Shakespeare's language

Learning to speak Shakespeare 

William Shakespeare is famous for his language. It is estimated that he created around 2,035 new words or phrases, and many of these are still in use today, such as “critical”, “excellent”, and “be cruel to be kind”. Also, his texts are crammed with literary devices.

Below, we explain the meaning of verse, prose, and various types of rhyme before briefly outlining language devices often used in Shakespeare, such as antithesis, imagery, and puns.

Verse vs. prose 

While prose is ‘ordinary language’, verse refers to lines that follow a specific pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Each verse pattern has a metrical rhythm called meter (British spelling: metre). Two of the most common types of verse in Shakespeare are iambic pentameter and trochaic tetrameter. 

If you find it tricky to tell verse from prose, we have a shortcut for you: Try to compare the length of the lines. In a prose passage in a play, the lines typically look much longer. 

Verse: iambic pentameter

Iambic pentameter is the dominant type of verse in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. It consists of a line of verse written with a five-beat rhythm where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. The unit of an unstressed syllable and a stressed one is called an iamb (pronounced ‘eye-am’).

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia speaks in iambic pentameter to her beloved Lysander:

I swear to thee by Cupid’s strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head, [...]
In that same place thou hast appointed me
Tomorrow truly will I meet with thee.

Each line has five stressed syllables (underlined). If you read it aloud, you should be able to hear the rhythm. 

Iambic pentameter signals high social status. Hermia’s use of this type of meter shows that she is a noblewoman. Sometimes characters complete each other’s lines to make up a unit of five iambs. This may suggest that the two characters are close – like Hermia and Lysander who are lovers.

Verse: trochaic tetrameter

Trochaic tetrameter is sometimes seen in the plays, but very rarely in the sonnets. It is a four-beat rhythm where a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed one. The unit of a stressed syllable and an unstressed one is called a trochee (pronounced ‘tro-kee’). 

In Shakespeare’s plays, it is mainly supernatural creatures that speak this way. The witches in Macbeth often use trochaic tetrameter: 

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

Each line has four stressed syllables (underlined). Unlike iambic pentameter, this rhythm does not follow the natural sound of English, and this makes it sound dramatic and strange. Often tetrameter is accompanied by rhyme. 

Prose

Prose – ordinary language without meter – is sometimes used in Shakespeare’s plays where it may have many purposes. Firstly, it can signal low social status. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s nurse speaks this way because she is a commoner (non-noble person). Secondly, prose is for comical purposes. Juliet’s nurse frequently makes embarrassing sexual jokes or acts in a silly way.

Thirdly, prose can be employed to show madness or unpredictability. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth starts speaking in prose after the murder of King Duncan. Her guilty conscience gradually makes her go mad. Her mental breakdown is reflected in the breakdown of her language which changes from iambic pentameter to prose.

Rhyme 

In the plays, Shakespeare mostly wrote in blank verse (blank meaning that the lines do not rhyme), but rhyme is still an important device in parts of the plays and always in the sonnets.

Rhyme has many functions and may be used by different types of characters. Generally, however, rhyme helps draw attention to what is being said or done.

If the rhyme is end rhyme, it may also have the pra...

The text shown above is just an extract. Only members can read the full content.

Get access to the full Study Guide.

As a member of PrimeStudyGuides.com, you get access to all of the content.

Sign up now

Already a member? Log in