Verb forms

Two present-tense verb-endings from Middle English are still to be found in the Early Modern period: -est for the 2nd person singular following thou (as in thou goest); and -th or -eth for the 3rd person singular (as in she goeth). Both were reducing in frequency, and in due course the -est form would disappear (modern: you go), and the -(e)th form be entirely replaced by -s (modern: she goes).
In Shakespearian English, the verbs which most commonly take the ending are hath (has), doth (does), and saith (says). The factors governing the choice of this ending are not entirely understood. Context is important: -(e)th is used in many formal proclamations, and it is often found in stage directions;
but there are some curious mixtures (‘Enter Douglas; he fighteth with Falstaff, who falls down as if he were dead’, 1H4 V.iv.76). The demands of the metre are also important, -eth giving the poet the option of an extra syllable: a rhythmical contrast with the same verb can be seen at the beginning of Cleon’s speech, ‘Who wanteth food and will not say he wants it’ (Per I.iv.11). The most distinctive verbs, both in Shakespearian and in modern English, are be, have, do, and the set of auxiliary verbs known as the modals, such as can, may, would, and shall. The chief differences between then and now are shown below.


Item Modern Description Example
art are 2nd person singular, present tense MND III.i.140 Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful
beest, be’st be 2nd person singular, present tense [usually in a clause beginning with if]; also a dialect usage H5 V.ii.201 If ever thou beest mine
be are 3rd person plural, present tense KL I.v.31 Be my horses ready?
been are 3rd person plural, present tense [archaic] Per Chorus.II.28 when men been
wast were 2nd person singular, past tense RJ II.iv.74 Thou wast never with me [Q wert]
wert were 2nd person singular, past tense 2H4 III.ii.162 I would thou wert a man’s tailor


Item Modern Description Example
ha’ have >> ELISION
hast have 2nd person singular, present tense Tem I.i.19 remember whom thou hast aboard
hath has 3rd person singular, present tense MW III.iv.100 A kind heart he hath
hadst had 2nd person singular, past tense AW V.iii.281 where thou hadst this ring


Item Modern Description Example
dost do 2nd person singular, present tense TN III.iv.31 Why dost thou smile so
doth does 3rd person singular, present tense 1H4 III.iii.92 How doth thy husband?
didst did 2nd person singular, past tense TS induction.1.87 thou didst it excellent
didest did 2nd person singular, past tense [rare] Ham IV.vii.56 Thus didest thou


Item Modern Description Example
canst can 2nd person singular R3 III.v.1 canst thou quake
’ce shall dialect use KL I’ce try
’chill will dialect use KL ’Chill not let go
’choud should dialect use KL And ’choud ha’ bin zwaggered
mayst may 2nd person singular R3 I.iii.203 Long mayst thou live
mought might [in the sense of ‘could’] 3H6 V.ii.45 That mought not be distinguished
’s shall dialect or colloquial RJ I.iii.10 thou’s hear our counsel
shalt shall 2nd person singular 3H6 I.ii.36 thou shalt to London
shouldst should 2nd person singular Oth III.iii.378 thou shouldst be honest
’st will dialect Cor I.i.124 you’st hear the belly’s answer
wilt will 2nd person singular TG I.i.11 Wilt thou be gone?
wolt will [=wilt] dialect Per IV.i.62 wolt out?
woo would 2nd person singular Ham V.i.271 Woo’t weep?
wot will [=wilt] dialect 2H4 II.i.54 Thou wot, wot thou
wouldst would 2nd person singular MV II.ii.111 Wouldst thou aught with me?

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