About the playwright

William Shakespeare is believed to have been born on 23rd or 24th of April, 1563, at Stratford-upon-Avon, in England. He was the third child and eldest son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. His father worked as a Glover, and rose high in public life, becoming alderman in 1565 and bailiff in 1568, but later on, fell from grace. Shakespeare received his education at King Harvard VI's Grammar School, Stratford. However, he did not go up to university and was officially no scholar. Little is known of his early days. Some say he fled from Stratford after running into trouble for deer stealing, and falling into the hands of Sir Tomas Lucy, the local magnate. Another source says that he was the local schoolmaster.

However, we do know that he married Ann Hathaway, who was the daughter of a farmer. Their first child was a girl called Susanna, who was baptised on May 6, 1583. They had two more children - Hamnet and Judith - on February 22, 1585. Hamnet died at a very early age. Susanna's daughter, Elizabeth (died 1670) was the bard's final direct descendant.

The records become clearer after 1592. From the mention of Shakespeare's name in a letter written by the dying playwright Greene in September 1592, we come to know Shakespeare was becoming a playwright - a rival to contest with the 'University Wits', Marlowe, Peele, Nashe, Kyd and Lodge. Shakespeare involved himself in theatrical works and produced plays teeming with human emotions, and was a master in depicting human psychology. He also wrote a few poems and 154 sonnets.

Shakespeare obtained a grant of arms in 1596; the following year he bought New Place at Stratford. He retired from public life in 1610, and went to live at Stratford, but continued to write till 1613. He died on 23rd of April 1616. At his grave, the following epitaph is inscribed:

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed heare.
Bleste be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones."



Features in General

During the renaissance, it was customary to write in blank verse. However, as with the sonnet, Shakespeare did not stick to this convention totally.1 He deviated as and when he felt necessary. This deviation shows a unique pattern - he did not scatter his lines into blank verse, prose or couplets in any wayward fashion, but chose each for a specific purpose. While a romantic or interesting scene would be in blank verse, a passionate but conversational scene, or a scene dealing with material things, would often be in plain prose - so as to be more natural in its effect upon the audience.

That is why the opening scene of The Merchant of Venice is in blank verse, while the second scene of the first act, where Portia voices her words from her agonised heart (and deals with practical problems), is in prose. In Macbeth, the second scene of the first act is in blank verse, though there is a conversation, because it is highly interesting - right after the entry of the witches' scene. It would be quite unfair of Shakespeare to make the second scene in prose after the first scene sets the mood of the play. The poetic beat, maintained in the second scene, is at par with the beating expectations of the audience.

In Julius Caesar, the opening scene combines blank verse as well as prose. A deep probe into the scene would reveal that the carpenter and the cobbler speak in prose, whereas the tribunes speak in blank verse. Shakespeare made most of the common people always speak in prose, while blank verse was given to the more important characters. Characters of main plot mainly speak in blank verse, while characters of sub-plots mostly speak in ordinary prose. There are, no doubt, exceptions, and when these exceptions do occur, they must be analysed from the factor stated at the beginning of the topic.

The porter scene in Macbeth (Act II Scene III) is in prose, as it is downright material with the drunken porter. After he departs, the scene is in blank verse, as it once more becomes interesting, for the audience is now gripped with the expectation of the revelation of Duncan's murder. In Act III Scene I, Macbeth speaks to the murderers in prose. The purpose is not just material, but very base. After a few lines, it turns out into blank verse, with Macbeth's rather philosophical comparison of men with dogs. The scene continues in blank verse, as the conversation becomes gripping.

In Julius Caesar, Act III Scene III, which shows the unfortunate poet Cinna in the hands of the mob, begins with blank verse, as Cinna is a poet, and should speak so. In his conversation with the plebeians, several editors have turned the lines entirely prose, going by the logic that as they are all minor characters, they should speak prose, and not blank verse. However, the interest generated in the previous scene, and the instant replies of the mob and the poet make this scene suitable for blank verse. Several lines can easily be turned into blank verse, as has been done.

But even in writing blank verse, Shakespeare often uses couplets for a round-up effect of a highly romantic or witty or philosophical dialogue. Acts generally end in couplets. Many of his scenes end in couplets.

Another important feature is the break-up of a line of blank verse between two (or more) persons in the form of a dialogue or a conversation. The following lines from Twelfth Night will illustrate this point.

CAPTAIN ...(They say) she hath abjured the sight
And company of men.

VIOLA O that I served that lady,
And might not be delivered to the world
Till I had made my own occasion mellow
What my estate is!

CAPTAIN That were hard to compass. [I.2]

Or in Macbeth,

MACBETH We will speak further -
LADY MACBETH Only look up clear; [I.5]

These are instances of a line of blank verse, shared between two persons.

