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Blank Verse and Rhyme in Romeo and Juliet

From Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1916.

VERSIFICATION AND DICTION

The greater part of Romeo and Juliet is in blank verse1, the unrhymed, iambic five-stress (decasyllabic) verse, or iambic pentameter, introduced into England from Italy by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, about 1540, and used by him in a translation of the second and fourth books of Vergil's Aeneid. Nicholas Grimald (Tottel's Miscellany, 1557) employed the measure for the first time in English original poetry, and its roots began to strike deep into British soil and absorb substance. It is peculiarly significant that Sackville and Norton should have used it as the measure of Gorboduc the first English tragedy (performed by "the Gentlemen of the Inner Temple" on January 18, 1561, and first printed in 1565). About the time when Shakespeare arrived in London the infinite possibilities of blank verse as a vehicle for dramatic poetry and passion were being shown by Kyd, and above all by Marlowe. Blank verse as used by Shakespeare is really an epitome of the development of the measure in connection with the English drama. In his earlier plays the blank verse is often similar to that of Gorboduc. The tendency is to adhere to the syllable-counting principle, to make the line the unit, the sentence and phrase coinciding with the line (end-stopped verse), and to use five perfect iambic feet to the line. In plays of the middle period, such as The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, written between 1596 and 1600, the blank verse is more like that of Kyd and Marlowe, with less monotonous regularity in the structure and an increasing tendency to carry on the sense from one line to another without a syntactical or rhetorical pause at the end of the line (run-on verse, enjambement). Redundant syllables now abound, and the melody is richer and fuller. In Shakespeare's later plays the blank verse breaks away from bondage to formal line limits, and sweeps all along with it in freedom, power, and organic unity.

In the 2111 lines of blank verse in the Second Quarto of Romeo and Juliet are found stress modifications of all kinds. There are 118 feminine (or double, redundant, hypermetrical) endings, 6 light endings, 1 weak ending, and many short lines. Such variations give to the verse flexibility and power, in addition to music and harmony. It is significant that in Romeo and Juliet is only one weak ending. Light endings and weak endings2 are found most abundantly in Shakespeare's very latest plays. For example, in The Tempest are 42 light endings and 25 weak endings.

ALEXANDRINES

While French prosodists apply the term 'Alexandrine' only to a twelve-syllable line with the pause after the sixth syllable, it is generally used in English to designate iambic six-stress verse, or iambic hexameter. This was a favorite Elizabethan measure, and it was common in moral plays and the earlier heroic drama. English literature has no finer examples of this verse than the last line of each stanza of The Faerie Queene. In Romeo and Juliet are only 6 Alexandrines.

RHYME

In the history of the English drama, rhyme as a vehicle of expression precedes blank verse and prose. Miracle plays, moral plays, and interludes are all in rhyming measures. In Shakespeare may be seen the same development. A progress from more to less rhyme is a sure index to his growth as a dramatist and a master of expression. In the early Love's Labour's Lost are more than 1000 rhyming five-stress iambic lines; in Twelfth Night, 120; in the very late The Winter's Tale, not one. In Romeo and Juliet are 486 rhyming lines, only two plays having a greater number of such lines, a fact of considerable significance in determining the date of composition. Alternate rhymes in five-stress verse are found only in Shakespeare's plays written before 1600. They are common in Romeo and Juliet, and, in perfect harmony with the lyric spirit which informs the play throughout, interesting combinations of such alternate rhymes are found. For example, the Prologues prefixed to the first and second acts, and I, v, 91-104, are complete Shakespearian sonnets, made up of three quatrains rhyming alternately and a rhyming couplet at the close ; while in I, ii, 44-50, 87-92, V, iii, 12-17, and the Prince's speech with which the play closes, the verse is that of the six-line stanza or sestet (rhyming a b a b c c), of Venus and Adonis.

PROSE

Only about one seventh of Romeo and Juliet is in prose, the play in this respect resembling all the earlier work of Shakespeare. Lyly was the first to use prose with power and distinction in original plays, and did memorable service in preparing the way for Shakespeare's achievement. Interesting attempts have been made to explain Shakespeare's distinctive use of verse and prose; and of recent years there has been much discussion of the question "whether we are justified in supposing that Shakespeare was guided by any fixed principle in his employment of verse and prose, or whether he merely employed them, as fancy suggested, for the sake of variety and relief." It is a significant fact that in many of his earlier plays there is little or no prose, and that the proportion of prose to blank verse increases with the decrease of rhyme. Six kinds of prose may be distinguished in the plays: (i) The prose of formal documents, such as letters and proclamations, as in I, ii, 64-70. (2) The prose of 'low life' and the speech of comic characters, as in II, iv, 96-205, IV, V, 100-143, and all the scenes in which the servants appear. Most of the speeches of the Nurse fall in this class, but sometimes when she is under the influence of those whose expression is rhythmical, she speaks in verse that recalls the crude iambic pentameters of Caliban's speeches in The Tempest. This prose of 'low life' is a development of the humorous prose found, for example, in Greene's comedies that deal with humble life. (3) The colloquial prose of dialogue and of matter-of-fact narrative, as in I, i, 1-63. Shakespeare was " the creator of colloquial prose, of the prose most appropriate for drama." J. Churton Collins. (4) The prose of high comedy, vivacious, sparkling, and flashing with repartee, as in most of Mercutio's speeches. (5) The prose of abnormal mentality. (6) Impassioned or highly wrought poetical and rhetorical prose. Of these kinds of prose the fourth, so conspicuous in Much Ado About Nothing, and the fifth and sixth, prominent in Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, have small place in Romeo and Juliet.

Footnote 1: The term 'blank verse' was just coming into use in Shakespeare's day. It seems to have been used for the first time in literature in Nash's Preface to Greene's Menaphon, where we find the expression, "the swelling bumbast of bragging blanke verse." Shakespeare uses the expression three times, always humorously or satirically. See Much Ado About Nothing, V, ii, 32.

Footnote 2: Light endings, as defined by Ingram, are such words as am, can, do, has, I, thou, etc., on which "the voice can to a certain small extent dwell"; weak endings are words like and, for, from, if, in, of, or, which "are so essentially proclitic . . . that we are forced to run them, in pronunciation no less than in sense, into the closest connection with the opening words of the succeeding line."

How to cite this article:

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/juliuscaesar/juliushudson.html >.

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