The following is taken from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet. I'd like to know why the plural noun overthrows takes the third-person singular auxiliary doth.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.

  • Doth, which is justified by some on the grounds that it is the old southern plural in -eth, by others as an instance of the singular verb where the sense of the subject is collective. Sep 10 '20 at 6:08
  • If you could find some examples of "doth" as a plural auxiliary, you should post an answer.
    – Apollyon
    Sep 10 '20 at 7:27
  • 1
    More generally, such seeming disagreements in number are quite common in Shakespeare: e.g., Two Gentlemen of Verona 2.4.70: "far behind his worth / Comes all the praises that I here bestow." E. A. Abbott's, A Shakespearean Grammar, Victorian in date, appears still to be standard authority for this point, to judge from recent Arden editions. Sep 11 '20 at 15:16

The lines contain an example of what linguists sometimes call false concord. In the introduction to the third chapter of The Language of Shakespeare (André Deutsch, 1976), G. L. Brook writes,

Many of the differences between Elizabethan syntax and that of the present day can be explained if we remember that the Elizabethans preferred vigour to logic. (…) Shakespeare was writing for an audience, not a reader, and hence such features as false concord and mixed constructions are common in the First Folio, which reflects the familiar and spontaneous style of the spoken language.

Brook then devotes two pages to potential causes of false concord (page 65), one of which is the influence of regional dialects.

In the context of the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, it makes sense to treat "overthrows", in the sense of "downfall", as logically singular, even though it is plural in form.

In his edition of Romeo and Juliet (The New Cambridge Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1984), G. Blakemore Evans provides the following gloss for "doth" based on E. A. Abbott's A Shakespearian Grammar (1869):

Southern form of third per. plur., still commonly used in Elizabethan English (Abbott 334).

Regardless of which explanation one accepts, false concord is not unusual in Shakespeare.

  • 'Collective nouns' are nouns representing a collection / set. A pride of lions. // A herd of cattle. // A family [close relatives, ie certain people] // Staff [of a company / organisation etc, ie certain people]. 'Overthrows' seems not to be such a noun. It may (like data, confetti) be a noun plural in form but given singular concord to emphasise coherence of individual events. Aug 8 at 14:08
  • That's not the only or even general sense of the term. Seems that your restricted sense is common in British & continental English education, though the UK officially seems to prefer group noun. It's very clear from the provided quote, however, that is not the way it is being used by Tsundoku's sources (manners) and that's fine. The general point stands.
    – lly
    Aug 8 at 14:17

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