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Woe, woe are we--Anthony and Cleopatra 4,14, 133
on 11 March 2000
The first place I went to find out about "woe is I" was the index. I looked up "woe" but that word is not there. I looked up "I" which directs the reader to pages 10-13. "Woe is I" is not treated on these pages. That is not a good sign. O'Connor does treat "Woe is I" on page 1: Hundreds of years after the first Ophelia cried "Woe is me" some pendents would argue that Shakespeare should have written "Woe is I" or "Woe is unto me." (Never mind that the rules of English grammar weren't even formalized in Shakespeare's day.) The point is no one is exempt from having his pronouns second guessed.
First of all who are these pendants? O'Connor does not name them but I suspect she is referring to an "On Language" column written by William Safire and republished in his "In Love with Norma Loquendi" pages xiii-xv. Secondly, she does not explain the grammar of "woe is me" at all and gives no hint if she prefers that to "woe is I" or "woe is unto me" Did Shakespeare use the wrong case? Or is there something else going on? My objection to O'Connor is that she raised the issue of "woe is me" but did not explain it. This is not just a matter of second guessing which pronoun Shakespeare should have used. It is a matter of understanding the grammatical rules of Early Modern English. We know a great deal of the grammar of Early Modern English, the English of Shakespeare, because of scholars like E. A. Abbott and Wilhelm Franz. We know from them that the "me" in "woe is me" is not in place of the nominative "I" but a dative pronoun. We know from them that dative pronouns, indirect objects and the like were much less likely to have prepositions in front of them in Early Modern English than in Present Day English. But O'Connor makes no mention of this. Readers will have to go elsewhere to get this kind of information. If you want more information about "woe is me" I can recommend a few books to look at. Abbott's "Shakespearian Grammar" and Onion's "Modern English Syntax" treat various constructions with "woe" with admirable brevity. For comprehensive treatment readers should read Maetzner's "Englische Grammatik" and Franz's "Die Sprache Shakespeares in Vers und Prosa."
As for the rest of O'Connor's book I would recommend that readers be skeptical and suspicious of her conclusions.