English is an ever-changing language that will always allow for the bending of its rules. From “Caedmon’s Hymn” to Shakespeare to Twitter, each new age and author puts their own spin on what they are writing. Because of this ability of language to adjust and change, readers have the opportunity to study and comprehend the way that people have written, and will continue to write, throughout history. One of these changes that readers can study in the English language is the use of pronouns and how it reveals additional depth in literary texts throughout time.
For example, the formal “you” and the informal “thou” from Middle English to the Early Modern period. When utilized in literary analysis, the distinction between the two different second person singular pronouns allows readers to gain a better insight on the relationship between characters in dialogue better by introducing a new layer of nuance. Studying pronouns can have practical benefits, such as learning a person’s preferred pronoun, and it can also be used to study relationships between different characters in a variety of texts. When we analyze the formal and informal uses of these words in Shakespeare’s Othello, the writing reveals in more detail the characters and relationships of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona and suggests how these relationships develop throughout the play. This concept will also be applied to modern literature like Susan Glaspell’s Trifles. Through an analysis of not only pronouns, but other modern subtleties in language, readers can uncover a deeper comprehension of the play and the relationships between each character.
Pronouns have always had an impact on our own language, especially in the way that they signify the nature of interpersonal relationships. The goal is to uncover the deeper meaning of, what seems to be, unimportant language English speakers use today. Through scholarly research on pronouns and nuances of language used in everyday life, new meanings are added to the words readers and characters use. Also, by examining the frequency information of pronouns used in both plays, we will be able to gain a deeper understanding of the characters in each play.
Although English has many rules and regulations in our modern time, it has not always been that way. According to Seth Lerer (2007), distinguished professor of English at UC San Diego and author of Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, it wasn’t until the mid-1500’s when the Chancery style of writing became the widest spread and accepted style, that there was any system in place for real uniformity in the English language (p. 115). Because there was no set standard to English for most of its life, this gave authors the option of creating their interpretation of the language through their craft. As Lerer notes, Geoffrey Chaucer, named the father of English literature by many, is one well-known author who used this lack of uniformity to enhance his writing in the fourteenth century (p. 70).
One aspect of his writing that set Chaucer apart from other fourteenth-century writers was his use of “common” language. At this point in history, writing did not often reflect the way that the average person spoke. The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s most famous work, included a different style of writing depending on which character was speaking and with whom that person was interacting. In his collection of tales, we see an example of the dual second person pronoun: the use of the formal “you” and the informal “thou”. We especially see this in the General Prologue when Chaucer uses different pronouns depending on which character is interacting with whom. Middle English distinguishes between the forms of second person pronouns to show the personal relationships, intimacy, age, and status of the people having the conversation (p. 76).
“You” is the formal way to address someone and is used to show respect and equality in a relationship. “Thou” is used between close family members, by people of the lower class talking to each other, or it is used towards someone of a lower status by someone of a higher status.
Raychel Reiff (2010), author of “Choosing Thou or You to Reveal Ideal Relationships in ‘The Knight’s Tale,’” states that people would also use “thou” to address God in a prayer, showing a personal relationship with a higher power (p. 70).
Just as in Chaucer’s work, looking at the way pronouns function in a text in a more contemporary work is important because pronouns do not change often, and when they do evolve, it is a significant change to English as a language. The elimination of the older usage of “thou” in modern English is not the only time our pronouns have metamorphosed. We are beginning to see a change in the acceptance of the singular “they” in recent years as well. Professor of English at Columbia University and contributing editor for The Atlantic, John McWhorter (2018), writes in his article “Call Them What They Wants” that though this change is difficult, the increasing number of students requesting “they” as their preferred pronoun is growing every year. Pilkington (2019, p. 73) discusses how the use of the singular “they” is widely accepted by linguists, and even the editor of The Washington Post has changed their guidelines to accept the gender-neutral pronoun in their newspaper’s articles. Focusing on changes in the usage of pronouns can have not only practical use, such as preferred pronouns and newspaper guidelines, but can also yield results in the field of Shakespearean literary analysis. Shakespeare was aware of the power of pronouns, and he used their power to enhance the narrative in his play writing. He was aware of the vintage form of the second person pronoun used by his predecessors like Chaucer, and there is evidence that Shakespeare used the two different second person pronouns, formal “you” and informal “thou,” in the same way (Lerer, 2007, p. 131). By examining the uses of the formal and informal pronouns in Othello, we as readers and playgoers can begin to comprehend more deeply how the relationships between Othello and Iago, the villain, and Othello and Desdemona, his wife, develop in the play. (Table A).
