More on the language of Shakespeare

More on the language of Shakespeare...: 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.     

Blank verse 

This is usually defined as ‘unrhymed’ verse. To understand this, it is necessary to realise 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 ‘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'.


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: ‘He knew he had to go to school today.' This is called iambic rhythm. 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.

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.'


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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