Variations from blank verse

Iambic pentameter is the 'common metre' of much English poetry and particularly blank verse, in which form Shakespeare wrote his dramas. Once the expectation of iambic pentameter is set up, the reader or audience may notice when Shakespeare departs from this pattern and the effects that this produces.

Jolty rhythms

When lines depart very noticeably from the regular iambic pentameter and contain more strong beats than usual, it suggests uneven emotion.

For example, in the tragedy Hamlet, many of Hamlet's soliloquies are far from regular. Not only do they have stressed syllables where we might expect unstressed ones, but they are full of mid-line pauses — known as caesuras— which suggest Hamlet's fraught mental state:

'Like Niobe, all tears — why, she —
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer — married with my uncle,
My father's brother — but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules.' (Act I scene ii)

Smooth rhythms

Shakespeare can make a character's speech even smoother by adding an extra unstressed syllable to the end of several lines; this is known as a feminine ending and has the effect of softening the end of the line. He also used enjambement— a technique whereby the sense is carried on without pause to the next line.

Verse and prose

In Shakespeare's plays, most of the court characters speak for much of the time in blank verse, whereas low-life characters often speak in prose.

It is sometimes suggested that we can make an easy division and say that Shakespeare's higher-ranking characters speak in blank verse and low-life ones in prose. But it is not so simple:

  • when Hamlet (a noble character) talks to Polonius and then first meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (other noble characters) in Act II scene ii, he speaks to them throughout in prose. (There is no obvious reason why this might be so, but one possibility is that Shakespeare wants to mark a complete contrast for the audience's ears when they begin to hear the speech of the First Player, who, when invited to give a speech, makes it in blank verse — and in a rather stylised and unnatural form, with heraldic words such as ‘gules' and ‘sable', and unusual vocabulary such as ‘bissom rheum' and ‘mobled' — upon which even Polonius remarks.)

Rhyming couplets

Sometimes Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter, but not blank verse. For example when the Players perform ‘The Mousetrap', the play within a play in Hamlet, ‘The Mousetrap' rhymes, in paired lines known as rhyming couplets:

‘Full thirty times hath Phoebus' cart gone round
Neptune's salt wash and Tellus' orbed ground,
And thirty dozen moons with borrow'd sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been
Since love our hearts and Hymen did our hands
Unite commutual in most sacred bands.'

This enables Shakespeare to indicate a ‘play within a play' for which he has chosen a less natural speaking style than that he gives his other characters.

Scene conclusions

Another use of rhyme is to mark the ends of scenes. There were no curtains on the Shakespearean stage (see The Theatre: Design of theatres) but, although the audience could not see that a scene had reached its conclusion (and in the absence of scenery, they might have to imagine the next part of the action taking place in a different setting) they could hear the clue given them by a rhyming couplet:

‘It shall be so. / Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.'
 ‘O come away, / My soul is full of discord and dismay.'
 ‘O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right.'

Apart from ends of scenes, sometimes rhyme is used to highlight the words - in Hamlet,the bitterness of the protagonist's response to his mother is emphasised by the rhyming comment:

‘A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother.'
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