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This sentence appears in Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet':

Juliet: My ears have yet drunk a hundred words, Of thy tone's uttering, and yet I know the sound. Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague? Romeo: Neither, fair maid, if either thee dislike.

If 'either' is the subject, then why is the verb form 'dislike', not 'disliketh'? 'Thee' cannot be the subject here since the subjective form should be 'thou'.

Can anyone tell me the grammar behind this?

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    @sumelic The archaic third person singular of the verb 'like' is 'liketh'. The second person singular is 'likest'. – Li Xinghe Sep 26 '17 at 4:04
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    @LiXinghe Only in the indicative is the third-person singular marked; in the subjunctive, it is not. – tchrist Sep 26 '17 at 4:31
  • @tchrist Yes, that's the answer I guessed before. But I couldn't find any reason why it is the subjunctive here. – Li Xinghe Sep 26 '17 at 4:34
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Caveat: I am not a Shakespeare scholar or any kind of expert on the language of this period. I feel fairly confident about my explanation in this post of the use of "thee", but not totally confident about my explanation of the use of "dislike".

The use of thee instead of thou: an old, now-archaic construction with the verb "(dis)like"

You are certainly correct about "thee" being in a non-nominative case, rather than the nominative case form "thou" that we would expect for the subject of a sentence.

However, the meaning does seem to be "if you dislike either" or "if either displeases you". We can tell this from the context, and this interpretation is also supported by the Oxford English Dictionary's entry on "like", which says that in the past, it could be used

. trans. To please, to be pleasing or agreeable to, to suit (someone). Now arch. Originally with dative. In early use also intr. with to, of, or till.

So, the usage of "like" has changed: we used to be able to say things like "it liketh me" or "me liketh it" to mean "I like it." Sebastian Redl left a comment pointing out that Shakespeare does use the word "like" in the modern way in many places.

But I think there are also other examples of the old-fashioned construction being used in Shakespeare's work. I searched "Open Source Shakespeare" and found these (not a comprehensive list):

  • Claudius. It likes us well; / And at our more consider'd time we'll read, / Answer, and think upon this business. (Hamlet, II, 2, 1173-75)

  • Hamlet. This likes me well. These foils have all a length? (Hamlet, V, 2, 3907)

  • Sir Thomas Erpingham. Not so, my liege: this lodging likes me better, / Since I may say 'Now lie I like a king.' (Henry V, IV, 1, 1859-60)

  • Cassio. I'll do't; but it dislikes me. (Othello, II, 3, 1178)

My guess is that it may have been a construction that was on its way out already in Shakespeare's time (like the use of "thou" and "thee"), so he used it inconsistently, and more often in passages with other somewhat old-fashioned language. I actually can't find any use of "liketh" or "disliketh" in Shakespeare: these forms may have already been relatively archaic in his time. I believe the use of -(e)th instead of -(e)s at this point was more common for the auxiliaries "doth" and "hath" than for ordinary verbs. (For comparison, Shakespeare did use the word "wanteth", but not very frequently: Open Source Shakespeare turns up only six examples of wanteth compared to around 33 examples of wants as a verb. It seems possible that some of Shakespeare's use of -eth on non-auxiliary verbs was often motivated by considerations of scansion, as mentioned in Tim Lymington's answer and Peter Shor's comment below it.)

This is actually, I believe, a sort of construction that exists across the Germanic languages, and there are various ways to interpret it. ("Methinks" is another example.) The OED entry suggests that it is a transitive verb taking a dative object; however, in languages like Icelandic, similar verbs are analyzed by some linguists as having what is called a "quirky subject" that is not in the nominative case, but that nevertheless plays the syntactic role of a subject (although it does not trigger agreement on the verb: the verb agrees with the noun phrase in the nominative case). The "quirky subject" analysis is fairly complicated, and also disputed, so I don't think I can explain it any better than that.

