Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Shakespeare's Metrical Art

Shakespeare's Metrical Art

GEORGE T. WRIGHT
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 363
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppgm3
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Shakespeare's Metrical Art
    Book Description:

    This is a wide-ranging, poetic analysis of the great English poetic line, iambic pentameter, as used by Chaucer, Sidney, Milton, and particularly by Shakespeare. George T. Wright offers a detailed survey of Shakespeare's brilliantly varied metrical keyboard and shows how it augments the expressiveness of his characters' stage language.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91193-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. CHAPTER 1 The Iambic Pentameter Line
    (pp. 1-19)

    Iambic pentameter has often been called the most speechlike of English meters, and this is undoubtedly true, especially of its blank verse form. Whether it is true because English is a naturally iambic language is a more questionable claim. A language that insistently pushes the stresses on words to the front, to the first syllable, as all Germanic languages do, would seem to be distinguished by an impulse toward the trochaic, and certainly large numbers of English words, such aswindow, table, swimming,andlaughter,are in themselves natural trochees. Natural iambs, on the other hand, are easily provided not...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Chaucer and Wyatt: Early Expressive Pentameters
    (pp. 20-37)

    If iambic pentameter has taken different forms in its long history, and in some degree varies with every mature practitioner, the forms it took before Shakespeare’s time differ from one another quite remarkably. After Shakespeare, the meter in a sense settled down, became tame or domesticated: except for Milton, whose verse style in his own time ran sharply against the current, iambic pentameter became relatively fixed in its procedures, going through a strict Augustan phase, a more flexible Romantic phase, and finding strong variant forms in Tennyson, Browning, Hopkins, Yeats, and some persistent twentieth-century poets. It is still capable of...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Sixteenth-Century Line: Pattern and Variation
    (pp. 38-56)

    By 1564, the year of Shakespeare’s birth, iambic pentameter was still a clumsy and lumbering meter. In contrast to Chaucer’s mastery of a serviceable and expressive pentameter line, the achievement of metrical grace and strength in the sixteenth century was an arduous and painful struggle, a heroic quest of a sort, in the pursuit of which poets appear to have been, like Spenser’s courtly knights, all too frequently distracted and irresolute. We have learned to think of this meter as a remarkably rich and subtle one, capable of the most delicate or powerful effects in the hands of a master....

  7. CHAPTER 4 Flexibility and Ease in Four Older Poets
    (pp. 57-74)

    Surrey is writing before the rules Gascoigne was to codify had so narrowed poetic practice that major syllables all found their way to stressed positions and minor ones to unstressed, with circumflex syllables occupying either kind. Surrey’s original verse is highly regular, though never quite so formulaic as Gascoigne’s, Googe’s, and Turbervile’s. But in translating Virgil he feels obliged to capture some of the mysterious and Shakespeare’s Metrical Art ominous atmosphere of Virgil’s Latin. He is also writing in blank verse, the form he devised for this occasion, and the absence of rhyme permits a flow of the sentence pattern...

  8. CHAPTER 5 An Art of Small Differences: Shakespeare’s Sonnets
    (pp. 75-90)

    All three of Shakespeare’s major poems contribute something to Shakespeare’s dramatic verse art. The contribution of theSonnets,on which this chapter will focus, is of special importance, for in these poems Shakespeare learned, presumably in the early 1590s, after he had written a few plays and the narrative poems, to fashion a reflective verse whose resonances would thereafter be heard in the speeches of his dramatic characters. But the long poems, too, show Shakespeare learning to pull the thread of the descriptive and narrative sentence through the rhymed metrical stanza. InVenus and Adonis,for example, the opening quatrain...

  9. CHAPTER 6 The Verse of Shakespeare’s Theater
    (pp. 91-107)

    If English poems of this period assume readers who know and care about love, mortality, fortune, adventure, power, authority, and verse form, plays cast spectators in a somewhat different role. Spectatorsseethe action with their eyes,hearthe verse (and prose) with their ears, andimaginethe rest; readers see nothing but text and imagine all the action and all the sound. Verse form in English is realized aurally and visually (though all too often it is seen and not heard). Having read many sonnets, we can spot another by its shape on the page and by reading a...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Prose and Other Diversions
    (pp. 108-115)

    The place of prose in plays mainly written in verse is not as simple as it looks, and it has commanded little attention from Shakespearean critics. For the textual editor, the problem is mainly to decide which word-strings shall be printed as prose and which as verse—no simple task, but surely far easier than that of describing accurately how we experience the unlabeled lines in the theater. There the termsproseandverseno longer seem quite so clear or so clearly contrary. Normally when we speak of Shakespeare’s prose we do not really designate an autonomous form of...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Short and Shared Lines
    (pp. 116-142)

    Shakespeare’s Increasing Interest in Short Lines Aside from prose, the commonest kind of departure from iambic pentameter in Shakespeare’s plays is the short verse line, the line of fewer than five metrical stresses. Although short lines occur in some Renaissance stanzaic poems and later odes, the anomalous short line appearing unexpectedly and unpredictably amid an extended series of longer lines (that is, in “stichic” poems) is rare in English nondramatic poems from Chaucer to Yeats. It occurs frequently, however, in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean plays—probably, to begin with, in imitation of Virgil, who distributes “some sixty” short lines...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Long Lines
    (pp. 143-159)

    If short lines come in many varieties and may sometimes be read as either separate or shared, long lines present problems of their own. It is difficult even to say how often they occur. Some scholars think them extremely rare: “A proper alexandrine with six accents... is seldom found in Shakespeare” (Abbott, 397). Concerned to regularize Shakespeare’s lines, such scholars find ways (many plausible, some not) of reducing Shakespeare’s apparent hexameters to pentameters. More tolerant editors view the hexameter line as a legitimate feature of Shakespeare’s dramatic verse; according to E. K. Chambers, it occurs once in every sixty-nine blank-verse...

