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I'm wondering about the grammatical structure of a stage direction "Enter Hamlet". Is "Enter" in the imperative mood or the present subjunctive mood? If it is in the imperative mood, who is the person that receives the command? The actor who plays Hamlet or the director who directs the play?

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Such stage directions are really a puzzle.

I wouldn't see "enter" as in "Enter Hamlet" as an imperative or a subjunctive. That makes no sense. Stage directions in Latin use normal indicative forms such as intrat, intrant, exit, exeunt. I should say "enter" in "Enter Hamlet" is an indicative form with the speciality that the third person singular has no -s, whatever may be the reason for this lack of -s.

I've had a look at the stage directions in act one, scene one of Hamlet on Shakespeare Online, and found:

Francisco at his post. Enter to him Bernardo
Enter Horatio and Marcellus
Exit
Enter Ghost
Exit Ghost
Re-enter Ghost
Cock crows
Exeunt.

Somehow it seems there is a strong influence of Latin stage directions. Sometimes we have the real Latin forms as in exeunt (they exit). Even the position of the person after the verb to put emphasis on the person who enters or exits may be seen as Latin influence. Nevertheless the lacking of -s is a curious thing.

  • Interesting that OED has exeunt (only as a stage direction) as a later replacement for the plural(ish) exeant from exeat: a 3rd person singular present subjective - whatever that is. Exuent is listed as 3rd person plural present indicative. – Frank Sep 13 '14 at 8:58
  • One would perhaps expect 'Crow cock' from the point of view of consistency. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 13 '14 at 8:58
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    @Frank Fairly sure that's supposed to be subjunctive, not subjective (not sure if that was your typo or the OED’s). The third person of Latin subjunctives is often used as jussives or hortatives, so exea(n)t means “Let him/them go out”. Exit/exeunt, on the other hand, is just an indicative and means, “He/they go(es) out”. I suppose once exit had become a regular verb in English, the stage direction “Exit X” was reanalysed (partly) as just the base form of a verb followed by its subject, rather than the inflected Latin form it really is. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 13 '14 at 9:30
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, my mistake, subjunctive it is. – Frank Sep 13 '14 at 9:43
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    It's a great point. It's not unlike figuring out the grammar behind advertising headlines! – Fattie Sep 13 '14 at 10:40

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