Commas before the Corpse

Three things I love: Shakespeare, technology, and free stuff. Put these together, and you get Project Gutenberg, one of the best resources on the Internet. This afternoon, while taking a little break between editing a couple of dissertation chapters and working on writing a project evaluation report, I hopped over to Project Gutenberg to get a taste of my favorite Shakespearean play: King Richard III

And guess what I found? A great sample for the Zen Comma blog. 

From Act 1, scene 2, we can read one of the best dialogues Shakespeare ever wrote. On one side, we have Anne. She is standing by the corpse of her late husband, King Henry VI. On the other side, we have Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. He killed her husband. She is angry at him, spitting curses, making insults, and generally loathing everything about him. However, he has come with a purpose. 

Richard plans to be king, and he wants to marry Anne to help protect him from her family members who are still loyal to the previous ruling family. He approaches her while she stands at the bloody body of her late husband, and he attempts to convince her to marry him. After a few exchanges, we see him reveal his intentions. 

Let’s read it together, and then we’ll look at the commas. This is, after all, the Zen Comma blog. (The entire scene is here: http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1444575&pageno=9.)

ANNE: . . . Didst thou not kill this king?

GLOUCESTER: I grant ye.

ANNE: Dost grant me, hedgehog? Then, God grant me
Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed!
O, he was gentle, mild, and virtuous!

GLOUCESTER: The better for the King of Heaven, that hath him.

ANNE: He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.

GLOUCESTER: Let him thank me that holp to send him thither,
For he was fitter for that place than earth.

ANNE: And thou unfit for any place but hell.

GLOUCESTER: Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.

ANNE: Some dungeon.

GLOUCESTER: Your bed-chamber.

Great stuff, yes? Now, let’s read it again and look at the commas.

ANNE: . . . Didst thou not kill this king?

GLOUCESTER: I grant ye.

ANNE: Dost grant me, hedgehog? Then, God grant me
first comma: Commas around names for the person you are addressing or speaking to. She is calling him a hedgehog as a nickname. (Rule M)
second comma: Commas around interjections. Here, “then” is not being used to tell when something happened, altough it would need a comma in that case, too. It’s an interjection, just like we see two lines down. (Rule I)
Thou mayst be damned for that wicked deed!

O, he was gentle, mild, and virtuous!
first comma: Commas around interjections, in this case “O.” (Rule I)
second and third commas: Commas to separate every item in a series of three or more. Notice that this uses the serial comma, the comma before “and,” “but,” or “or” in a series. (Rule A)

GLOUCESTER: The better for the King of Heaven, that hath him.
This comma seems troubling, but it isn’t. “that hath him” is a non-restictive phrase to describe “King of Heaven.” As a non-restrictive phrase, it is separated with commas. Normally, in a case like this, we would use “who” rather than “that,” but calling God “who” may have seemed a bit too informal to Shakespeare, or even to Gloucester who was pretending to be the pious one here. (Rule U)

ANNE: He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.
Another comma to separate a non-restictive phrase. The expression starting with “where” is a description of “heaven.” If we leave off this comma, we might come to the conclusion that there is another heaven where Richard would be welcome. A more modern version of this might read “which is where thou….” (Rule T)

GLOUCESTER: Let him thank me that holp to send him thither,
For he was fitter for that place than earth.
The comma is before the conjunction that separates the two independent clauses. “For” is a coordinating conjunction, and when used to join two complete sentences, it needs to be preceded by a comma. (Rule D)

ANNE: And thou unfit for any place but hell.

GLOUCESTER: Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
first comma: The comma after “yes” separates the interjection from the rest of the sentence. (Rule I)
second comma: I hate to say it, but I think that one’s there only to indicate a little pause, creating some emotional tension. This is an “artistic” comma, not a grammatical comma. An artistic comma is placed purposefully to force a pause, such as to increase the impact of whatever follows. This differs from a grammatical comma, which is placed in response to the grammatical structure of a sentence.

ANNE: Some dungeon.

GLOUCESTER: Your bed-chamber.

If you’re not familiar with Shakespeare’s works, his tragedies and histories, in particular, this is a good one to start with. And Shakespeare is, as we can see, a comma master.


Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, an instructive reference guide on the 17 major uses and misuses of commas, available in PDF and Kindle formats. Read more about Zen Comma.

Your Writing Companion: Our e-book with samples from each of our writing guides: Get the free e-book (PDF, 45 pages) or purchase the Kindle version ($0.99).

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