Actually, identifying the subject is a bit immaterial. Whatever we analyze as being the syntactic subject, we can infer that the noun phrase "either" in this clause must be in the nominative case, and so by all accounts the verb should therefore agree with "either", which is third-person singular.

The use of dislike instead of dislikes: I think it's subjunctive

The use of "dislike" rather than "disliketh" or "dislikes" seems to me like it must be an example of the present subjunctive, which was formerly possible in this kind of "present-conditional" clause. E.g. it's analoguous to the archaic use of expressions like "if it be..." rather than "if it is...." More examples of this construction are mentioned in the answer to the following question: How to interpret “if it be” grammatically?

From Shakespeare specifically, here's one example that I think seems similar:

  • Helena. [...] I am undone: there is no living, none, / 85 If Bertram be away. (All's Well That Ends Well, I, 1, 85-86)

So the overall structure of "if either thee dislike" would be "[nominative 3rd-person singular NP] [non-nominative 2nd-person singular NP] ["present subjunctive" verb]". An updated version with different words but a similar kind of word order and verb-agreement pattern would be "if either you displease" (= "if either displeases you", in a version with entirely modern grammar).

| improve this answer | |
  • There are three occurrences of "like" in the play that are not a comparison: in the sentence in question as part of "dislike", in Act 4 Scene 1 by the Friar: "Uneven is the course; I like it not.", and in Act 3 Scene 4 by Capulet: "Will you be ready? do you like this haste?". Given that the latter two unambiguously use the modern meaning, I find it unlikely that the archaic meaning was used here. – Sebastian Redl Sep 26 '17 at 10:57
  • Excellent edit, you have my upvote. – Sebastian Redl Sep 26 '17 at 18:26
  • @SebastianRedl, are those other “like”s in prose passages? I once searched through a play (Henry V maybe) for auxiliary use of ‘do’, and found it frequently in prose, never in verse; so maybe the verse passages are more conservative. – Anton Sherwood Mar 10 '19 at 16:43
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It is also possible that Shakespeare is using 'either' as a plural, from which 'dislike' would be appropriate. The OED lists under either 2b 'with plural concord' with the quote 'Either of them have treated me ...'. This is an obsolete usage, however, with the quote being from 1647, a few decades after Shakespeare's death.

| improve this answer | |
  • I am afraid that this is not so convincing an explanation. In 'The Phoenix and Turtle', Shakespeare wrote 'So between them love did shine That the Turtle saw his right Flaming in the Phoenix' sight: Either was the other's mine. ' Here clearly 'either' was used as a pronoun, but the form was singular. So it seemed that Shakespeare himself was personally used to concording 'either' with a singular verb form. – Li Xinghe Sep 26 '17 at 8:31
  • It is entirely possible either could have been used in both a singular and plural sense by the same person in the same period. – JDF Sep 28 '17 at 9:09
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Consider the possibility that it is simply a concession to the scansion. If thou dislikest either (the normal form) would be unrecognisable prosody; even if either dislikest thee would have a surplus syllable which would trip up an actor trying to speak it as poetry. Nowadays it would be possible to say if either you dislike, but to Shakespeare that would be a plural. Probably better to cut off the offending two letters and hope that nobody notices, at least for the next four hundred years.

| improve this answer | |
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    + for bringing up the scansion as a possible motivation for the use of this wording and form, but I don't think it's entirely accurate to say that "you" would have been plural to Shakespeare. In his time, the use of "you" to refer to one person as a "V"-type second-person pronoun (approximately but not exactly "formal") was well established, and it had made some headway even in "informal" or intimate contexts: bardweb.net/content/thou.html – herisson Sep 26 '17 at 19:48
  • If Shakespeare didn't want an extra syllable and wanted to use the indicative, he would have said if either thee dislikes. He alternated between -eth and -s to make lines scan. From the sonnets: That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows and Save that my soul's imaginary sight // Presents thy shadow to my sightless view, – Peter Shor Sep 27 '17 at 15:31

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