In the second example, Lady Macbeth speaks the instant that Macbeth utters the word 'further'. There is no pause.

Sometimes, Shakespeare does not end a line in a complete blank verse.

LADY MACBETH Say to the king, I would attend his leisure
For a few words.

SERVANT Madam, I will. [III.2]

In this instance, For a few words/Madam, I will form one line, and the servant speaks right after the word words. However, it has only eight syllables instead of ten. The absence of two syllables suggests a very short pause, in which the servant exits. Lady Macbeth then reflects for a few more seconds, and then utters:

"Naught's had, all's spent"

which has only four syllables. Here, six syllables have been dropped, not from the end, but from the beginning of the line, to signify her reflection for a few moments before she speaks.

In Julius Caesar, we find

BRUTUS Let me not hinder, Cassius, your desires;
I'll leave you.

CASSIUS Brutus, I do observe you now of late. [I.2]

Here, I'll leave you has just three syllables. The pause of seven syllables is actually of dramatic importance. After saying these words, Brutus makes out to go - Cassius watches him for a few moments, and when he is about to exit, calls him back with these words. This creates a very natural effect - this is how a person would have behaved in real life.

Yet another aspect found in Shakespeare's plays is the break up of a word and pronouncing of a syllable, which should otherwise be silent. This is known as diaeresis. This is done for the purpose of making ten syllables, which would have otherwise fallen short by a syllable. They have been indicated with the mark of the grave accent. (`)

In The Merchant of Venice, we find,

PORTIA ...To a new crownèd monarch. Such it is... or
With blearèd visages come forth to view [III.2]

In these two instances, crowned and bleared would be broken into two syllables each, crown-ed and blear-ed. The -ed, which should normally be pronounced as /d/ in these two words, would be pronounced as /ed/, as in heated.

Elision is also used to keep a line in ten syllables. The and it is are often reduced to Th and 'Tis, respectively.

The Gradual Evolution of Shakespeare's Verse Style

So far, the various aspects of Shakespeare's verses have been analysed in general, that is, the reason why he used couplets, blank verses and prose in a particular text. Now, these aspects will be studied from their gradual evolution - that is, how they changed as Shakespeare's career as a dramatist progressed. Edward Dowden has categorised his dramas with respect to various incidents in his life6 - and though his categorisation is highly disputed by the modern scholars, the division of the plays remains the same. Accordingly, in dealing with his plays, we find four major periods - the early, the second, the third (which has been called the tragic period) and the final period. The Comedy of Errors and Romeo and Juliet fall in the first period. In The Comedy of Errors, the opening scene begins in couplets, expanding into blank verse, as Egeon tells his story. It must be noted that it has been remarked previously that such a situation would call for prose. Brutus delivers his speech in prose, and so does Portia, in telling about the three caskets. This feature is clearly absent in Shakespeare's early plays, for this part (and other such parts) should be in prose. There are other forms of rhymes to be found in the play - like abab, or abcddaca. These rhyme schemes are not constant, and there are various combinations of rhyme to be found in the play, which clearly set the lines apart from falling into the classification of blank verse. This reveals the young poetic mind at work, aiming more at rhythmical artistry of the words. Act II, Scene I is almost in couplets, where Adriana and Luciana talk of the husband and servant, who have not returned. This scene is gripping, and the audience is in constant expectation about new comic development. It must be noted once more that in later plays, this would again call for blank verse, for the "beating expectations" of the audience is "at par" with the poetic mood of the plot. However, this part is again in couplets. When the servant, Dromio of Ephesus enters, some lines are in prose, and this should be so, for he is a servant, and it has been stated that servants and such characters speak in prose. However, a few lines later, he speaks in blank verse, and sometimes, in couplets. This is because the scene becomes rhythmic as he relates his story.

In Romeo and Juliet, there is a chorus, which utters its words in the Shakespearean rhyme scheme of the sonnet - ababcdcdefef gg. This again shows the same tendency to give way to poetry over the more liberal blank verse. Act I, Scene I is in blank verse, making the play serious. The serious tragic tone sets in with the opening of the play. In Act I, Scene II, Capulet speaks in couplets, as the speech is romantic. The clown, who enters after this speech, speaks in prose, keeping with the custom of giving prose lines to minor characters. In Act I, Scene III, this is more prominently brought out. Lady Capulet speaks to the nurse in blank verse, while the nurse replies to her in prose. The difference between the major and the minor characters can be clearly seen.

