Variations from the norm

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.

Strongly stressed lines

When Angelo is struggling with his realisation that he feels lust for Isabella, (Act II sc ii) the lines of his soliloquy depart very noticeably from the regular iambic pentameter, containing many more strong beats than usual: 

'O fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?'

 Of course, because this line is almost entirely monosyllabic, different actors may stress different words, but we can all hear the jerkiness of the speech.

Many of Angelo's lines in his 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 his fraught mental state. The same is even more true of Isabella's tirade against Claudio in Act III sc i:

‘O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch! ...
What should I think? ... Take my defiance,
Die, perish!'

Smooth lines

In contrast, we can hear the smoothness and more regular stresses of the Duke's opening speech, where the audience need to ‘hear' that he is a man of authority:

‘Of government the properties to unfold Would seem in me t'affect speech and discourse, Since I am put to know that your own science Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice My strength can give you. Then no more remains But that, to your sufficiency as your worth is able, And let them work. The nature of our people, Our city's institutions, and the terms For common justice, y'are as pregnant in As art and practice hath enriched any That we remember. There is our commission…'
  • Shakespeare makes the Duke'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 uses enjambement – a technique whereby the sense is carried on without pause to the next line, as we see in several of the lines quoted above.

Verse and prose

Most of the ‘higher ranking' characters – for example the Duke, Angelo, Escalus, Claudio, Isabella - speak for much of the time in blank verse, whereas the ‘low-life' characters, such as Pompey, Mistress Overdone and Elbow speak in prose:

‘Come, fear not you: good counsellors lack no clients: though you change your place, you need not change your trade: I'll be your tapster still.' (Pompey, Act I sc ii)

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: for example, Lucio, who seems to move between ‘high' and ‘low' life, speaks mostly in prose but in blank verse when he visits Isabella in the nunnery (Act I sc iv).

Rhyming couplets

When the Duke comments at the end of Act III on the hypocrisy of Angelo, he makes a series of almost proverbial comments, or epigrams. In order to highlight these, Shakespeare uses neither prose nor blank verse, but rhyme, in paired lines known as rhyming couplets:

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe:
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand and virtue, go:

More nor less to others paying

Than by self-offences weighing.

Scene conclusions

There is another use of rhyme, which is to mark the ends of scenes. There were no curtains on the Shakespearean stage (see The Theatre) 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:

I'll tell him yet of Angelo's request
And fit his mind to death, for his soul's rest.

Come, let us go:
Our corn's to reap, for yet our tithe's to sow.

Hence shall we see
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.
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