Grammar:'the Shakespearean “who”'
In his attempt to establish Shakespeare's authorship of the Funerall Elegye Donald Foster identifed a number of what seemed to him 'stylistic quirks' in the poem, which he then investigated. One of these 'quirks' involves a grammatical construction which would be anomalous in modern English, the use of 'who' for inanimate antecedents, such as 'th'assault of death, who' (FE, 490). Such a usage would be unacceptable today, but in Shakespeare's age it might have been common, and in order to form an accurate estimate of this matter the Shakespeare scholar must turn to histories of the English language, of which there is no lack. It seems that Foster made a hasty raid on this material, did not look very far, and misinterpreted what he saw. His account of this grammatical feature is a travesty of the historical record, and it must be a matter of some embarrassment to the scholarly community that so many writers on Shakespeare have seized on his account of 'the anomalous who' as if it represented a reliable account of the English language in Shakespeare's age. Far from being a distinctive Shakespearian usage, it turns out to be an entirely commonplace grammatical variant, which persisted right through the seventeenth century, and well into the eighteenth.
In his 1989 monograph Foster relied largely on one main source of information, which was not – and did not pretend to be – an authority on the development of the English language, A. C. Partridge's analysis of the grammatical conventions in Shakespeare's poems (1976), 1 with a brief nod to Charles Barber's Early Modern English (1976). According to Foster, Partridge had identified some 'syntactical features that are characteristic of Shakespeare's verse', including
the frequent substitution of one relative pronoun for another; thus in the Elegy, where we find who for which when used with animals or with personified nouns:truth who (dedication), death who (490), time who (497), dove who (455). But a survey of Renaissance verse shows these examples in fact to be quite ordinary. What makes Shakespeare's practice unique is that he frequently