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Hamlet: Versification and Diction

From Hamlet. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1909.


The greater part of Hamlet is in blank verse — 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.1 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 2358 lines of blank verse in Hamlet are found stress modifications of all kinds. There are 528 feminine (or double) endings, 8 light endings, and 205 speech endings not coincident with line endings. Such variations give to the verse flexibility and power in addition to music and harmony. It is significant that in Hamlet are no weak endings. Light endings and weak endings2 are found most abundantly in Shakespeare's very latest plays. The blank verse of "Eneas' tale to Dido," II, ii, 437-505, is purposely inflated and bombastic for the reason given in the note, II, ii, 434.


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, of which we have a normal example in I, v, 163. 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 Hamlet are about 40 Alexandrines. Care should be taken to distinguish between Alexandrines and such trimeter couplets as are found in I, v, 6. Shakespeare seems to have used such trimeter couplets for rapid dialogue and retort. See Abbott, § 500.


1. Couplets. A progress from more to less rhyme in the regular dialogue is a sure index to Shakespeare's development as a dramatist and a master of expression. In the early Love's Labour's Lost are more than 500 rhyming five-stress iambic couplets; in the very late The Winter's Tale there is not one.3 Exclusive of the 'Mouse-trap' play, III, ii, there are in Hamlet 27 rhyming couplets, of which nearly a half are exit tags; most of the others are those sententious generalizations which are so often in this kind of verse. An unusual number of the exit tags have also the character of rhymed maxims. It is noteworthy that Polonius's precepts are in blank verse.

2. 'Mouse-trap' Couplets. The 'Mouse-trap' play is introduced by three iambic four-stress lines rhyming together, III, ii, 130-132; then come 78 lines of rhymed five-stress iambic couplets, most of them formally closed, giving the peculiarly archaic and artificial effect which differentiates the play within the play from the play itself. As in the case of the Masque couplets in The Tempest, this use of rhyme, contingent on special reasons for its introduction, has no weight in determining the date of the play by application of the rhyme test.

3. Song Snatches. Ophelia's first three song snatches — "How should I your true-love know," IV, v, 23-26, "He is dead and gone, lady," IV, v, 29-32, "White his shroud as the mountain snow," IV, v, 34, 36-38 — are four-stress trochaic (catalectic) alternating with irregular three-stress; "To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day," IV, v, 46-49, is irregular iambic four-stress and three-stress alternating; "They bore him bare-fac'd on the bier," IV, v, 146-148, is iambic four-stress, with a conventional refrain; "And will he not come again," IV, v, 170-179, is irregular three-stress iambic, with dactylic effects in the third and the fourth lines of the stanza. The quatrain that Polonius reads from Hamlet's letter, II, ii, 11 6-1 19, is iambic three-stress; the norm of Hamlet's snatches, III, ii, 248-251, 257-260, is the ballad stanza4 of four-stress iambic alternating with three-stress; so is that of the stanzas sung by the Clown "at grave-making," V, i, 59-62, 69-72, 89-92.


In the development of the English drama the use of prose as a vehicle of expression entitled to equal rights with verse was due to Lyly. He 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. In Hamlet five kinds of prose may be distinguished: (i) The prose of formal documents, as in Hamlet's three letters, II, ii, 120-124; IV, vi, 12-26; IV, vii, 43-47. In Shakespeare, prose is the usual medium for letters, proclamations, and other formal documents. (2) The prose of 'low life' and the speech of comic characters, as in the grave-digging scene, V, i. This is a development of the humorous prose found, for example, in Greene's comedies that deal with country life. (3) The colloquial prose of dialogue, as in the talk between Hamlet and the First Player, II, ii, 523-534, and in the conversation between Hamlet and Horatio, V, i. In both these passages, as in the grave-digging scene, the prose diction gives temporary emotional relief and prepares for the heightening of the dramatic pitch in the scenes which immediately follow. (4) The prose of abnormal mentality, as in the scenes where Hamlet plays the madman, or in IV, v, where Ophelia appears in her madness.

It is an interesting fact that Shakespeare should so often make persons whose state of mind is abnormal, or seemingly so, speak in prose. "The idea underlying this custom of Shakespeare's evidently is that the regular rhythm of verse would be inappropriate where the mind is supposed to have lost its balance and to be at the mercy of chance impressions coming from without (as sometimes with Lear), or of ideas emerging from its unconscious depths and pursuing one another across its passive surface." — A. C. Bradley. Impassioned, or highly wrought poetical and rhetorical prose, as in II, ii, 294-303. Here Shakespeare raises prose to the sublimest pitch of verse. "It would be hard to cull from the whole body of our prose literature a passage which should demonstrate more strikingly the splendour and the majesty of our language, when freed from the shackles of verse." — Churton Collins. Why this passage is in prose has called forth interesting discussions, to which Corson and Verity have contributed notes of value: "It . . . continues the form of the preceding dialogue, for the sake of general harmony of effect, but breathes into that form the spirit of the loftiest imaginative ardour." — Verity.

Footnote 1: There are a few such normal lines in Hamlet. For example, see I, i, 8, 65, 148, 166; ii, 65, etc.

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."

Footnote 3: The Chorus speech introducing Act IV is excepted as not part of the regular dialogue.

Footnote 4: The regular measure of the old ballads seems to have been originally four-stress throughout, with a tendency to drop the last stress in the alternating lines. The development of this tendency gives the measure of the Robin Hood ballads, etc., and the 'common metre' of modern hymns.

How to cite this article:

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1909. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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