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8.7: Language

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  • Shakespeare wrote primarily in blank verse. Verse means that the lines have meter —a regular pattern of stressed syllables that occurs in the poetic line. Blank means that the verse is unrhymed. Therefore, blank verse is unrhymed, metered verse. The meter Shakespeare uses —for the most part—is called iambic pentameter. An iamb is a kind of metrical “foot” with one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, like:

    /re WARD/

    Penta (of pentameter) means “five.” So in iambic pentameter, there are five iambs (five feet) in a regular line of verse:

    /now, FAIR/hiPPOL/yTA,/our NUP/tial HOUR/

    Say that out loud and you will hear yourself naturally speak five iambs (/unstressed-STRESSED/). Even if you do not know the identity of Hip- polyta, or the definition of a nuptial, this line sounds relatively normal. However, there will be some lines in Shakespeare that sound very strange by comparison. They may be strange for one of two reasons: (a ) you may be pronouncing or stressing the words incorrectly (Shakespeare’s language does have some oddly pronounced words, like “commendable” — pronounced a bit like “common double”) or (b) the line isn’t regular. Here is an example of a slightly irregular line:

    /to BE/ or NOT/ to BE/that IS/ the QUEST/ion/

    This line has five perfectly normal iambs followed by an extra, unstressed, syllable (“ion”). This is called a weak ending and it occurs quite a lot throughout Shakespeare’s poetic verse. This is still technically a “regular” line. In Hamlet’s speech that follows, however, he has a lot of these weak endings right in a row—and this string of weak endings becomes a pattern unto itself. Patterns like this one are important to notice. In a play about a prince who cannot decide whether to go through with killing his uncle, this series of weak endings makes Hamlet sound like he is waffling ( which is true). This is a pattern the actor can use to think about, and perhaps unlock, a choice about how to play this particular moment.

    Verse may cause the actor to pronounce words irregularly so that they better fit the verse line. Take this speech from Macbeth:

    If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well It were done quickly: if the assassination Could trammel up the consequence, and catch With his surcease success; that but this blow Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
    But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
    We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases We still have judgment here; that we but teach Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice To our own lips.

    The lines are mostly regular, but to make them so, Shakespeare had to elide some words. Examples of elisions from the preceding speech include ‘tis, 'twere, We’ld, and poison’d. This short speech contains a relatively high percentage of elisions and therefore might be a pattern to notice and then address as a potential acting choice, simply: why is Macbeth rushing through his words? Is he anxious? Hurried? When the actor begins to address those questions brought on by the language, he or she has a potential character choice.

    Sometimes actors may have to elide words themselves to make the words fit the verse line —she might have a two-syllable “TROYlus “in one line and a three-syllable “TRO-ih-lus” in another, for example. On the printed page, both pronunciations simply appear as “Troilus.” The actor must expand or overenuneiate the pronunciation of some words, too, to fit the verse line:

    And change misdoubt to resolution

    To scan correctly, you have to expand the word “REsoLushun” to “REs- oLUsheUN.” Or here:

    Had left the flushing in her galled eyes

    “Galled” becomes two syllables: “gall-ed.” For modern actors and audiences, these pronunciations can seem antiquated and can actually obscure, rather than reveal, a moment in the play. The idea with verse is to notice how it is working, particularly the places where it works differently, and then use the observations as a basis for performance choices.

    As the actors begin to do all this analysis, they may find that in the verse line, this “pulse” throughout the poetry often highlights a point—a kind of “thesis” for the character in a given moment. Here is another example from Macbeth:

    /toMOR/ow AND/to MOR/ow AND/to MOR/ow

    This is just a regular line with a weak ending. Now just try to say the STRESSED syllables:


    For a character giving this particular speech in a play about ambition, and who has just learned his wife is dead and enemies are on the way to kill him, a line like “MORE AND MORE AND MORE” speaks volumes —he wanted more and more and more, and now more and more and more bad news keeps coming. Very often, irregularities do not mean nearly as much as this example. The point is to notice them and account for them as an actor by making a choice.

    In addition to verse patterns, variations, and rules, Shakespeare’s poetic drama is also rich with other kinds of patterns that have more to do with how ideas are constructed. We examined rhetorical patterns earlier in the speech from Richard III. Rhetorical patterns are what you notice happening in the language that sound like something organized is happening. Alliteration, consonance, assonance, repetition, antithesis- all these are rhetorical devices that, like verse patterns, can help the actor and the audience navigate how a particular character thinks or sounds.

    In part because of the unique role of theatre in the early modern period, audiences came to the theatre to hear new words and new uses of the language — Shakespeare was meeting that demand in many ways by offering new words or new uses of existing words. Encountering words that are unfamiliar to us was also experienced by the earliest listeners of Shakespeare. For the actor both in Shakespeare’s day and today, the task is to reveal the meaning of those words through gesture, clear acting choices that help to convey meaning, and careful listening to the context of the moment.

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