There are several interesting differences between the modern system of expressing comparison and the one available to Shakespeare. To express a higher degree, present-day Standard English allows either an inflected form (bigger, biggest) or a form consisting of more than one word (a periphrastic form), such as more / most interesting. Lower degree is always expressed periphrastically (less / least happy). The choice with higher degree depends largely on the length of the adjective, with words of one syllable taking an inflection (bigger, longest), words of three syllables or more appearing periphrastically (more / most interesting), and words of two syllables sometimes going one way (happier rather than more happy) and sometimes the other (most proper rather than properest). There are also some special cases: adjectives derived from verb participles, for example, never take an inflectional ending, even if they are only one syllable long (a most pained expression, never a paindest expression). Adverbs also allow the expression of comparison: sooner / soonest, more carefully / most carefully.

Many examples in Shakespearean English work in the same way; but there are several differences. The most noticeable feature is the use of double comparison, where an inflected and a periphrastic form appear together, producing a more emphatic expression:

Double comparatives Examples Double superlatives Examples
more better MND III.i.18 most boldest JC III.i.121
more bigger-looked TNK I.i.215 most bravest Cym IV.ii.319
more braver Tem I.ii.440 most coldest Cym II.iii.2
more corrupter KL II.ii.100 most despiteful’st TC IV.i.33
more fairer E3 II.i.25 most heaviest TG IV.ii.136
more headier KL II.iv.105 most poorest KL II.iii.7
more hotter AW IV.v.38 most stillest 2H4 III.i.28
more kinder Tim IV.i.36 most unkindest JC III.ii.184
more mightier MM V.i.235 most worst WT III.ii.177
more nearer Ham II.i.11    
more nimbler E3 II.ii.178    
more proudlier Cor IV.vii.8    
more rawer Ham V.ii.122    
more richer Ham III.ii.313    
more safer Oth I.iii.223    
more softer TC II.ii.11    
more sounder AYL III.ii.58    
more strong Cor I.i.69    
more wider Oth I.iii.107    
more worse KL II.ii.146    
more worthier AYL III.iii.54    
less happier R2 II.i.49    

There are also several cases where an inflectional ending is used where today we would use the periphrastic form.

Modern comparative Shakespearian comparative Example
more honest honester Cor IV.v.50
more horrid horrider Cym IV.ii.331
more loath loather 2H6 III.ii.355
more often oftener MM IV.ii.48
more quickly quicklier AW I.i.122
more perfect perfecter Cor II.i.76
more wayward waywarder AYL IV.i.150
Modern superlative Shakespearian superlative Example
most ancient ancient’st WT IV.i.10
most certain certain’st TNK V.iv.21
most civil civilest 2H6 IV.vii.56
most contemned contemned’st KL II.ii.141
most covert covert’st R3 III.v.33
most daring daring’st H8 II.iv.215
most deformed deformed’st Sonn 113.10
most easily easil’est Cym IV.ii.206
most exact exactest Tim II.ii.161
most extreme extremest KL V.iii.134
most faithful faithfull’st TN V.i.112
most foul-mouthed foul mouthed'st 2H4 II.iv.70
most honest honestest AW III.v.73
most loathsome loathsomest TC II.i.28
most lying lyingest 2H6 II.i.124
most maidenly maidenliest KL I.ii.131
most pained pained’st Per
most perfect perfectest Mac I.v.2
most ragged ragged'st 2H4 I.i.151
most rascally rascalliest 1H4 I.ii.80
most sovereign sovereignest 1H4 I.iii.56
most unhopeful unhopefullest MA II.i.349
most welcome welcomest 1H6 II.ii.56
most wholesome wholesom'st MM IV.ii.70

There are rather fewer cases where a periphrastic form is used where today we would use an inflectional ending.

Modern comparative Shakespearian comparative Example
greater more great 1H4 IV.i.77
longer more long Cor V.ii.63
nearer more near AW I.iii.102

And there are a number of cases where modern Standard English would not use a form of comparison at all, but Shakespearian English allows it. They include some words expressing absolute notions (such as chief), which today are generally not compared. Several of these forms can still heard in regional dialects, of course, and some (such as littlest, worser) are now considered immature or uneducated.

Modern word Shakespearian comparison Example
chief chiefest 1H6 I.i.177
due duer 2H4 III.ii.296
just justest AC II.i.2
less lesser R2 II.i.95
like liker KJ II.i.126
little littlest [cf. smallest] Ham III.ii.181
rather ratherest LLL IV.ii.18
very veriest 1H4 II.ii.23
worse worser [cf. less bad] Ham III.iv.158

Occasionally, both modern English and Shakespearian English have inflected forms, but they are different. This is the case with farrer (TS IV.ii.73), where we would today say farther or further. Older is sometimes used where we would today say elder, as in Sonn 22.8, ‘How can I then be elder than thou art?’

Lastly, it is important to note that, when an inflected and a periphrastic form co-exist, the choice can be exploited poetically, to suit the demands of the metre. A case in point is AY III.v.51--5 [Rosalind to Silvius]:

You are a thousand times a properer man

Than she a woman ...

And out of you she sees herself more proper

Than any of her lineaments can show her.

This is probably why we find more sweet (AY II.i.2) alongside sweeter (MV V.i.100), more grave (TN I.iv.28) alongside graver (Cor III.i.106), and so on.


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