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Apologies for the long title; I was led to understand it is better to be as specific as possible in titles, even if it makes them a little long. I'll edit it if people agree otherwise.

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act II, scene I, Polonius says the following to Reynaldo:

Marry, well said; very well said. Look you, sir,
Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris;
And how, and who, what means, and where they keep,
What company, at what expense; and finding
By this encompassment and drift of question
That they do know my son, come you more nearer
Than your particular demands will touch it:
Take you, as 'twere, some distant knowledge of him;
As thus, 'I know his father and his friends,
And in part him' - do you mark this, Reynaldo?

I am not sure I understand to what the 'it' refers in "Than your particular demands will touch it". My guess would be "them knowing my son" (i.e. "the fact they know my son"), but I am not sure if this is proper English. (Of course, even if it isn't, this could be explained by either it having been back then or Polonius speaking oddly, as he is wont to do).

Am I correct? Is it correct in formal English for an 'it' to refer to a verb in this way? (I believe it is not non-standard, but it sounds a little bit informal to me (again - if this is the case, this could be explained, either by the change in English since Shakespeare's times or by the fact Polonius is not always the most eloquent speaker)).

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    Do you really think Shakespeare's writing is likely to be sloppy? – BillJ Oct 17 '19 at 14:52
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    @BillJ I think Shakespeare often intentionally makes people sound absurd, sloppy or confused. Moreover, since it's been a few centuries, some things which were standard then have become odd today, and can sound even sloppy. – Laura Oct 17 '19 at 15:02
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    interpreting the likes of Shakespeare is fraught with opinion – lbf Oct 17 '19 at 15:22
  • @Laura I've changed the format to blockquote, since it is (I think) easier to read. If you need to in the future, adding two spaces at the end of a line will force a line-break. – TripeHound Oct 17 '19 at 15:41
  • @lbf Thank you, I'll keep that in mind. – Laura Oct 22 '19 at 14:53
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From my days of Shakespeare study (quite long ago, I admit), I don't have a firm answer. Polonius is giving the instruction that to be circumspect will get closer to the truth about his son Laertes -- this could be as, you suggest, the "It." However, I think it can also be parsed that "it" is what circumspection is meant to hide -- the fact that Reynaldo knows the son very well, and is specifically on a mission to find out about his behavior in Paris.

Shakespeare sounds so beautiful often, even if the meaning isn't crystal clear. It helps so much to have seasoned actors perform the words to experience how the language has both music and meaning.

  • I think the play-write took some pleasure in obscuring things that could be writ plain. Doing so does make for tastier reading and listening. – Wayfaring Stranger Nov 16 '19 at 22:10
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Polonius' previous line is:

You shall do marvelously wisely,
good Reynaldo,
Before you visit him, to make
inquire
Of his behavior.

"It" refers to his son's behavior. Polonius is asking Reynaldo to ask around about Danish people in Paris, being vague about who in particular he wants to know about or how he knows of him. In doing so, Polonius hopes Reynaldo will form a better picture of Polonius' son.

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The antecedent of it is the clause come you nearer, or rather the infinitive to come nearer implied by that clause.

Thouch here means

To get or go as far as; to reach, attain.---OED, II.13.a


Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris; And how, and who, what means, and where they keep, What company, at what expense; and finding By this encompassment and drift of question That they do know my son, come you more nearer Than your particular demands will touch it: Take you, as 'twere, some distant knowledge of him;

Note that ‘demand’ here just means question. (Compare with French.)

The idea is that the 2nd person should first ask around, and subsequently establish a direct acquaintance, thus coming nearer than he is able (can ‘touch it’) by his questions alone.

I take it that ‘distant knowledge’ means distant acquaintance.

Note that I am not familiar with the context and may be wrong.

  • Can 'it' refer to a clause, though? Can't it only refer to a noun? – Laura Dec 16 '19 at 20:17
  • @Laura, it may help to see it as a replacement of to come near. compare to: come as near as you can manage it. – Toothrot Dec 16 '19 at 22:02
  • @Laura, so strictly it doesn't refer to the clause but to an infinitive implied by the clause. – Toothrot Dec 16 '19 at 22:06
  • I see. That's a plausible explanation, thank you. To be honest, "Come as near as you can manage it" sounds a bit awkward to me, but I can imagine someone saying that. Perhaps this use of 'it' used to be more popular? – Laura Dec 17 '19 at 9:30
  • @Laura, it's unusual; i only mentioned it as something more readily intelligible than touch it. i would guess this kind of contruction has been more popular. – Toothrot Dec 17 '19 at 9:44

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