A feature which Shakespeare discards in his later plays (and the plays of the middle period) is the ending of the scenes in couplets. In the plays of the middle period and the later plays, Shakespeare is not very consistent about ending his scenes in rhymes. A lot of scenes do not end in rhymes. Sometimes, a major character ends his words in rhymes, and exits, after which a minor character speaks something which does not rhyme at all. This might seem to ruin the beautiful effect created by the rhyme. This feature is seen especially in the tragedies of the middle period and the later period. Perhaps, Shakespeare felt that ending scenes in rhymes in tragedies would make the scene lose its seriousness, and so, in order to retain the seriousness, he gave the minor character some lines which would break off the rhyme and bring back seriousness once more.

Romeo and Juliet, being a play in the early years of Shakespeare's career, has most of its scenes ending in rhymes. There are some variations, and they are only a few, and are instances of what has just been stated.

Much Ado About Nothing begins in prose - and it is the major characters who speak it. It is only near the very end of the scene that the characters speak prose. The blank verse sets in the mood of the play, no doubt, but the theme of marriage is discussed before that - in prose. This might seem inconsistent, and inconsistence is the mark of the Bard. However, the inconsistencies have their reasons. The play is not a tragedy. However, it appears like one at the beginning, and is extremely serious. Shakespeare perhaps wished to create a little suspense in the plot, and so, he wrote such lines to keep the audience in constant thought as to what to expect in the coming scenes. However, there is another explanation for it. It has been remarked before that Shakespeare gave prose lines to his characters when the topic would be extremely material. That is exactly the matter of the discussion among the characters. So, it is possible that Shakespeare, in this middle period, began to assign prose as per the topic, something which he maintains even in his later plays.

Hamlet, which has been acclaimed to be one of the most popular plays of Shakespeare, begins in an incomplete line of blank verse. The incomplete lines have a dramatic significance, which has been pointed out earlier. Here, the play begins in this way:

BERNARDO Who's there?

FRANCISCO Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

BERNARDO Long live the king!



FRANCISCO You come most carefully upon your hour.

Here, the pause after the opening line of Bernardo is for Bernardo to make some dramatic gestures to look for the person, at which time Francisco should look for the source of the voice, after which he would speak. The three lines after this is actually one line of blank verse. Francisco, hearing the salutation in favour of the king, recognizes Bernardo, and asks immediately, "Bernardo?". Bernardo too, immediately replies, "He". These three lines, put together, make up eight syllables, and the one missing syllable is a very short pause, at which they relax their guard, recognizing each other, after which Francisco begins to speak. Hamlet abounds in such lines.

Measure for Measure, written in the same period as the great tragedies, begins in excellent blank verse. It has been commented that Shakespeare achieved his height in language in this period. Measure for Measure truly brings out the mastery of Shakeseare.

It will be easily noticeable that the blank verse assumes its shape only after the first few lines, which are in couplets. However, the gravity of the lines cannot be denied, and the couplets do not make the lines more poetic than they make them dramatic. Scene II is in prose in the first part, where Lucio speaks with a gentleman. This is in keeping with the tradition of assigning blank verse to the more important characters, and prose to the less important ones. When Claudio enters with Provost and others, they become the more important characters, and the play resumes its rhythm as Claudio is taken to prison. The scene becomes gripping, and is in blank verse.

The opening lines of The Tempest have dramatic significance.

MASTER Boatswain!

BOATSWAIN Here, master. What cheer?

MASTER Good, speak to th' mariners. Fall to't yarely or we run ourselves aground.

Bestir, bestir!

As the crew is the minor characters of the play, the lines are in prose. It would be absolutely incorrect to connect the first two lines and read them as one line. The ship is in a tempest. The Master calls for the Boatswain, and he would be struggling to come to him, as the ship is rocking to and fro. This could obviously not be shown on the Elizabethan (or Jacobean) stage, and the feeling of a tempest-tossed ship could be brought out only by the enunciation and dramatic movements of the actors. Act I, Scene II is in blank verse, as it has the major characters. Ariel, who happens to be a magical creature, also speaks in blank verse like the rest. Sometimes, he speaks in rhymes. The speech of Trinculo is in prose, as he is a minor character.

It is impossible to state Shakespeare's verse style I completeness, and in this paper, only the major aspects have been dwelt upon, to make the readers aware of the mind of the Dramatist who composed such lines.


  1. Shakespeare formed his own pattern of Sonnets, with the rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefef gg.
  2. The factor is that of the topic of conversation, that is, of the scene being material or poetic.
  3. The New Cambridge Shakespeare keeps the lines in prose, whereas Keightley turns them into blank verse.
  4. A detailed discussion on this is done later.
  5. Students should refer to Compact English Prosody and Figures of Speech, Chapter 1.
  6. The name of the book is Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art.
  7. The instances are those of making the scene serious by breaking off the rhyme.

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