Are "As I am man" and "As I am woman" in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, II, 2 examples of indefinite article omission or not?

This question is (e)specially directed towards those familiar with Shakespearean English.

Voilà Viola's soliloquy in Act II Scene 2:

...How will this fadge? my master loves her dearly;
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love;
As I am woman,—now alas the day!—
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!
O time! thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me to untie!

Source 1 and Source 2, which are identical.

Viola, of course, is a young woman dressed as and pretending to be a young man (called Cesario); she has fallen in love with her master (Orsino); who is already in love with Olivia, and he sends Viola (as Cesario) to court her on his behalf; naturally, Olivia falls in love with Viola (as Cesario), who describes herself as "poor monster" because she is, sort of, both (a) man and (a) woman.

It is a feature of Shakespeare's English, and one supposes that of Early Modern English, that the indefinite article is sometimes (or in some cases, usually) 'omitted' in many places where we would use it today. This includes in predicate position, when the (count) noun refers to the noun as a class, after 'ever' and 'never', and so forth. See the online Shakespearean Grammar. Other sources that indicate and exemplify this include A grammar of Shakespeare's language, A Shakespeare grammar, and, much less useful, Shakespeare's grammar. I have also consulted several annotated editions of Twelfth Night but they have been no help.

The phenomenon is said to occur in Twelfth Night in Act IV, Scene 2:

Malvolio: Sir Topas, never was ^ man thus wronged: good Sir
Topas, do not think I am mad: they have laid me
here in hideous darkness.


Malvolio: I say, this house is as dark as ignorance, though
ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say, there
was never ^ man thus abused
. I am no more mad than you
are: make the trial of it in any constant question.

The symbol ^ indicates that the indefinite article has been omitted.

The author also happens to use the indefinite article in the same scene:

Malvolio: Fool, there was never a man so notoriously abused: I
am as well in my wits, fool, as thou art.

and also in Twelfth Night in such lines as I am ^ true knight (II, 3) and He is ^ knight (III, 4). I prefer not to include line numbers since they differ from version to version.

  • 1
    One must remember that this is, in essence, poetry, and the words represented are purported to be colloquial speech. One must be careful of trying to read too much into it.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 2:23
  • It might be that the article is lacking just for metrical reasons.
    – rogermue
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 15:32
  • @rogermue Of course, but the question still stands, as this omission (or not) also occurs in prose portions of Shakespeare's plays
    – GoDucks
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 15:38

6 Answers 6


I think there is a clue to this just a little farther in the passage itself, where the speaker goes on to mention his "state"... and I think it is in the notion of "statehood" that these expressions (and perhaps their understanding) are to be grounded.

That is, the speaker is speaking from the state of not just being a man, but man, as in ALL men, and further, ALL (of) "man", that is, a state of mind not just identifying with all the members of that given set, but to represent them singularly, collectively, and superlatively (cf. expressions like "I am woman, hear me roar!").

Additionally, there is an allusion to "man" being used here as an abstraction, not just a concrete representative of same, or all of them, but the whole idea of being a man (or woman, later), as in expressions like "I am VENGEANCE," or similar identifications with abstractions of concrete things, or abstract concepts themselves. This identification-with-the-concept is what gives the speaker the presumed mandate to speak on that entire concept's behalf, as he indeed goes on to do throughout the quoted passage.

However, as the somewhat more modern examples above suggest, I am not sure this is so much a feature of Shakespearean English, but rather, that Shakespeare's prose simply uses more of this forceful stuff. Indeed, I would bet you a shirt frill that if H.G. Wells dumped you in ye local publick house in Merry Ole Stratford-Upon-Avon, you'd be hard pressed to hear any of the locals express such prose while quaffing their brews.

But that, of course, is pure speculation on my part. :o)


I think that Shakespeare has used "man" and "woman" as adjectives in her speech. If we were to substitute the words "male" and "female" and ask ourselves are they nouns or adjectives I think most of us would say they were adjectives. If they are adjectives then no article is required and so there's no omission.

  • I'm not sure the use of adjective could be the reason, as when "I am ^ true knight" (II, 3) the word "true" is adjective...
    – DAVE
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 16:02

It might be that the article is lacking just for metrical reasons. I discover that in "as I am man" actually every syllable is stressed or can be stressed when spoken slowly. So these four words have a strong emphasis. An indefinite article would prevent this particular effect. The four stressed syllables have the same effect as printed in bold type. The same is true for "as I am woman".

Whether Shakespeare created this metrical particularity consciously one can't say. But in the two word groups the metrical pattern is changed. It may also be that Shakespeare, the sorcerer with words, had such tricks unconsciouly at hand.

  • It could be ! However, during Elizabethan period, English was not yet so framed & calibrated as we expect it should be now... That's why the contributions of Shakespeare & Marlowe show us a plasticity we must always have in mind ; as the rules of a language are merely comprehension & custom.
    – DAVE
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 16:18

I love W.Sh. except Titus Andronicus ; but I remember how painfull it was to learn... However, W. Sh. wrote for us in a time when English was still to epure or define. So the form of his expression seems to us archaic, at least in the US.

"As I am man" is purely & simply direct as we'd have now in : "As I am man to decide !" W. Sh. was free to show us we must till be. "As she is beast enough to be so cruel..." "He is not man enough..." (That's a r'n'b song)

Malvolio could have said : "Fool, there was never ^ man so notoriously abused !"

