Rhythm

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in blank verse, which is a rhythmic verse form that does not rhyme. It echoes the patterns of natural speech, in a more patterned way. His blank verse is written in iambic pentameter. This is a name for a certain pattern of beats called ‘feet’. Pentameter means that each line is divided up into five feet. In each foot there is one stressed syllable. In iambic pentameter the rhythm goes ‘unstressed, stressed’. Sometimes this pattern changes, which can tell you something about the importance of the line.

Sometimes pairs of rhyming lines known as rhyming couplets are used – to mark an important occasion, or to finish a scene with a flourish. Occasionally a very noble character – like the Prince in Romeo and Juliet will speak entirely in rhyming couplets. Some characters use prose – not speaking in any kind of rhythm at all – they are usually the funny characters, for example Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Did you know?

  • If you spot a noble character speaking in prose in Shakespeare or a lowborn character speaking in verse, it’s a clue that there is something unusual happening.
  • Although Shakespeare is the author most associated with blank verse, it was also used by Christopher Marlowe, another Elizabethan playwright, and the poets John Keats and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.