Blank verse, prose and rhyme

During the sixteenth century, the form known as blank verse (described below) was introduced into English drama. This enabled playwrights to vary the kind of language spoken by their characters, and hence allowed the audience to hear different patterns of language for different purposes.

In addition, Shakespeare as a playwright did not simply use prose – the usual style of writing and speech, in which, for example, this information (apart from quotations) is written – but also rhyme.

Blank verse

This is usually defined as ‘unrhymed iambic pentameter'.

To understand this, it is necessary to realise that most English words of more than one syllable stress one (or more) of them:

  • when we say the word ‘messenger' we slightly stress the first syllable
  • in ‘occasion' and ‘invisible' we stress the second
  • in ‘satisfaction' the third.

If we choose words which have the same stressed syllable, a pattern emerges – for example the well-known chant from Macbeth:

Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble'.

More on stressed syllables: Small words such as ‘and' and ‘the' are usually unstressed. ‘Fire' was pronounced as two syllables in Shakespeare's time.

Iambic rhythm

The commonest stress pattern in spoken English is where one unstressed, or weak, syllable is followed by a stressed, or strong, one – for example: ‘We clean our teeth before we go to bed.' This is called iambic rhythm. These groupings of stressed / unstressed syllables are called feet.

Playwrights realised that, by using this natural inclination in a more organised way, they could simultaneously suggest real speech and yet introduce a more formal, organised pattern to their language.

More on varying iambs: 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. For example, the Officer speaking to Cleomenes and Dion in Act III scene iii says:

‘You here shall swear upon this sword of justice
That you Cleomenes and Dion have
Been both at Delphos and from thence have brought
This seal'd up Oracle.'

In the same scene Hermione says:

‘The bug which you would fright me with, I seek.
To me can life be no commodity.'

Both these characters are speaking steadily and calmly (in spite of the circumstances). When characters such as Leontes are angry and distraught, the rhythms become much more uneven. (See Variations from the norm about irregularly stressed lines; see Critical analysis for the detailed examination of a passage from the play.)

Trochaic rhythm

The opposite pattern (strong/weak rather than weak/strong) is known as a trochaic rhythm or metre, for example: ‘Cloudy weather reaching Northern Ireland.'

More on trochees: 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 pentameters, 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.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.