I had a heck of a time figuring out where to put this question. After all, it could be a General Question. But I finally decided to put it here…
Where is so much of Shakespeare’s plays written in iambic pentameter? What was the logic behind this? It seems to me to just be a pain in the neck, having to make sure each line has five two-syllable iambs, with the stress on the second syllable (someone please correct me, if this in not accurate). What on earth was the purpose behind this? And why don’t they do this anymore when they write plays, etc.?
In terms of rhythm, if that’s the right word, iambic isn’t that far removed from the way we actually speak. Not to say it’s easy, it’s just not as much of a pain as it might first appear. Once you start writing it and get into the rhythm, it’s not so hard to hammer out a little iambic pentameter. What makes it tricky is arranging the verse so the important words in each line get the stresses.
Why did Shakespeare do it? To impress the learned people in his audience, I guess. That’s what you did to impress them: you wrote in verse. It was expected. The parts of his plays that are intended to appeal to the rabble are generally in prose. I think that realism is much more important in today’s theatre than it was 400 years ago, and that’s one reason fewer people try to write poetry for the stage.
According to Stephen Fry, in his excellent book The Ode Less Travelled, it’s been around since the time of Chaucer, so by extension Shakey was just following convention. So your question is really why Chaucer used it, which requires further investigation.
Ok, bit of searching finds that Chaucer used it when it was known as the “rime royal”, which, according to this, possibly “comes from a 7‑line stanza used by French poets, or from omitting the 5 th line from the Italian ottava rima”.
Well, it’s not exactly accurate. There are very few, if any, poems written strictly in iambic pentameter where ever single foot is an iamb. (“Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost is the only one I can think of offhand that fits the bill. I’m sure there must be others, but they’re the exception, not the rule). But, yes, the predominant rhythm in iambic pentameter is exactly what you stated.
To write iambic isn’t all that hard
It just requires that you take the phrase
“Is this the face than launched a thousand ships?”
And then you get the rhythm in your head
Until it flow so easy from your pen.
It’s quite a lot of fun for you to try
to put your words in ways that fit the scheme
And if you find you’re stuck about a phrase
A synonym will always be around.
Of course, it gets more iffy when you rhyme
So writing verse that’s blank is often good
Until you have a moment of your time.
To add the word that sounds as best it could.
Iambic pentameter is the classic meter for blank verse, and for sonnets. He was appealing to the more educated audience members, who presumably would have recognized the form. In the scene in which Romeo and Juliet first meet, the two actually create a sonnet as they alternate lines. You will also note that none of the lower-class characters used it; only the upper classes.
Don’t know, but I’m sure glad he did. If you were to put this partial quote into straight prose:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
. . . it wouldn’t read 1/10th so gloriously. This bit of writing plays like music in my head.
That’s not how I read it, but I can’t say it’s an invalid interpretation necessarily. I don’t read it as about anything in particular other than its subject–it’s a very quiet, meditative, lulling poem. Somebody predisposed to thinking about suicide could easily read it as a suicidal poem. Somebody drawn to the beauty of nature may read it as a poem about taking in the quiet beauty of winter. I do find the poem to be a bit dark, and suggestive of death or the tedium of life.
Here’s a very good collection of short essays on “Stopping By Woods.” Three of the essays do suggest a suicide theme. You can decide for yourself what you think it means. I don’t think it means any one thing in particular.
Blank verse was one of the great innovations of Elizabethan drama. Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton pioneered it in Gorboduc (1562) and it caught on like wildfire because it provided a far more flexible and natural rhythm than the rhymed verse that had been used for drama before. Most early Tudor plays were written in “fourteeners” – rhymed couplets of iambic heptameter. It sounded like this:
Agathon, he whose counsel wise to princes’ weal extended,
By good advice unto a prince three thigns he hath commended:
First is that he hath government and ruleth over men;
Secondly, to rule with laws, eke justice, saith he, then;
Thirdly, that he must well conceive he may not always reign,
Lo, thus the rule unto a prince Agathon squared plain.
