Does He Or Didn't He?

Quick question for y’all. I’ve dug one of my old projects out of mothballs where I look at how people ask Shakespeare questions. And something’s come up that intrigues me. When speaking of “Shakespeare”, do you use present or past tense? In other words, would you be more likely to ask
Why did Shakespeare use iambic pentameter?
Why does Shakespeare use iambic pentameter?
From my research, the split seems to be fairly even. As a language geek it bugs me because technically only one is supposed to be correct – the past tense one. The man’s dead, after all, he’s not still using iambic pentameter.
The problem goes back to that ambiguity that’s come to be associated with the word. When you say Shakespeare are you referring to the man, or to the body of work? It’s sort of funny that when people speak of him being timeless, they really have just no idea how far that idea goes. In situations like this we’ve essentially made the man himself immortal, taking the works to be something we have in the present day while still describing them as if Shakespeare’s right here with us, having just written them.

5 thoughts on “Does He Or Didn't He?

  1. Interesting. Fictional events are supposed to be described in the present tense, no? I find I often extend this formation to literary techniques themselves, saying, for example "Hemingway uses a sparse, metaphor-starved style to describe his characters as they face the struggles of daily existence." Isn't that generally the format for literary criticism, whether or not the author is alive. Maybe it boils down to the way Shakespeare is thought of as both a literary figure and a historical figure. After all, we'd talk about Winston Churchill leading Britain in past tense but Dorothy Sayers using personification in present tense. Does this make sense? Or am I just rambling?

  2. My favorite bizarre Shakespeare question was asked by my fifteen year-old brother, who, as I began my summary of Titus with "Titus Andronicus returns to Rome from battling the Goths…" asked, "What, both of them?" Turns out, he believed that Titus was two characters, Titus AND Ronicus. I was briefly flabbergasted. After I cleared up that confusion, though, he understood the plot much better.

    I think you're right, though, that both those questions are possible, and have different meanings. I think the second is especially interesting: how did Iambic Pentameter become the dominant meter for early modern drama? It wasn't always: morality plays and most other medieval dramas was written in rhymed couplets with irregular meter, right? (Someone correct me if I'm wrong, I've only read Everyman). Iambic pentameter only started with Christopher Marlowe.

  3. Good point, Alexi. When I said the right one is the past tense one I was speaking entirely from a general, logical perspective – the man's dead, he's not doing anything in the present tense anymore.

    But you're right, I think you're saying more accurately what I was trying to say – even with your Hemingway example, we use the author's name when we really speak of the work itself, rather than the man.

    Which, I suppose, puts an interesting spin on my first example. "Why does Shakespeare use iambic pentameter?" could be a discussion of why, for the sake of the play, he chooses to use it here and here but not there. "Why did Shakespeare use iambic pentameter?" could then be a discussion of why that was his particular favorite form of expression over some other -ic -meter.

    Although given the quality of questions people ask, and the quality of the grammar they use, I don't think that much thought goes into it. I also occasionally see questions like "Why does Romeo and Juliet kill themselves" and it makes me go fetal for a few minutes.

  4. I think I refer to him in the present tense a lot. I tend to think of him as alive in his work, or actually a person somehow literally embodied in his work.. It exists; so does he. It's alive, so is he.

    This guy said it best:

    "Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe,
    And art alive still, while thy Booke do live,
    And we have wits to read, and praise to give."
    Ben Jonson

  5. Iambic pentameter goes all the way back to Chaucer in the 14th century, and was then poorly done until improved by Wyatt in the early 16th century. Thomas Kyd also used it and probably preceded Marlowe with "The Spanish Tragedy" in the late 1580's, one of the first great English Renaissance dramas.
    I think iambic pentameter dominated because it worked so well, although, for the most part, the playwrights wrote in both verse and prose (Richard II is an unusual example of a play written completely in verse).

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