The first relationship I will examine is between Othello and Iago. It is clear from the beginning of the play that Iago is taking advantage of Othello’s trust in him by manipulating what Othello thinks about his bride. Iago tries to separate Othello and his new bride by creating an elaborate lie about Desdemona cheating on Othello with Cassio. Despite Iago’s subterfuge, the interactions between Othello and Iago follow the correct rules for the use of “you” and “thou” (Shakespeare, 2016, 3.3). Because Othello is higher ranked socially than Iago, Iago always addresses Othello with the formal second person pronoun “you”. While simultaneously respecting Othello and maintaining his trust, Iago is sure to address Othello correctly. “My lord,” Iago says, “you know I love you.” To which Othello replies, “I think thou dost; And, for I know thou’rt full of love and honesty, And weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath” (Shakespeare, 2016, 3.3.129-132). Here we notice that there appears to be a respect from Iago towards Othello because of the formal pronoun usage of “you,” which allows Iago to manipulate Othello throughout the play. This is not out of the ordinary for Iago, and readers see this because he is so manipulating of other characters in the play, such as when he uses “you” to address Roderigo. Once their relationship is established and Iago tries to build Roderigo’s trust, Iago talks to him like a close friend, using “thou” to represent this change. When Iago is trying to convince Roderigo of the affair between Desdemona and Cassio, Iago asks, “Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand?” (Shakespeare, 2016, 2.1.243).
The next relationship to look at in this play regarding pronoun usage is between Othello and Desdemona. The two get married, and the discourse between them is full of mutual respect throughout the story line. In each interaction between the two of them, “you” is the pronoun used along with some terms of endearment like “chuck.” According to authors Roger Brown and Albert Gilman (1989) in “Politeness Theory and Shakespeare’s Four Major Tragedies,” the “upper-class speakers said ‘you’ to one another; . . . In [Shakespeare’s] tragedies, dyads of ‘you’ exchange included spouses” (p. 177). We see this respect through the first half of the play, and it is a drastic change from Othello and Desdemona’s discourse in the last half of the play.
Readers start to see the deterioration of their relationship in Act 4, Scene 2 when Othello is pestering Desdemona about her suspected affair with Cassio. Desdemona is confused by Othello’s attacking words and tells him she doesn’t understand. He replies with, “Why, what art thou?” and Desdemona replies, “Your wife, my lord, your true/ And loyal wife” (Shakespeare, 2016, 4.2. 36-38). Othello continues through the scene referring to Desdemona as a “strumpet” (Shakespeare, 2016, 4.2. 84) but he does switch back to “you” in the same sentence. Seth Lerer (2007) suggests that many times the informal “thou” can be used in a moment of true anger (p. 108), as such as in the moment just cited between Othello and Desdemona. After that moment of extreme anger, Othello goes back to address Desdemona with “you” the rest of the scene. The pronoun usage changes again at the end of the play right before Othello kills Desdemona. In Act 5, Othello asks Desdemona to confess to all her sins. Othello asks Desdemona to think of her sins, and she replies, “They are loves I bear to you.” And then Othello tells her, “Ay, and for that thou diest” (Shakespeare, 2016, 5.2.43-44). This threat is where the shift in their relationship is permanent. It is important to note that Desdemona never addresses Othello using “thou” in the play suggesting that Desdemona always shows respect and commitment to her husband.
