Monday, 9 January 2012

Thou, Thee, Thy and Thine

In modern English, when you want to address someone or a group of people, you only have a measly 5 pronouns to choose from - ‘you’, ‘your’, ‘yourself’, yourselves’ and ‘yours’. Shakespeare, however, had the choice of 10.
Lord Kitchener demonstrating one of our
most commonly used modern pronouns

In Elizabethan and Jacobean English, there was a lot more variety, depending on who you were talking to and how you felt towards them. Just as the French use ‘vous’ and ‘tu’ as formal and informal versions of ‘you’, the English speaking world had ‘you’ and ‘thou’.

‘You’, ‘your’, ‘yourself’ and ‘yours’ were used in much the same way as they are today, but it’s worth bearing in mind that they were a formal method of address in comparison with ‘thou’, ‘thee’, ‘thy’ ‘thyself’, ‘thine’.

The choice of pronoun may merely indicate the status of the person being addressed. However, it can also have an interesting effect on the dialogue, as I’ll explain in a moment. For now, let’s take a look at each of the ‘th’ words in turn and put them in context.

Thou is nominative, in other words it is used when the addressee is the subject of the sentence.

For example, to borrow one of Bill’s most famous lines, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Romeo and Juliet (II.ii)

Remember, it’s an informal mode of address, so would be used with friends and loved ones or anyone who is a lower status than the speaker, such as children or servants.

What the poster might have looked like, if
Shakespeare had been Secretary of State for
War and been alive in 1914.

Thee is objective and is, therefore, used when the person being addressed is the object of the sentence.

A famous example of this is, “Get thee to a nunn’ry” Hamlet (III.i) Again, it’s an informal address.

Thy is a possessive form of the pronoun, so is used to indicate an object, which belongs to the person being spoken to.

For instance, “…
lend it not/As to thy friends; for when did friendship take/A breed for barren metal of his friend?” The Merchant of Venice (I.iii)

As with the other ‘th’ words, ‘thy’ is informal. However, it is not used in sentences where it will be followed by a word beginning with a vowel or a silent ‘h’. In these cases, Shakespeare uses…

Thine is the possessive pronoun used in place of ‘thy’ when it is followed by a vowel.

We can go back to Hamlet to find the most famous example of this: “To thine own self be true.” Hamlet (I.iii)

Thyself is a reflexive or intensive pronoun. Reflexive simply means that it is making a repeated reference to the subject of the sentence, as in ‘I treated myself to chocolate.’ Intensive pronouns are also repetition, but it is done to add emphasis, such as, ‘I myself adore chocolate.’

OK, so lets move away from my chocolate-themed examples, and check out some of Shakespeare’s. A reflexive version of thyself’ would be, “Thou art not thyself;/For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains/That issue out of dust.” Measure for Measure (III.i)

An intensive example can be found here: “Nature, thou thyself thou blazon’st/In these two princely boys!” Cymbeline (IV.ii)

Ye, in early plays is used as a nominative pronoun to refer to people in exalted social positions. However, in later works, it is used as both nominative and objective for people of all social standings. Unlike the ‘th’ words, ‘ye’ is used to address more than one person.

For example, “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,/And ye that on the sands with printless foot/Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him/When he comes back.” The Tempest (V.i)

Kenneth Branagh & Julie Christie
Still from Hamlet (1996)
When the choice of using an informal or formal pronoun gets really interesting is in instances like this one from Hamlet.

“Gertrude: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.

Hamlet: Mother, you have my father much offended.” (III.iv)

It’s not for nought that Shakespeare did this, and it tells us something about how he wants his actor to read Hamlet’s line.

So, hopefully, now you’ll know your ‘thou’ from your ‘thine’ and recognise why Shakespeare chose a particular pronoun.


  1. Thanks for this. I will be using it in my class this week.

    1. My pleasure, Mr. B. I hope it was useful for your class.