Many students—and adults for that matter—find Shakespeare difficult to read and hard to understand. They accuse him of not speaking English and refuse to believe that ordinary people spoke the way his characters do. However, if you know more about his language, it is easier to understand. One idea that may help is to remember that his plays are written in two forms: prose and verse. In The Merchant of Venice prose and verse are both used extensively.
Prose is the form of speech used by common people in Shakespearean drama. There is no rhythm or meter in the line. It is everyday language. Shakespeare’s audience would recognize the speech as their language. Characters such as murderers, servants, and porters use prose. However, many important characters can also speak in prose. The majority of The Merry Wives of Windsor is written in prose because it deals with middle-class.
Launcelot Gobbo from The Merchant of Venice speaks in prose. For example:
“To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master who (God bless
the mark!) is a kind of devil; and, to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the
fiend, who (saving your reverence) is the devil himself” (2.2.20–23).
Launcelot Gobbo, a servant of Shylock, debates with himself in humorous terms whether to seek a new employer, because he dislikes Shylock and his practices. Because there is no rhyme or rhythm, and the text flows without concern of where the line ends on the page, we recognize the passage as prose. Consequently, we can tell that Launcelot is a commoner who speaks with the language of an Elizabethan audience member.
The majority of Shakespeare’s plays are written in verse. A character who speaks in verse is a noble or a member of the upper class. Most of Shakespeare’s plays focused on these characters. The verse form he uses is blank verse. It contains no rhyme, but each line has an internal rhythm with a regular rhythmic pattern. The pattern most favored by Shakespeare is iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is defined as a ten-syllable line with the accent on every other syllable, beginning with the second one. For example:
“The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine, and I will have it” (Shylock, 4.1.101–102).
The accent occurs on every other syllable, and the natural accent of each word is placed in that position on the line.
At times Shakespeare found it necessary to take a vowel out of a word so that the rhythm of the line would not be interrupted. For example, strain’d and bless’d is
pronounced as one syllable, as in the following speech by Portia:
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (4.1.189–92)
Shakespeare used this style of writing as a form of stage direction. Actors today can tell by “scanning” a line (scansion) what words are most important and how fast to say a line. When two characters are speaking one character may finish the ten syllable line started by the other character, showing that one line must quickly come on top of another. This is called a shared line or a split line. For example:
Portia: You stand within his danger, do you not?
Antonio: Ay, so he says.
Portia: Do you confess the bond?
Antonio: I do.
Portia: Then must the Jew be merciful (4.1.183–87).
On some special occasions Shakespeare uses another form of verse. He reverses the accent and shortens the line. The reversed accent, with the accent on the first syllable is called trochaic. He uses this verse frequently in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth where magic or ritual is involved. The witches in Macbeth speak in trochaic verse, which is different from the earthly mortals, giving them an unnatural sound. For example:
Witch: “Round about the cauldron go;
In the Poisoned entrails throw” (4.1.4–5).
When reading or acting a Shakespearean play, count the syllables in the lines. You will be surprised at Shakespeare’s consistency. Then circle the syllables where the accent appears. You will notice that he places the most important words on the accent. Words like “the,” “is,” and “and” that do not carry the meaning are on the unaccented portion of the lines. In the Globe Theatre where there were no microphones, the more important words would carry and an audience member would still know what was going on because the important words were heard. Iambic pentameter has been called a “heart beat,” and each of Shakespeare’s lines contains that human beat.