– Thomas Preston, Cambyses, King of Persia
Compared to that, Shakespeare’s verse sounds positively conversational.
Incidentally, playwrights in this era used verse for practical as well as artistic reasons. It’s easier to memorize than prose, and actors had to memorize a tremendous number of lines, because plays didn’t run for a set amount of time as they do now. The theater companies had a huge repertory, and they were constantly adding new plays and reviving old favorites.
**pulykamell ** pretty much summed it up, but it’s also helpful to know that Frost wrote poems that contemplated losing himself in the “woods,” when he was younger and going through a darker period in his life. In “Snowy Evening,” the fact that he passes the woods by instead of entering them suggests a continuing theme, in that he is more mature and aware of his responsibilities than he was as a boy - hence, the reluctant turning away from the “lovely, dark and deep” woods. It’s an interesting interpretation, but only one of many.
I remember hearing in a college Shakespeare course that there was another practical advantage to blank-verse. Apparently, because of the regular meter one could speak it faster than prose and still be understood. In an era when plays could run 3+ hours and had to be finished before sunset, this was a real consideration.
Sorry I don’t have a cite; I took the class 20-some years ago.
And I just have to say that Fretful Porpentine is my absolute favorite name on the SDMB!!
I can attest to that. In Grade X, I had to memorise Mark Antony’s and Brutus’ speeches to the crowd at Caesar’s funeral. Antony’s is the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech and is in iambs; Brutus’ speech is shorter and is in prose - one of the few examples where Shakespeare gives an upperclass character prose in a major speech (presumably to represent Brutus’s blunt, unsophisticated character). Antony’s speech was way easier to memorise, even though longer.
Nitpick: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is in iambic tetrameter. But I’m sure you knew that.
And I’ll go further than Porpentine and Piper, and say that ease of memorization was the primary reason plays were written in verse. Yes, it was partly tradition, but memorization was the reason plays were traditionally verse in the first place. The same goes for the classic epics, which were transmitted orally.
Except the rime royal used rhymes, not blank verse, which was a major development by the Elizabethans, and also used stanzas, which Shakespeare did not use in plays. The use of blank verse and no stanzas actually made the poetry more natural than is the case with rime royal, which follows more formal rules, as the page you linked to indicates:
Interestingly, Shakespeare used ryhming verse when he wanted to represent a play within a play (Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream). He also used a ryhming couplet on occasion to indicate the end of a scene.
And of course Shakespeare didn’t write entirely in iambic pentameter when he did write in verse. He hit iambic tetrameter in “MacBeth” (“When shall we three meet again/In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”) and dactylic tetrameter in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (“His heart, like an agate with your print impressed/Proud with his form, in his eye pride expressed”).
Generally, iambic verse is used to denote upper-class characters, and prose lower-class (see “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and compare the speaking patterns of Titania, Theseus and Helena to those of Bottom and Quince), but sometimes it denotes mood or emotional swings. The scene in “As You Like It” where Duke Frederick exiles Rosalind is an excellent example of this: upper-class Rosalind and Celia begin the scene in prose, two young women giggling about the handsome wrestlers, but when Frederick comes in and the mood shifts to serious business, all the characters switch to verse.
In the first wedding scene in “Much Ado”, the scene begins in prose. Claudius begins his tirade against Hero in prose, but switches to verse about halfway through as (presumably) his emotions overtake him and he must resort to poetry to express them fully.
…Rhyming verse wasn’t limited to plays-within-plays either, but scenes of very heightened emotion. Romeo and Juliet composing a sonnet together, for example, or Talbot and Young Talbot in the first part of “Henry VI”.
The fairies rhyme often in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and Iago rhymes occasionally when he’s trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Richard III rhymes frequently as well, but instead of rhyming with himself like Iago, Richard tends to complete other characters’ rhymes. The wooing scene with Lady Anne is full of those.