In the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, in order to show how punctuation changes meaning and can be used for jokes, it says:

Instead of “What would you with the king?” you can have someone say in Marlowe’s Edward II, “What? Would you? With the king?"

I understand the innuendo but I don't understand the sentence in bold. It sounds like there is a word missing? Or is it grammatically correct and I'm missing something here? Thanks

  • 15
    The sentence in bold is 400 years old and thus it's not an English sentence. Marlowe (and Shakespeare) spoke Early Modern English, a rather different language with quite different syntax from our current Modern English. So it's not surprising that it sounds to you like a word's missing. Deletion rules have changed a lot in 400 years, as have movement and insertion rules. See here for a recent list of English syntactic rules. Feb 12, 2019 at 18:04
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    I would argue that it is an English sentence. The construct is rarely used these days, but still occurs. Consider the (still taught) nursery rhyme about the royalty visiting feline: Pussycat pussycat, where have you been?" // "I've been up to London to visit the Queen." // "Pussycat pussycat, what did you there?" // "I frightened a little mouse under her chair"
    – mcalex
    Feb 13, 2019 at 3:19
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    @mcalex: Your example is a bit different: yours is merely an example of direct inversion without do-support ("I did something interesting there" --> "what interesting thing did you there?"), whereas the OP's is also an example of "would" with a direct object instead of a bare infinitive phrase. A more recent example would be Lord Byron's "Come hither, child; I would a word with you." Both are archaic, but the OP's example is more archaic than yours.
    – ruakh
    Feb 13, 2019 at 23:05
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    @mcalex, That nursery rhyme could be almost as old as Shakespeare. Feb 13, 2019 at 23:44
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    @mcalex: Occasional surviving examples in songs don’t mean that a construction is still part of the living language. Your “what did you there?” example is already pretty marginal — I guess most native speakers can understand it in context, but if they weren’t primed for an archaic construction, they’d think there was a word missing. The “what would you with the king?” is much more marginal still: I don’t think most native speakers would understand it even with context, let alone find it natural.
    – PLL
    Feb 14, 2019 at 15:32

4 Answers 4


"What would you with the king?" is an archaic construct (but of course common in Marlowe's time), meaning "what do you want with the king?", or "what is your reason for wanting to talk to the king?"

  • 6
    Funnily enough in Dutch and probably some other Germanic languages this sentence would still very much sound the same. "Wat wil je van de koning?" could literally be translated into "What will you from the king?" but actually means "What do you want from the king?" Similarly, "Wat wil je met de koning" would be closer to the actual quote "What do you want WITH the king?" but we wouldn't quite say it like that. Feb 13, 2019 at 5:28
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    Not all THAT archaic. It's perfectly understandable, if a little odd, to anyone who's done much reading.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 14, 2019 at 0:08
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    @jamesqf does archaic mean not understandable though? I don't think that being understandable means it isn't archaic, but I honestly don't know. I mean, I understand Beowulf and the Poetic Edas, but they're pretty old Feb 15, 2019 at 8:40
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    @jamesqf on looking it up, archaic means: "very old or old-fashioned" or "(of a word or a style of language) no longer in everyday use but sometimes used to impart an old-fashioned flavor." Nothing about whether it can be understood. Feb 15, 2019 at 8:43
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    @jamesqf Well evidently not, since I didn't understand it. What you meant was: "to anyone who's done much reading of Medieval English literature". And of course it's archaic, to anyone who understands the definition of archaic.
    – MaxS
    Feb 15, 2019 at 18:58

"Would" is a form of "will". In current English, "will" and "would" are almost always used with another verb to indicate future or potential action. That's why you're expecting another word. But in Marlowe's time it was common to use "will" as a stand-alone verb meaning "to wish or desire", and "would" as its subjunctive. So "what would you?" has a meaning similar to "what do you want?" (only softer) or "what would you like to do?"

  • 1
    "Will" (noun) still stands for intent or desire. "What is your will with the king" would be reasonable. Or "what will do you have with the king?" But of course, that is direct first person, OP's quote is not, necessitating "would". Feb 13, 2019 at 0:05
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    @Harper Not quite; 'will' with that meaning can be used as a verb, still used today in a related context - willing property to someone. See this definition for example, which confirms the answer's belief that it was a verb as well with the third definition.
    – Joe
    Feb 13, 2019 at 15:42
  • @hobbs Thanks that helped. So what is the difference between "what would you?" and "what will you?"
    – MaxS
    Feb 15, 2019 at 19:08
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    @MaxS: Sounds like a new question to me. But FWIW: "would" is subjunctive, so it connotes some kind of "if" — some conditionality. "What would you with the king?" indicates that you're seeking an audience hoping to get your way with him. "What will you with the king?" indicates perhaps that you've stormed the throne room and are about to have your way with him. Feb 17, 2019 at 14:55

Christopher Marlowe lived between 1564 and 1593, so it is not to be expected that his English is entirely our English.

In his play Edward the Second, the following exchange takes place.

Young Mortimer. Cease to lament, and tell us where’s the king?
Queen Isabella. What would you with the king? Is’t him you seek?

From which it is readily seen that the meaning is equivalent to 'what do you want the king for?'

  • 9
    Interestingly, you can't insert “What? Would you? With the king?" in there and have it make sense in context.
    – Mr Lister
    Feb 13, 2019 at 11:15
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    @MrLister isn't that the whole point? The addition of the punctuation changes the meaning.
    – Rich
    Feb 15, 2019 at 10:54
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    @Rich Yes, and the quote by the OP suggests that changing the punctuation and the meaning of the text can be used for comic effect; but there is no comic effect here; it doesn't fit in the conversation. (It would've be different if e.g. the previous line had mentioned that Mortimer needed to do something.)
    – Mr Lister
    Feb 15, 2019 at 12:02
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    @MrLister quoting things out of context often also changes their meaning. There are lots of famous Shakespeare quotes that illustrate this.
    – phoog
    Feb 16, 2019 at 9:31

The same construction can be seen at about the same time in 1611 in the English translation (Authorised King James Version) of Joshua 15:18 :

And it came to pass, as she came unto him, that she moved him to ask of her father a field: and she dismounted from her mule; and Caleb said unto her, What wouldest thou?

This quote is actually the 1769 rendering, the original 1611 version is :

And it came to passe as shee came vnto him, that she moued him to aske of her father a field, and she lighted off her asse; and Caleb said vnto her, What wouldest thou?

In context, it becomes clear that Caleb's daughter has a request about irrigation, having been granted land but no springs.

So, again, the meaning is clear - What is it that you wish ?

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