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Shakespeare's Language

 

Many students—and adults for that matter—find Shakespeare difficult to read and hard to understand. They accuse him of not speaking English and refuse to believe that ordinary people spoke the way his characters do. However, if you understand more about his language, it is easier to understand. One idea that may help is to remember that his plays are written in two forms: prose and verse. In A Midsummer Night's Dream prose and verse are both used extensively.

Prose

Prose is the form of speech used by common people in Shakespearean drama. There is no rhythm or meter in the line. It is everyday language. Shakespeare's audience would recognize the speech as their language. These are characters such as murderers, servants, and porters. However, many important characters can speak in prose. The majority of The Merry Wives of Windsor is written in prose because it deals with middle-class. The Rustics from A Midsummer Night's Dream speak in prose.

For example:

Bottom: That will ask some tears in the true performance of it: if I do it, let the audience look to their eyes. I will move storms, I will condole in some measure. To the rest: yet my chief humor is for a tyrant (1.2.26–30).

Nick Bottom, a weaver, explains to his colleagues how he will play the principle role in Pyramus and Thisbe. Because there is no rhyme or rhythm, and the text flows without concern of where the line ends on the page, we recognize the passage as prose. Consequently, we can tell that Bottom is a commoner who speaks with the language of an Elizabethan audience member.

Verse

The majority of Shakespeare's plays are written in verse. A character who speaks in verse is a noble or a member of the upper class. Most of Shakespeare's plays focused on these characters. The verse form he uses is blank verse. It contains no rhyme, but each line has an internal rhythm with a regular rhythmic pattern. The pattern most favored by Shakespeare is iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is defined as a ten-syllable line with the accent on every other syllable, beginning with the second one.

For example:

Puck: Thou speakst aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon, and make him smile,
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
(2.1.42–45).

The accent occurs on every other syllable, and the natural accent of each word is placed in that position on the line.

At times Shakespeare found it necessary to take a vowel out of a word so that the rhythm of the line would not be interrupted. For example, flow'r is pronounced as one
syllable.

For example:

Oberon: Fetch me that flow'r; the herb I showed thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
(2.1.169–171).

Shakespeare used this style of writing as a form of stage direction. Actors today can tell by "scanning" a line (scansion) what words are most important and how fast to say a line. When two characters are speaking they will finish the ten syllables needed for a line, showing that one line must quickly come on top of another. This is called a shared line or a split line.

For example:

Oberon: I do but beg a little changeling boy,
To be my henchman.
Titania: Set your heart at rest.
The fairy land buys not the child of me (2.1.120–122).

Trochaic Verse

On some special occasions Shakespeare uses another form of verse. He reverses the accent and shortens the line. The reversed accent, with the accent on the first syllable is called trochaic. He uses this verse frequently in A Midsummer Night's Dream and in Macbeth where magic or ritual is involved.

For example:

Oberon: Flower of this purple dye,
Hit with Cupid's archery,
Sink in apple of his eye (3.2.102–104).

When reading or acting a Shakespearean play, count the syllables in the lines. You will be surprised at Shakespeare's consistency. Then circle the syllables where the accent appears. You will notice that he places the most important words on the accent. Words like "the," "is," and "and" that do not carry the meaning are on the unaccented portion of the lines. In the Globe Theatre where there were no microphones, the more important words would carry and an audience member would still know what was going on because the important words were heard. Iambic pentameter has been called a "heart beat," and each of Shakespeare's lines contains that human beat.



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