Intro to Shakespeare – 3

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Plays

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Prose passages: Let’s begin with a form that Shakespeare uses aside from blank verse. He often casts characters’ dialogue in prose form. Sometimes he does this to suit the characters (they may be working-class) or some less than elegantly poetical situation, but in truth, there’s no neat rule for when Shakespeare uses this mode. Still, prose is more conversational, and less formal. It seems like language that is stepping back from the somewhat elevated status we give it when we classify it as poetry.[1] Here’s a passage spoken by Leontes’s counselor Camillo in The Winter’s Tale:[2]

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods,
and there rooted betwixt them then such an
affection which cannot choose but branch now.
Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities
made separation of their society….

So prose is one form to be aware of as we read Shakespeare’s plays. Textual scholars have pointed out that he tends to be comfortable using more of it in his later plays.

Meter. Blank verse is Shakespeare’s go-to pattern or meter for conveying dramatic dialogue, and it makes up the great majority of his plays’ content. It is constituted of a series of unstressed and stressed syllables. Here are some observations on this verse form’s technical properties. Iambic pentameter is the technical classification for the lines of poetry we are interested in here, since that’s what constitutes blank verse. Iambic pentameter lines will contain five units (called “feet”), with each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This pattern or unit, in turn, is called an iamb.[3] A regular iambic foot consists of a pair of syllables, the first one unaccented ( ˘ ) and the second accented ( ʹ or ˉ ). For ease, we can also just bold the syllable to show that it is accented, and leave it unbolded to show that it is unaccented.[4]

Beat. All English verse is rather like music in the sense that it has a beat. The beat of blank verse is in keeping with the strongly accentual quality of ordinary English. The basic beat will run, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM. The “Dums” are the accented syllables, or the beats—as with music, you can tap your foot to such a regular, strong beat. So the beat is the constant, steady pulse or heartbeat of the verse line. Remember these lines from “Rock and Roll Music” by Chuck Berry: “It’s got a back-beat, you can’t lose it….”

Rhythm. The “rhythm” of a line of poetry refers to the movement of sounds flowing across the basic pattern. The rhythm is established by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables as we move from one foot to the next through to the end of the metrical line. It may be easiest to talk about rhythm if we suggest that a long series of perfectly metrical iambic pentameter lines, pronounced as such in a kind of singsong fashion, would soon become tiresome to hear. We would only be bringing to audibility the barebones, taxonomic pattern of the meter itself. No one likes monotony. To think of rhythm is to think of a certain complexity, a certain sophistication, of the “notes” that play across a very basic, unvariegated framework.

Well, then, what if the poet helpfully rearranged some of the stresses in ways that enhance the sense of the words? Then we would be generating a rhythm that varies a bit from the bare metrical pattern, thus adding variety. The beat will stay the same—it’s what we keep coming home to—and the basic metrical pattern (iambic pentameter) will be there in the background to guide us, but the rhythm may shift to suit the poet’s purpose, thereby adding variety and priming our attention. That seems like an adequate way to understand the interplay between beat, meter, and rhythm.[5]

To facilitate variation, poetics offers several rearrangements of stress[6] within a given foot. Here are the main ones, aside from the iamb itself ( ˘ ʹ ), which is the most common unit :[7]

Anapest      ˘ ˘ ʹ  (a very common variation for an iamb)
ʹ ˘     (a fairly common variation for an iamb)
ʹ ˘ ˘   (epic or heroic verse is in dactylic hexameter)

Following is a typical instance of blank verse in a Shakespeare play, spoken by Marullus in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 1, scanned to show the bare accentual pattern. The meter is mostly regular, but you can find one substitution—in the third line, the fourth foot is an anapest, while the seventh line has a feminine ending; i.e. it ends with an extra, unstressed syllable, “-tion.” In addition, in the first foot of the third line, you could scan the two words as “Knew you” instead of “Knew you.” It sounds better if you invert the stresses to make a trochee.

You blocks, | you stones, | you worse | than sense- | less things!
O you | hard hearts, | you cru- | el men | of Rome,
Knew you | not Pom- | pey? Man- | y a time | and oft
Have you | climb’d up | to walls | and bat- | tle- ments,
To towers | and win- | dows, yea, | to chim- | ney tops,
Your in- | fants in | your arms, | and there | have sat
The live- | long day | with pa- | tient ex- | pec- ta -tion,[8]
To see | great Pom- | pey pass | the streets | of Rome.

A number of benefits flow from using iambic pentameter blank verse. The first is that any kind of iambic pattern sounds close to everyday speech—if you listen for an iambic flow in English conversations, you’ll often hear it.

