Here's from Hamlet, Act 1. Scene 2


Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,

A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,

To reason most absurd; whose common theme

Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,

From the first corse till he that died to-day,

'This must be so.'

I'm wondering about the antecedent of "whose". Is it "heaven", "nature" or "reason" or all of them? It seems to me that it's all of them because of the word "common". However, "who still hath cried" suggests that it's singular.

  • I'd go with reason [most absurd], since it's easy enough to anthropomorphize that as "saying" (or at least, reflecting the sentiment) "This must be so". I don't see how any of those faults could do that. Oct 6, 2014 at 20:20
  • @FumbleFingers How do you think about the word "common"? It seems to suggest that the antecedent is plural. Oct 6, 2014 at 20:29
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    I dunno - I think it becomes a bit pointless trying to analyse the exact syntax of such archaic/poetic text to that level. Can you honestly say it makes any significant difference to the overall meaning whichever interpretation you place on it? Personally, I struggled more with corse (which I've eventually decided must mean corpse, since course doesn't exactly work for me). Oct 6, 2014 at 20:38
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    Perhaps I should have said poetic/literary/archaic, since it's the former characteristic(s) that primarily make this not really a useful exercise for ELU (which is not Linguistics, btw). I'm not necessarily saying yours is a Lit Crit question (I assume you're not struggling with the effective net total meaning of the passage). But the complete absence of any votes thus far does suggest it's at best a "marginal" question for this site. Oct 8, 2014 at 13:33
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    Although linguistics was part of my degree course 40 years ago, and I've been active on the SO.linguistics site for over three years, I'm not a linguist by any stretch of the imagination. But I wasn't suggesting this question would be a better fit there (it would probably either be closed, or migrated to ELU). I just mentioned it in case you were unaware of the existence of the site. Oct 9, 2014 at 13:29

1 Answer 1


I think common here should not be read as in common with someone but as normal, standard as in common man:

It is a fault against heaven, the dead and to nature, but most absurdly it is a fault to reason. For reason has as a standard theme (reason tells us that it is common, standard) that fathers die (they tend to die before their sons, it is when sons die first that real tragedy happens!)

That's why reason has always cried, from the first corpse till the one that died only today: this is how it must be.

  • Minor typo: should
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 12, 2014 at 6:53

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