Claims that Shakespeare used Warwickshire dialect do not stand up to close scrutiny. The recent availability of online archives and digitised works – in particular Early English Books Online (EEBO) means research can now be done that was impossible a decade ago. The latest release of Shakespeare: the Evidence analyses twenty words and phrases said to be Warwickshire dialect and shows that not a single word can be claimed conclusively for 16th century Warwickshire.
The source of some of these claims is that these words are listed as Warwickshire dialect in Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (EDD), an authoritative reference work published by the Oxford University Press between 1898 and 1905. However, recent research has revealed a significant problem. Wright classified certain rare words in the canon as Warwickshire dialect because of their use by Shakespeare. So to define a word as Warwickshire dialect on the basis of its entry in the EDD is circular reasoning.
A good example of such as word is ‘honey-stalks’. The word ‘honey-stalks’ is used in Titus Andronicus, where Tamora mentioned that ‘honey-stalks’ cause sheep to ‘rot’. The EDD gives the only county for its use as Warwickshire. We can show that its entry in the EDD has resulted from its use by Shakespeare on the basis of one very interesting fact – its definition is wrong, and exactly the same wrong definition that was first given to the word by Samuel Johnson in his 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s dramatic works. All of Shakespeare’s editors since Johnson have followed Johnson’s gloss: that ‘honey-stalks’ is a Warwickshire word for the flowers of white clover. But in 2010 a scholar called Bruce Thomas Boehrer discovered this was a mistake. Johnson may have been an expert on the English language but he didn’t know much about farming. No-one (from the 16th century to this day) has ever imagined that clover was anything but a wholesome food for sheep. Boehrer discovered from examining sixteenth century books on animal husbandry (now easily available through EEBO) that what was thought to cause sheep-rot in the sixteenth century was wet vegetation, particularly vegetation covered in what was then known as ‘honey-dew’. So ‘honey-stalks’ is simply a concise poetic expression invented by Shakespeare to convey this idea. It is a made-up word, not dialect.
Other words touted as Warwickshire dialect appear to have arisen from misprints. A good example is the word ‘mobled’, used in Hamlet to describe Queen Hecuba, which appeared in an early quarto of the play. The editors of the First Folio of 1623 corrected it to ‘inobled’ – meaning either ignobled (dishonoured) or enobled (referring to her high status). The Folio was prohibitively expensive, but the quarto (with it’s ‘mobled’) was cheap and easily available. The word, assumed to be intentional, morphed into ‘mobbled’ and picked up the definition of ‘muffled’ because Hecuba in this scene is wrapped in a blanket. With its poetic feel, other writers began to use it, always referencing Shakespeare. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) labels the word as Midlands dialect but signals this as a relatively recent development. This is one of several instances where Shakespeare’s enormous influence on the English language has not been taken into account; even a printer’s error, inserted into famous text, can find its way into our dictionaries.
The EDD reveals that some supposedly ‘Warwickshire words’ were widely used across the country. The OED reveals that others were published in the works of writers as famous as Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and Francis Bacon. A search of EEBO reveals even more instances of ‘local’ words being anything but. Whoever wrote the works we attribute to Shakespeare, scholars are clear that he was a voracious reader, so this early publication evidence is surely more relevant than the EDD, a book compiled three hundred years after the canon was written.
Where Shakespeare did use a genuine dialect word, the verb ‘twit’, he used it to mean ‘to reproach’ or ‘to shame’ rather than with the meaning it had in Warwickshire at the end of the 19th Century, to ‘blab’ or ‘tell tales’. As we’ve seen, any argument arisings from a source that comes three hundred years after Shakespeare’s play were written must be taken with a pinch of salt, but if one used the same logic scholars have been using to date, one could argue that Shakespeare’s usage of ‘twit’ suggests he was not from Warwickshire.
Eminence but not Evidence
Scholars who have claimed that Shakespeare used Warwickshire dialect include Professor Michael Wood of the BBC In Search of Shakespeare series. It is a popular argument against those who say the plays and poems we attribute to Shakespeare were not written by the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. A list of ‘Midlands dialect’ words was given as part of the argument of the Cambridge University Press book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (2013), edited by the Honorary President, and the Head of Knowledge and Research, of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Close scrutiny, however, reveals such claims are not backed up by the evidence.