During the sixteenth century, the form known as blank verse was introduced into English drama. This enabled playwrights to vary the kind of language spoken by their characters, and hence to allow the audience to hear different patterns of language for different purposes.
This is usually defined as ‘unrhymed iambic pentameter'.
To understand this, it is necessary to realize that most English words of more than one syllable have a stressed syllable:
- When we say the word ‘ messenger' we slightly stress the first syllable
- In ‘o cca sion' and ‘in vis ible' we stress the second
- In ‘satis faction' the third.
If we choose words which have the same stressed syllable, a pattern emerges — for example the well-known chant from Macbeth:
Fire burn and cauldron bubble'.
More on stresses: Small words such as ‘and' and ‘the' are usually unstressed. ‘Fire' was pronounced as two syllables in Shakespeare's time.
The commonest stress pattern in spoken English is where one unstressed, or weak, syllable is followed by a stressed, or strong, one – for example: ‘He knew he had to go to school today.' This is called iambic rhythm.
Playwrights realized that, by using this natural inclination in a more organized way, they could simultaneously suggest real speech and yet introduce a more formal, organized pattern to their language.
More on varying the pattern: Of course, if the pattern was never varied from this weak/strong one it would sound dreadful — the sort of sing-song that Shakespeare parodies in A Midsummer Night's Dream when Bottom thinks he is proclaiming great verse:
‘The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates. …'
However, an underlying iambic rhythm forms the basis of much Shakespearean speech:
More on trochaic metre: In the chant of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth, we can hear that Shakespeare uses a trochaic metre to distinguish these creatures from ordinary humans — just as he does with Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream when Puck chants:
‘ If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended…'
These chants also differ from most Shakespearean speeches in that:
- They have only eight syllables to the line, as opposed to ten
- They are in rhyme.
Lines with ten syllables, in five groups of weak/strong beats, are known as pentameter, from the Greek word for five.
So, lines written in iambic rhythm, with five groups of weak/strong beats — pentameter — but unrhymed, are called blank verse.
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