet didn't speak in today's English.] I know. I'm asking about the grammar of the Early Modern English. Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 0:34
  • 2
    I thought you might be. Why didn't you add something along the lines of 'Is this type of construction peculiar to or more commonly used in EME?'? Signs of research / reasoned thought are valued greatly in questions put to the site. Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 6:08

2 Answers 2


"he rot" is the present subjunctive in this sentence. So the form is that of the bare infinitive. Another example, "Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak."

  • Thanks. Could you explain why Hamlet used the present subjunctive in this sentence? Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 21:23
  • For the same reason Shakespeare wrote "Therefore, at your vantage, ere he express himself, or move the people with what he would say, let him feel your sword", "Kneel to the duke before he pass the abbey", and "I must to him too, Before he go to bed." There were more situations in which you could use the subjunctive back then. Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 21:31
  • 1
    The present subjunctive showed up in any sort of conditional dependent clause. In this case, "ere" marks the clause. The introduction of any sort of conditional dependency triggered the subjunctive: if, so, though, etc. Compare: "A man buried in the earth surely rots." No conditions, no subjunctive.
    – Aaron K
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 21:46

French uses subjunctive after avant que (before/ere + clause) still today and I assume that Shakespeare in some uses of the subjunctive is influenced by French subjunctive uses. Shakespeare's line is in Hamlet 5.1. Editions with annotations should explain why Shakespeare uses the subjunctive rot.

In Shakespeare-online.com I studied Hamlet 5.1. There are about 200 annotations but there is no annotation on the Sv (subjunctive) of "ere he rot".

I also found something on Shakespeares's grammar, but the paragraph on Sv is rather vague. It says nothing but that Shakespeare made more use of the Sv than is usual today. Shakespeare Grammar

  • I doubt Shakespeare's subjunctive use was influenced by French. Possibly the use of the English subjunctive was affected by the Norman invasion, but it was around long before that. Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 12:28
  • I don't means the Sv in general, but special subjunctives such as after "ere". Actually a Sv after ere make no sense.
    – rogermue
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 18:34
  • @Peter Shor I don't mean subjunctive (Sv) in general, but special Sv-s such as after "ere". Actually a Sv after ere makes no sense. Only when one sees the French avant que + (ne) Sv one gets an idea from where the English Sv after ere might have come, though the French Sv after avant que is the queerest construction I know.
    – rogermue
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 19:15
  • and I doubt that the Franch really know why they have "a split clause" with "avant" (before/ere) + an optative negative: qu'il ne vienne*. Today they mostly drop the "ne" - for me a sign that they find the negative optative queer. But they maintain the Sv though even the Sv is queer.
    – rogermue
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 19:28
  • The French and Spanish use subjunctive with before because Latin did. The real question is: what did West Germanic use? Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 23:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.