We could also have in declamatory style : "He is king of the land ; he Knight of his realm has power on human form."

W. Sh. is our Total master by ^full deconstruction & wild invitivity of our language to allow us to shape as freemen ^expression we give ^ourselves. I believe The Storm shows that...


To add back in the Elizabethan 'otherness' that some commenters seem to be seeking, there seems to me an epic quality to the archetypal state of Man/Woman(hood)referred to here, as opposed to 'a man' as a reified and contingent individual. The pre Shakespearean religious inflection of society and its expression in theatre (passion plays for example) significantly dealt in archetypes, the main mortal hero an Everyman confronting archetypal forces like the seven deadly sins or Love, Hope, Charity, etc, Good, Evil, and other epic Principles, where the drama was the battle for the soul of man. Or if of 'a man' he represented the others. The individual was yet to emerge as the dominant social unit until the Shakespearean age wrangled the psyche and its interior conflicts into being. In this sense Man/Woman appear in that age of innovation, both as archetypes (uncountable abstract nouns on epic scale) and, in distinction, as an individual man or woman. A rhetorician could elaborate on the term for this device, and maybe there is still an answer to come on what definitive part of speech this is.
Grammatically the distinction I think CAN be understood by ricky's uncountable noun (milk coffee chicken liberty) versus the countable noun. I would only add the suggestion that there are socio-historical and ontological implications here in Shakespeare's usage that in Ricky's domestic examples are less compelling. But i think such usage though more frequent then, is still relevant in our time in great rhetorical speeches (Martin Luther King, etc). They sit alongside words like: Mankind, Womankind, God, Country, Liberty, Humanity, Power, and crop up in songs like Helen Reddy's lyrics "I am Woman, Hear me Roar" and others.


Nouns can be countable and uncountable. They can also be both:

[incountable, no article, always singular] That's a whole lot of coffee you're ordering.

[countable] Are you going down to the cafeteria? Could you get me a coffee?

Another example:

[countable, plural] Counting your chickens before they're hatched is uncouth.

[uncountable, no article, always singular] I had chicken for dinner.

Less familiar, but perfectly understandable, I hope:

"Why are you hiding inside?"
"There's a tiger sitting on my porch."
"It's not a fully grown tiger. It's no bigger than a dog."
"Well, if you ask me, that's still a pretty serious amount of tiger to contend with."
"It's a pet tiger. It only eats chicken."
"From what I've heard, tigers have no problem eating man for lunch."

With all of the above in mind, take another look at your examples:

As I am man

Another (longer, less poetic, and much less forceful) way of putting it would be "As I am made of the [uncountable] stuff men are made of."

As I am woman


Never was man thus wronged

Compare this one with:

"You said we were going to have chicken for dinner."
"That's right."
"And this is it."
"Yep." "Did you make it yourself?"
"Yeah, uh-huh." "It's disgusting. You're the only person in history who can do this to chicken." [uncountable, always singular, no article]


there was never a man so notoriously abused

Singular, countable, an indefinite article required.

ADDENDUM (for ye of little faith):

Then the Whale stood up on his tail and said:
'I'm hungry.'
And the small 'Stute Fish said in a small 'stute voice:
'Noble and generous Cetacean, have you ever tasted Man?'
(from Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling)

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (from Genesis, KJV)

"The fool!" said Father Wolf. "To begin a night's work with that noise! Does he think that our buck are like his fat Waingunga bullocks?"
"H'sh. It is neither bullock nor buck he hunts to-night," said Mother Wolf. "It is Man." (from The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling)

Yet when they ask'd her for her depositions,
No sort of explanation could be had,
Save that her duty both to man and God
Required this conduct (which seem'd very odd).
(from Don Juan, by Lord Byron)

Man 's a phenomenon, one knows not what,
And wonderful beyond all wondrous measure;
'T is pity though, in this sublime world, that
Pleasure 's a sin, and sometimes sin 's a pleasure;
(from Don Juan, by Lord Byron)

And they will lead you through the dark to the widest, deepest river of wealth ever known to man. (from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut)

  • 1
    First, comparing man with coffee and chicken is not a very good idea. It is obviously possible to make many (or any) countable nouns into uncountable ones this way, but enough context has to be provided. Second, contradicting your last sentences, the OP has already quoted two examples of (the countable) man used without any article by Shakespeare. Third, this question is about the specific language of Shakespeare; the OP has consulted Shakespeare grammar books, not just any grammar; and we should confine our scope of research to Shakespeare's works, and maybe his contemporaries'.
    – Færd
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 3:33
  • All that said, I donno, but maybe there's a point in this comment above.
    – Færd
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 3:35
  • @Fard: The group also includes tiger, chief. ... Are you saying that the word man without an article can only be found in Shakespeare, or what the hell are you saying? And, no, this has nothing to do with poetry per se.
    – Ricky
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 3:57
  • 1
    My main point was that you shouldn't interpret a four-century-old text solely based on your present-time understanding of the language.
    – Færd
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 4:15
  • 1
    All the examples in the addendum fall under the definition 2.1 of 'man', here. You haven't proved anything yet about the specific usage of the words 'man' and 'woman' in the Original Post.
    – Færd
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 11:48

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