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One of the famous lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, describing Brutus's stab to Caesar, is:

This was the most unkindest cut of all

Nowadays, it would be considered incorrect grammar to combine "most" with an already-superlative adjective: it should be either "most unkind" or "unkindest". How would this have been seen at the end of the 16th century?

  • Was it technically incorrect but a writer of Shakespeare's calibre could get away with it due to poetic licence?
  • Was it considered correct grammar at that time?
  • Were the rules of English grammar not sufficiently pinned down yet that it could be called definitely correct or incorrect?
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    "a writer of Shakespeare's calibre". The heroes of Elizabethan theatre were the actors, not the authors. And drama was not considered a highly respectable literary genre, unlike poetry.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 11:34
  • Don't you mean 'most famousest'? :P I think regardless of the excellent and interesting answer from Tsundoku below, it is always worth having at the back of one's mind when considering Shakespeare's phrasings generally is that liberties may (emphasis on 'may') have been taken for the sake of the metre. I have a terrible ear for metre personally, so I'm just gonna admit that I can't even be sure whether it could plausibly have any effect in this case. But always something to have at the back of your mind
    – Au101
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 0:22
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    Isn't this essentially the same as your question on English Language & Usage?
    – Barmar
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 19:55
  • @Barmar I don't think so. This question is specifically about Shakespeare's use of "most unkindest" in context, and then after learning that it was considered OK at his time, I asked a broader language-history question about double superlatives in general.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 20:28
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    @Au101 You are correct that in this case removing the "est" would badly break the iambic pentameter. As well as the lost syllable, this would change "cut" from a stressed to an unstressed syllable and "of" vice versa, which is very awkward.
    – cjs
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 23:35

1 Answer 1

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One of Shakespeare's contemporaries, the dramatist Ben Jonson, published an English Grammar in 1640. Chapter XII, Of Comparisons, discusses the comparative and superlative degrees for adjectives and does not mention the adverbs "more" and "most".

However, the chapter "Of the Syntax of Adjectives" points out that (bold emphasis mine),

Oftentimes both degrees are expressed by these two adverbs, more, and most: as more excellent, most excellent. Whereof the latter seemeth to have his proper place in those that are spoken in a certain kind of excellency, but yet without comparison: Hector was a most valiant man; that is, inter fortissimos.

Furthermore, these adverbs, more and most, are added to the comparative and superlative degrees themselves, which should be before the positive:

Sir Thomas More :

Forasmuch as she saw the cardinal more readier to depart than the remnant; for not only the high dignity of the civil magistrate, but the most basest handicrafts are holy, when they are directed to the honour of God.

And this is a certain kind of English Atticism, or eloquent phrase of speech, imitating the manner of the most ancientest and finest Grecians, who, for more emphasis and vehemencies sake, used so to speak.

So not only was it acceptable, it was also good style.

Source: Jonson, Ben: The English Grammar. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Alice Vinton Waite. New York: Sturgis & Walton Company, 1909.

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    Well, that perfectly answers my question. Surprising, though. I wonder when that changed in English grammar (this would be more of an English Language & Usage question, though).
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 12:06
  • And the funny thing is, Jonson uses it himself in the phrase "most ancientest and finest Grecians".
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 12:08
  • The first complaint about a double superlative that I can find with a quick search is the 1764 Purver Bible, p. 708, which has a note on "Supreme One" in Psalm 92.1 saying that this is translated in the 1662 Psalter as "most highest, with a double Superlative improperly". Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 12:56
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    I've gone ahead and risked a question on ELU. Wish me luck! (cc @GarethRees in case you dug further and found enough for an answer)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 16:14

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