We see another character, Emilia, alter her use of “you” and “thou” during Othello. Her shift comes at the end of the play when she walks in on Othello trying to kill Desdemona and she begins to use “thou” when addressing Othello. Every character up to this point in the play has addressed Othello using “you” out of respect or superiority. Here Emilia refers to Othello as, “the blacker devil,” and to Desdemona as, “the…angel” (Shakespeare, 2016, 5.2.134-135). After this statement, Emilia addresses Othello using the pronoun “thou” until Othello dies. Emilia states, “Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil” (Shakespeare, 2016, 5.2.137). Brown and Gilman (1898), “Anger and contempt are the emotions that account for the most expressive shifts” (p. 117). Emilia’s change from “you” and “thou” is brought about by the anger she feels over Othello killing Desdemona.
By analyzing the use of “you” and “thou” in Shakespeare’s plays, we uncover an extra layer of meaning, enhancing the stories we are reading. In Othello, we figure out how complex Othello, Iago, Desdemona, and Emilia really are because of the way they address each other and how they change throughout the play. Noticing the usage of pronouns in literature, modern or historic, can help us perceive the text in a deeper way. And since English has changed drastically since its earliest form and is still shifting to adapt to our modern world, pronouns will continue to acquire nuances and new meanings, and as speakers of this language, we must learn to adapt to these types of changes.
As English grows older, the distinction of “you” and “thou” has been lost. In our modern world we must look at other parts of dialogue to help people understand relationships, on a page and in real life. Readers see an example of this in Susan Glaspell’s one act play Trifles. Trifles was first performed at the Wharf Theatre in Massachusetts in 1916. The play takes place in the kitchen of Mr. and Mrs. Wright’s farmhouse the day after Mr. Wright was found dead in his bedroom. The five characters, George Henderson (the county attorney) Mr. and Mrs. Henry Peters (the local sheriff and his wife) and Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Hale (neighbors of the Wrights) are all at the house to try to find evidence of who killed Mr. Wright.
Readers begin the play by being introduced to its five characters. There are three male characters, who are identified by their first and last name or their profession. The two female characters are identified by “Mrs.” and then their husband’s last name. In, “Feminism and Marriage: To Be or Not to Be Mrs B,” authors Precilla Y. L. Choi and Steve Bird (2003) discuss that marriage is often viewed as an economic benefit or a religious necessity, marriage is also a union that encompasses many connotations about what the female will do and how the female will act. This includes women feeling obligated or people assuming that women are going to acquire their husband’s last name. This suggested or required “rule” can lead to many women becoming “Mrs-Attached-To-Somebody Else” (p. 449). By looking at the names chosen to identify each character, readers can use these names as another way to understand the relationships between the characters.
We see this idea through the characters of the Sheriff, Henry Peters and his wife, Mrs. Peters. We never learn the wife’s first name, and she is often talked down to by the men in the play, including her husband. Readers do grasp the societal expectations placed on Mrs. Peters throughout the play. For example, how Mrs. Peters feels obligated to support her husband, despite how he treats her. At the beginning of the play, the women find a blanket that Mrs. Wright, has been working on, and Mrs. Peters wonders if she was going to quilt or knot it. Then Mr. Peters proceeds to say, “They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it!” (Glaspell, 2013, p. 748), laughing at the idea that the women were concerned about something so trivial.
For example, when the characters are talking about if they should go through the items that Mrs. Peters is going to bring into Mrs. Wright, the County Attorney says, “Oh, I guess they’re not very dangerous things the ladies have picked out. No. Mrs. Peters doesn’t need any supervising. For a matter, a sheriff’s wife is married to the law” (Glaspell, 2013, p. 752). To the men in the story, it is obvious that a woman would never do anything her husband does not want her to, but in the situation, Mrs. Peters keeps her evidence a secret.
Despite the use of “you” and “thou” being eliminated from the modern English language, readers can still look at pronouns to understand the characters and their relationships.
