About a third of the way through his poem "To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us," Ben Jonson writes:

And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,

From thence, to honour thee, I would not seek

For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,

Euripides, and Sophocles to us,

Paccuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead

To life again, to hear thy buskin tread

And shake a stage; or when thy socks were on,

Leave thee alone, for the comparison

Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome

Sent forth; or since did from their ashes come.

I have always supposed that the first line quoted above meant, as it would today, "And although you had little command of Latin and less of Greek"; but a footnote in George Greenwood, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare (1921) offers the following gloss:

"And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek" wrote Jonson. "Here," says the learned Dr. [Clement Mansfield] Ingleby, "hadst is the subjunctive. The passage may be thus paraphrased: 'Even if thou hadst little scholarship, I would not seek to honour thee by calling thee as others have done, Ovid, Plautus, Terence, etc., i.e., by the names of the classical poets, but would rather invite them to witness how far thou dost outshine them.' Ben does not assert that Shakespeare had 'little Latin and less Greek,' as several understand him." (Centurie of Prayse, 2nd Edit. [1879], p. 151). This may be correct, but others contend that Ben's words are to be taken not in the subjunctive but in the indicative mood. It may be so, since Ben was writing on the hypothesis that the player would be generally taken as the poet, and, naturally, had to adapt his language to that hypothesis. Either interpretation will equally well suit the sceptical case.

I have two questions:

1. Does "And though thou hadst" here mean "And even if you had" or "And although you had"—or is it impossible to tell?

2. If it is impossible to tell, were listeners and readers in Shakespearean/Jonsonian times accustomed to having to draw their own conclusions about whether the subjunctive mood or the indicative mood was intended in such cases?


This is about as silly an argument as I have ever encountered in Shakespearean scholarship — even sillier than the celebrated Impediment of Adipose.

Jonson's compliment is a fairly pretty one: “Despite your lack of a Classical Education (like Mine), your work commands the admiration of the Classical Masters.”

But the reading Ingleby urges makes no sense at all: “Even if you lacked a Classical Education (like Mine), your work would command the admiration of the Classical Masters — all the more impressive, then, that you achieved this in full possession of a Classical Education.”

Jonson was an arrogant and hot-tempered SOB, but he was not an imbecile.

  • 2
    Thanks, StoneyB. The crucial question that I had hoped a person well-informed about early 17th-century usage could answer is whether, in those days, "And though" sometimes meant "And even if." If not, the fact that "hadst" could be used either subjunctively or indicatively is irrelevant to the plain sense of the sentence. I gather from your answer that no such meaning of "And though" as the learned Dr. Ingleby ascribes to it existed in Jonson's time. – Sven Yargs Apr 16 '14 at 17:24
  • 1
    @SvenYargs And though could certainly express and even if in Shakespeare's day: "And though she be but little,, yet she is fierce." (Note by the way the 'subjunctive' there with no hint of counterfactuality!) But and though will bear that paraphrase on either reading: the question is whether it's a counterfactual if or a concessive if. – StoneyB Apr 16 '14 at 18:59
  • I appreciate your clarification of the issue. By the way, I also very much enjoyed reading E.Vale Blake's interpretation of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Häagen-Dazs. Popular Science clearly deserves its reputation as a go-to source of literary criticism! – Sven Yargs Apr 16 '14 at 19:32

And though thou hadst means "although you have", and is read the same way today as two centuries ago. I am no scholar, but I don't think it the subjunctive, but merely the indicative.

As you know, the subjunctive expresses a wish, a suggestion, a command, or a condition that is contrary to fact (today... and then?)

  • Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!
  • I would thou hadst my bones, and I thy news.
  • Would none but I might venge my cousin's death!

Johnson isn't wishing that Shakespeare had more or less learning in Latin and Greek. He's making an observation.

Here's another man's take on "And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek..."

By being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell -- a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great -- was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing -- namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis... Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence -- which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for would be not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that. - WinstonChurchill

Now, would that a fair linguist come and show to me the error of my ways.

  • Lovely quote from Churchill, where did you find it? – Mari-Lou A Apr 16 '14 at 5:25

Does "And though thou hadst" here mean "And even if you had" or "And although you had"—or is it impossible to tell?

I think it's impossible to tell: because although "hadst" is the subjunctive, it's also the indicative.

If it is impossible to tell, were listeners and readers in Shakespearean/Jonsonian times accustomed to having to draw their own conclusions about whether the subjunctive mood or the indicative mood was intended in such cases?

I suspect that it's an artifact of the poem: "Even if thou hadst" doesn't scan as well as "And though thou hadst".

Had he sought to speak more plainly, that were permitted e'en by the language of his time: yet he chose the more poetic turn of phrase.

Because it fits the verse so well, I think "the sceptic" cannot even prove whether he meant it to be ambiguous.

protected by tchrist Jan 10 at 18:36

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