In the early modern period as today, the “mother tongue” referred to a native language, the one you were born with. This common phrase sets up a curious relation between women and language. For ordinary people living in early modern England, the mother tongue contrasted with the highly popular language of Latin. Latin was an official language, used at court by lawyers and taught in schools. It was a learned language and brought with it a great tradition of oratory that was heavily imitated and highly respected.
During the sixteenth century, English, as a common mother tongue, competed with Latin to be seen as an eloquent language. (Jenny Mann discusses this in her excellent book Outlaw Rhetoric, 2012). Shakespeare dramatizes this collision between natural and learned, common and educated language in his comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Merry Wives was written around 1597, and is often considered to be Shakespeare’s most English play. Whereas foreign settings are often disguises for Elizabethan England, such as Athens in Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors, Merry Wives is unique in the comedies as it is set in an English town. The action takes place in the shadow of Windsor Castle, in the surrounding park, houses, fields, streets, and inns. The concerns of the play are of ordinary life in a small country town, and the play is filled with characters recognizable to an Elizabethan audience.
The main characters are not the monarchs or courts of the histories or tragedies, but citizens, wives, children, servants, an innkeeper, country justice, parson, and a doctor. One of these is Mistress Quickly, a servant to the French Doctor Caius. She claims of her own work that “I keep his house, and I wash, wring, brew, bake, scour, dress meat and drink, make the beds, and do all myself” (I.4.100-102). This suggests the ordinary world of Windsor and Quickly’s role within it. She is also an important messenger between characters and a keeper of secrets.
In Act 4, Scene 1, she is placed within a Latin school lesson and her speech suddenly takes on a different significance. The conceit of the scene is that Mistress Quickly simply does not understand Latin. She is excluded from the Latin recitations of the schoolboy William and schoolteacher Hugh Evans. Evans quizzes William on his Latin grammar, asking him to translate words and decline nouns. Instead of remaining silent, Quickly interrupts the lesson, wildly guessing what the Latin means. Evans asks “What is ‘fair’, William?” which William correctly translates as “Pulcher” (IV.1.25-7). Quickly, however, hears something very different and cuts in “Polecats? There are fairer things than polecats sure” (IV.1.28). Evans turns back to William instructing: “Remember, William, focative is caret” but Quickly interrupts again, “And that’s a good root”, confusing the sound of “caret” with carrot (IV.1.53-54).
The scene plays out a gendered division between the English mother tongue and Latin as a language taught between men. Evans casts Quickly according to her stereotype: “You are a very simplicity ‘oman” (IV.1.30). Yet his failure to perfect either Latin or English ironizes his position as corrector. Quickly is portrayed as incorrect and Evans her mistaken corrector, satirizing the assertion of his schoolmasterly knowledge over her.
The logic of Evans’ questioning is disjointed: he demands the translation of words from English to Latin, and then the declension of a case, which William gives as “hic, haec, hoc” (IV.1.41). Evans mangles this in repetition: “hig, hag, hog” (IV.1.43), undermining his own pedagogical authority through mispronunciation. Quickly adds to this whirl of confusion by exclaiming that “’Hang-hog’ is Latin for bacon, I warrant you” (IV.1.48). The scene parodies the humanist education system by presenting an ill-spoken scholar, a boy who does not want to learn, and an interrupting woman who adds confusing but comic digressions.
Mistress Quickly can be seen as a representation of the English mother tongue, as ordinary and very much at home in her Windsor setting, but also as overly talkative and faulty, in contrast with Latin. It shows that Shakespeare was aware of the divide between Latin as a learned language and English as a “natural” language, associated with women. Yet rather than conforming to the idea that Latin modelled the correct way of speaking and English was inferior, Shakespeare resists this by presenting both English and Latin speakers as faulty.
Debates about the sufficiency of English and the superiority of Latin defined Shakespeare’s language at the turn of the sixteenth century. Where his own mother tongue comes from is significant given that today “Shakespeare’s English” is globally synonymous with the highest levels of literary excellence. It may even be possible to identify this more personally through the character of William, the discouraged and failing schoolboy. Perhaps Shakespeare wrote himself into the scene, including knowing jokes about his lack of Latin and that he ”profits nothing in the world at his book” (IV.1.15). Perhaps also, his strengths lay in English.