According to Maia Alavidze (2017), the author of “The Use of Pronouns in Political Discourse,” the personal pronoun “we” can be used to, “share responsibility, and also to create involvement with the audience” (p. 351) and readers see multiple characters using “we” to show a connection throughout Trifles. For example, readers can see this with the county attorney, the man who oversees investigating Mr. Wright’s murder, George Henderson. Henderson uses the word “we” when asking Mr. Hale and Mr. Peters to help him look for evidence, saying, “I guess"we’ll” go upstairs first–and then out to the barn and around there," (Glaspell, 2013, p. 745) when the men are going to look for evidence and at the end of the play when Henderson wants to continue to look for evidence and says that he isn’t satisfied that “we (the men) can’t do better” (Glaspell, 2013, p. 752). Henderson is using “we” as a way to let the men know that he is valuing their help in investigating and they need to keep trying.
The only time the word “we” is exchanged is when the characters address people of the same gender. As seen in Table B, “we” is used nineteen times by men and only five times by Mrs. Peters when referring to Mrs. Hale. Readers see Mr. Hale use the pronoun “we” multiple times when giving his description of the crime to Henderson. He uses “we” when referencing Harry, the man that was with him when he first arrived at the Wright home. When Mr. Hale is asking about how Mrs. Wright did not wake up when Mr. Wright was killed he says, “We must 'a looked as if we didn’t see how that could be,” and Mrs. Wright replies, “I sleep sound” (Glaspell, 2013, p. 745). Such exclusive use of “we” among people of the same gender implies that the character feel affinity and creates alliances within same-gender groups and does not reach outside of those boundaries.
When people of the opposite gender address each other, they use the pronoun “you”. Looking at this pronoun in Trifles allows readers to examine romantic relationships of the early 20th century. In Othello, we see the male and female characters respect each other and follow conventional guidelines except for at the end of the play when tragedy struck. Othello and Desdemona address each other using “you” throughout the whole play showing respect in their relationship. In Trifles, readers see that respect is lacking in every male to female relationship even though the characters use “you,” which at this point has lost its additional meanings of indicating a plural and showing deference.
In Shakespeare’s time, the pronoun “you” was used as a sign of respect, but in modern day, “you” is used to show distance (Alavidze, 2017, p. 351). According to J. W. Pennebaker, “we” and “you” is used by people of power. Readers see this pronoun being used by the County Attorney when Mrs. Hale comments on how messy Mrs. Wright’s kitchen is saying, “Ah, loyal to your sex. I see. But you and Mrs. Wright were neighbors. I suppose you were friends, too” (Glaspell, 2013, p. 746). Not only is this comment meant to disregard Mrs. Hale and bring up the subject of her lack of friendship between her and Mrs. Wright, but it also leads to the County Attorney criticizing Mrs. Wright even more by saying she was not born with the “homemaking instinct” (Glaspell, 2013, p. 746). “You” is the second most used pronoun in Trifles, showing the separation between each of the genders (Table B).
This play takes place in a community that feels isolated to its members and we see this through the overwhelming uses of the pronoun “I” in the play (Pennebaker, 2013). The husband who was murdered and his wife live so far out of town hardly anyone ever talked to them, so nobody knew something was wrong in their marriage. This especially plagues the women with guilt, Mrs. Hale saying, “Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while! That was a crime!” (Glaspell, 2013, p. 751). Table B shows readers that “I” is the most used pronoun in the play, being used a total of 139 times, emphasizing the disconnect in this community.
If examined with intent, pronouns and other details of our language can be viewed as important and informative. From the conception of the language, English has been consistently allowed to bend its rules. By looking at the way language changes and what each of the changes mean, readers can comprehend what they are reading at a deeper level. This change in meaning is prevalent in pronouns. Pronouns can tell readers everything from what the relationship is like between two people or a person’s preferred pronoun. When pronouns are examined in literature, like in Shakespeare’s Othello and Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, readers will gain insight into the characters while experiencing the nuances of the English language by focusing on pronouns and other aspects of language.