|Many words in Shakespearean texts begin with a- used as a grammatical particle (an element which affects the meaning of other words but without any dictionary meaning itself). The commonest use is before a verb ending in -ing (coming, going), to which it is usually shown linked with a hyphen. Historically a form of on, it came to be used as a particle emphasizing various aspects of the verb’s durative meaning, such as the repeated nature of an action or the length of time it takes. On this basis, to be ‘a-feasting’ is, as it were, ‘to be engaged in the time-consuming activity of feasting’ (MW II.iii.80). The meaning is often reinforced by accompanying temporal adverbs, as in the Scrivener’s complaint about the time it took him to write out Lord Hastings’ indictment (R3 III.vi.7): Eleven hours I have spent to write it over...
The precedent was full as long a-doing
|For activities which are not by nature durative, such as kill, the use of a- can be particularly dramatic, as in Othello’s wish to extend the time-frame for Cassio’s death (Oth IV.i.177): ‘I would have him nine years a-killing!’ And the form can be used with various ironic overtones. Its repetitive or habitual implication can add a sense of routine or ordinariness to an activity, thereby conveying a demeaning effect when used with reference to activities which are very serious in nature: a-dying (R2 II.i.90), a-praying (Ham III.iii.73), a-hanging (KL V.iii.272).
Often the role of the particle seems little more than to add an extra syllable to make up the metre of a line. Because sleeping, for example, already implies duration, little is added semantically by the addition of a-, so that its function in Apemantus’s Grace (Tim I.ii.66) is purely metrical: Or a harlot for her weeping, Or a dog that seems a-sleeping.