  13. CHAPTER 11 Lines with Extra Syllables
    (pp. 160-173)

    As we noted earlier, although the lines of Shakespeare’s poems are almost always perfectly regular, in the plays many lines diverge from the standard form. Some divergences we accept as normal: feminine endings, for example, or trochaic variations. But some are unfamiliar to later ears, though most of them occur in such earlier poets as Lydgate, Wyatt, and Chaucer. These optional forms of the iambic pentameter line help to make Shakespeare’s rhythmic language abundantly various and offer opportunities for richly expressive metrical effects. This chapter will describe how Shakespeare’s pentameter lines can remain pentameter and yet include more syllables than...

  14. CHAPTER 12 Lines with Omitted Syllables
    (pp. 174-184)

    If the extra syllable works with techniques of syllabic compression to produce a verse that seems overloaded with information-bearing syllables, the occasionallossof an expected syllable, unstressed or stressed, will have a different effect. The line with an omitted syllable, however, does not workagainstthe overcrowded texture of the verse, largely because such lines are relatively rare. Chambers’ tables do not include figures for headless and broken-backed lines or for other lines with monosyllabic feet, and lines that appear to be missing a single stressed syllable are quite uncommon, averaging fewer than four appearances in each play and...

  15. CHAPTER 13 Trochees
    (pp. 185-206)

    Trochees are among the most puzzling of metrical units. Unlike spondees and pyrrhics, those pairs of almost equally stressed (or unstressed) syllables which appear only as variant forms in meters that are basically something else, trochees often define meters of their own: the difference in stress between the two syllables is great enough, as in the iamb, to induce in readers a sense of an alternating rhythm. On the face of it, trochaic ought to be as popular an English meter as iambic, but in practice poets find it not nearly so resilient. In English its only successful form is...

  16. CHAPTER 14 The Play of Phrase and Line
    (pp. 207-228)

    We saw earlier (Chapters 3 and 4) that Tudor poetry treated the iambic pentameter line as the sum of two phrases, the first of four syllables, the second of six. To meet this structural requirement, poets from Surrey to Sidney understood that they needed to find English phrases that filled the measurements: phrases exact in length and sounding an iambic pattern. For such an art, the phrase is clearly subordinate to the line. Among all the English phrases that occur to the poet as suitable to his other-than-metrical purposes, the poet must search for those that fit not only the...

  17. CHAPTER 15 Shakespeare’s Metrical Technique in Dramatic Passages
    (pp. 229-248)

    One major aim of rhetorical technique from ancient times to Shakespeare’s was the affecting representation of passionate feeling, and modern scholars have frequently pointed out that Elizabethan actors had, in effect, a codified set of gestures, a “vocabulary of the passions” (Marker, 90), from which they could select the most appropriate ones to convey the emotions of characters and to underscore the meanings in their words. Insofar as such gestures were codified and instantly recognizable by an audience as conveying specific emotions, the acting was stylized, but the most admired actors were evidently those whose gestures and vocal techniques went...

  18. CHAPTER 16 What Else Shakespeare’s Meter Reveals
    (pp. 249-263)

    The analysis of speeches in Chapter 15 suggests how tellingly meter can display a dramatic character’s emotional agitation, distraction, urbanity, reserve, or other states of mind and can signal shifts from one emotional state to another. But this is not quite the same as revealing character, and the question naturally arises: to what extent is a speaker’s metrical style a clue to his or her character? To the extent that character is revealed by states of mind, meter is obviously an important guide: someone who shows anger on the stage is capable of anger. But the claim that different characters...

  19. CHAPTER 17 Some Metrically Expressive Features in Donne and Milton
    (pp. 264-280)

    The iambic pentameter verse Shakespeare devised for his plays was clearly a distinctive and even an eccentric form of the standard meter. Most of his contemporaries preferred a smoother verse, and Spenserian elegance and Jonsonian plainness soon converged on the main path that the English heroic line would henceforth take, a path plotted and smoothed by such seventeenth-century craftsmen as Waller, Denham, and Dryden. Shakespeare has remained for centuries an extraordinarily influential poet, and many of his metrical maneuvers are among the most impressive in literature. But his metrical devices were never adopted as a system by any formidable later...

  20. CHAPTER 18 Conclusion: Verse as Speech, Theater, Text, Tradition, Illusion
    (pp. 281-290)

    The metrical system Shakespeare developed for his plays diverges from the contemporary practice of iambic pentameter in several respects. Aiming always at variety, grace, energy, elevation, verisimilitude (the speechlikeness of the line generally), and dramatic expressiveness (of the specific line or passage), Shakespeare learned to deploy strategically his different kinds of lines, his metrical variations, and his two orders of meter and phrase. The verse that results never loses its connections with the rhythms of spoken English. It is formed, determined, by its constant obligation to maintain a creative equilibrium between two poles of linguistic force: the continually recurring metrical...

  21. APPENDIX A: Percentage Distribution of Prose in Shakespeare’s Plays
    (pp. 291-291)
  22. APPENDIX B: Main Types of Deviant Lines in Shakespeare’s Plays
    (pp. 292-293)
  23. APPENDIX C: Short and Shared Lines
    (pp. 294-296)
  24. Notes
    (pp. 297-324)
  25. Main Works Cited or Consulted
    (pp. 325-338)
  26. Index
    (pp. 339-349)