“He jests at scars that never felt a wound./But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?/It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” (Romeo & Juliet, 2.2.1-3).
The above line begins one of the most iconic soliloquies in Romeo & Juliet. Arguably one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, these lines are spoken by Romeo alone for only the audience to hear. Part of what makes the monologue so memorable is it’s format: it’s written in blank verse.
Commonly used throughout all of Shakespeare’s plays, blank verse is a format using unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter. Shakespeare frequently bounces between prose and verse in his plays, be it a tragedy, comedy, or history play. Not only does this demonstrate Shakespeare’s great literary skill, it’s done very purposefully and achieves a couple technical things.
An iamb is a poetic foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. When something is written in iambic pentameter, each line consists of five iambs, totaling ten syllables per line. It creates a cadence resembling a gallop or a heartbeat.
By writing in a consistent format, Shakespeare actually made it easier for actors to memorize their lines. Infusing the text with a latent musicality helps the words fall in line because the language works more like a song than a speech.
In Shakespeare’s plays, blank verse can be heard during prologues and chorus scenes. These often feature a character or narrator (or a group of them) speaking directly to the audience, setting the scene of the play or providing additional information. Using verse in these situations takes the audience out of the action, signifying that the words being spoken are significant and should be heeded.
Characters of high status or class speak in verse more than those of lower status. In The Tempest, the fools Trinculo and Stefano speak primarily in prose, while Prospero uses almost exclusively verse. Status serves a detrimental role in these plays, indicating which character’s the audience should pay attention to. It’s a subtle way to show instead of tell — by paying attention to the shifting speech patterns, you can tell when one character might be in control of a situation and which character might be filling a submissive role.
Verse also serves as an indicator for character. Caliban, once again from The Tempest, is a low status character who utilizes a good deal of verse, as seen in his monologue at the beginning of Act 2, Scene 2. Caliban speaks in verse because Miranda taught him how to speak, and Miranda (Prospero’s daughter) maintains high status. Splicing the blank verse into Caliban’s speech patterns fleshes out the character and their relationship to Prospero and Miranda.
In a similar fashion, Benedick and Beatrice are high status characters from the comedy Much Ado About Nothing who speak to each other in prose to establish themselves as a comedic couple. The absence of blank verse clues the audience into their relationship, demonstrating how relaxed Benedick and Beatrice feel around each other. The two characters value wit and humor, and are thus not confined by the restraints of blank verse.
Speaking of restraints, a break in the format can indicate an important shift in tone or emphasize particular words. Looking at the prologue to Henry V, the play begins with the phrase “Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend/the brightest heaven of invention” (Prologue.1.1-2). The first line begins with a trochee — a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. This was used to capture the audience’s attention and quell a noisy crowd. What better way to start off a play than with a booming “oh”?
When reading Shakespeare, the text provides you with everything you need to know. Taking note of the shifts in and out of blank verse can help us break down the action of the play, as well as the characters and their relationships. Switching between formats and structures can develop thematic content and engage your audience just as effectively on the page as on the stage.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.