How can I make an interesting point about Shakespearian rhyme and meter?

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Shakespeare’s blank verse – lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter – can feel somewhat samey. All of the plays depend upon it, even take it for granted, as the bedrock of their poetry; most characters speak it. A Shakespeare play is no one-trick pony, though, and neither should you be in writing about one. These plays rely upon blank verse precisely because of its flexibility and adaptability, its capacity for mutation and deviation from what may seem like its own unquestionable rules, and as such its usefulness for conveying and describing extraordinary varieties of emotional, psychological, and narrative experience.

So beware platitudes, and beware making points that go no further than observing how blank verse is more formal, high-register, and well-ordered than prose, which is messy and crude, or how blank verse is often spoken by the important and powerful people, whereas prose is usually voiced by comparatively insignificant, lower-class characters. The difficulty of a Shakespeare play is due in large part to the self-consciousness of its techniques, which are annoyingly, smart-arsedly good at second-guessing or double-bluffing our responses to them: if it seems too easy, it probably is. In Richard II, for example, the threatened King speaks in incredibly regular iambic pentameter, often with reassuringly masculine line-endings (where the very last syllable is stressed), and often ending his chunk of speech with a rhyming couplet: “then, if angels fight/weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right”. The meter suggests a suitably kingly order and regularity; the rhyme an unshakeable harmony, overseen by Heaven. But there’s a problem: for all his performed confidence, Richard is – or should be – very rattled indeed. In the line I’ve quoted, he is mere moments from invasion by the army of Henry, who wants his throne and will eventually kill him for it. But Richard insists on speaking like this, very calm and measured, very melodic, his rhymes asserting indisputable patterns of connection and cause-and-effect: the “fight” that is imminent with the forthcoming invasion will, he believes and his rhyme seems to suggest, be won by him and his army, the “right”, because as a King he is divinely ordained and protected. Shakespeare’s rhyme and meter here function extremely ironically, for Richard is only saying what he, and everyone around him, wants to hear, and in the process constructing a world of words which will dissolve immediately on contact with reality, burst like a balloon pricked “with a little pin [that]/bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!” His rhymes might yet seduce us into believing his hype. Here a point about rhyme and meter can branch out into further points, like performance (how, for example, one production might sustain Richard’s fantasy of control and then shockingly undermine it where another might make clear from the start just how deluded he is).

  Making points about Shakespeare isn’t just about what you notice, then – and there’s plenty to spot! – but what you do with what you notice, and how far you can build it into a bigger argument you want to make about the play. Latch onto, rather than ignore, what strikes you as weird, because blank verse is designed to accommodate Shakespeare’s weirdness; at the same time, think carefully about why what seems normal at a metrical or rhyming level is, in fact, normal, and what that might say about what you expect to be normal, or about the forces in the play that get to decide what is normal. Thinking about the metrical and rhyming form of language involves thinking about the political, ideological and philosophical forces that shape it and the creatures who speak it; forces that you yourself are not immune to, never less so than in the act of reading or listening to others. Shakespearian rhyme and meter constantly goad us into making assumptions and interpretive decisions. Be prepared to think carefully about why you've made them, and you're well on your way!

Conor M. A Level English Literature tutor, A Level Philosophy tutor, ...

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is an online A Level English Literature tutor with MyTutor studying at Oxford, Brasenose College University

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