Aside from the everyday quality of blank verse, there’s also a sense of freedom from the demands of rhyming. Milton, who didn’t care to be always hemmed in by rhyme schemes, says it best in his preface to Paradise Lost:

THE Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them.

A third benefit associated with blank verse is that it can free up the poet to adopt a searching or questioning tone. Neoclassical-Era “heroic couplets” are very fine in their way, but there’s a certain declamatory attitude, a self-certitude, to them. A few of Alexander Pope’s excellent heroic couplets from his “Essay on Criticism” will make the point:

True wit is nature to advantage dressed;
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed;
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find
That gives us back the image of our mind.

Constraining oneself to this verse pattern, one would be hard pressed to convey any tone other than “Listen up, a timeless truth is being propounded!” But that kind of certitude isn’t usually what Shakespeare means to convey, so in his dramas, at least, plain, supple blank verse suits him best. To be fair, there are various rhyme schemes—the Petrarchan sonnet, the English sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, and others—that do allow a poet to strike up various moods. It’s just that for conveying dramatic action, blank verse functions as a blank slate: dramatists can do whatever they like with it.

Following is one more example to show that we need not overthink the business of “scanning” for metrical regularity. We need not become pedantic pests over it, and it’s nowhere near as rigid a science as some theorists claim. If we read poetry for its sense (including its dramatic properties if we are dealing with a play), we will get the accents right nearly all the time. The iambic pentameter or some other pattern will no doubt guide us in how to read the line well; but above all, we must use our commonsense understanding of the verse line and our experience in pronouncing English words. Shakespearean actors don’t simply mark up their reading texts for its regularity of pattern—though they may start with that task. In the end, diligent actors will re-mark their reading copies to suit the particular emphasis they consider best to focus and hold the audience members’ attention on what is said and done, to connect with or respond to their fellow actors, and so forth. Remember, too, the importance in Shakespeare of antithesis, which we can define as “setting the word against the word” in a way that ensures the memorable quality of the speech.

To conclude with a non-Shakespearean example, here is the opening verse passage in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”: These lines are very regular blank verse (as is the entire poem), so let’s scan it with that in mind, and then discuss a few things that should help us read the passage expertly:

Five years | have past; | five sum- | mers, with | the length
Of five | long win- | ters! and | a- gain | I hear
These wa- | ters, rol- | ling from | their moun- | tain springs
With a | soft in- | land mur- | mur. -- Once | a- gain
Do I | be- hold | these steep | and lof- |ty cliffs,
That on | a wild | se- clu- | ded scene | im- press
Thoughts of | more deep | se- clu- |sion; and | con- nect
The land- | scape with | the qui- | et of | the sky.

If we were to read the passage out loud that way, it would sound ridiculous and mar an otherwise beautiful stretch of words and imagery. Scanning, at base, is purely mechanical and doesn’t tell us exactly how to accent or pronounce the words. Just as an example, let’s take the stretch “Five years have past; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!” It would most likely be accented for actual performance as follows: “Five years have past; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!” More of the syllables are somewhat accented than the bare pattern suggests. But better yet would be to convey the accentual qualities by using nuanced font weights instead of the crude categories of “bold/not bold”: “years” would be a little less bold or accented than the initial word “Five”; in the phrase “five summers,” the “five” would be somewhat accented, though perhaps not quite as much as the first syllable of “summers,” and so forth. This is no doubt how experienced actors and readers actually treat the words as they accent them. In the end, we should read lines of verse in a way that makes the best sense of them, and let the basic pattern keep reasserting itself and serving as a place from which to start.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Set of Four + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-26546-0.


[1] That is, when it has a set pattern of accented and unaccented syllables, rhymed couplets or intricate rhyme schemes, etc.

[2] The line breaks in such passages, by the way, generally correspond in printed texts to the amount of space that was available in the authoritative copy from which the editors and printers are working

[3] According to Oxford, the term iambic comes from ἰάπτω, iaptō, I attack verbally. (Greek satirists used iambic trimeter.)

[4] Though strictly, we should use ˉ for classical Latin and Greek meters since this marking indicates syllabic quantities, not accents.

[5] From the Greek rhythmós, ῥυθμός, “any measured flow or symmetry”; verb rheō, ῥέω, “flow, run, etc.”

[6] These rearrangements of stresses are  sometimes called “substitutions,” though some people find that term rather confusing.

[7] Classical Greek and Latin metrics also allows for Pyrrhic feet ( ˘ ˘ ) and Spondees or spondaic feet ( ʹ ʹ ). 

[8] This unstressed final syllable need not add another foot to the verse; it’s called a “feminine ending.”