What Makes Shakespeare’s Use of Blank Verse in His Plays More Interesting In English Dramatic Poetry?
“The Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rhyme being no necessary Adjunct to true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in larger Works especially...”-- English poet John Milton in the preface to his epic Paradise Lost
What is a Blank Verse?: Blank verse is unrhymed poetry, typically in iambic pentameter, and, as such, the dominant verse form of English dramatic and narrative poetry since the mid-16th century. Blank verse was adapted by Italian Renaissance writers from classical sources; it became the standard form of such dramatists as Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, and Battista Guarini. From Italy, blank verse was brought into English literature by the poet Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, who first used it in his translation of books II and IV of the Aeneid, by the Roman poet Virgil and dramatic application first in Gorboduc. The so-called University Wits developed it further till their master; Marlowe made magic music with it and wrote his marvelous mighty line. Shakespeare in this respect was a true student of Marlowe, the master in blank verse and his early works permeate with the overt and covert influences of the Marlovian rhetoric. However, Shakespeare’s genius found its own in blank verse too and made this a potent instrument for the flowering of the greatest drama in English literature. He transformed blank verse into a supple instrument, uniquely capable of conveying speech rhythms and emotional overtones.
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Early blank verse: Early blank verse is very regular and thus monotonous: the cad-stopped lines with a pause after the second foot providing little substitution of other feet for the basic iamb. Marlowe, of course, improved it notably and in his hands the blank verse sounded with what is known as Marlovian Music. It was, however, left to Shakespeare to move in this verse from regularity to variety. He used various methods and devices to attain his objectives and the prominent among them are (a) use of enjambment or run-on lines. (b) Variation of the weight of the stressed syllables notably at the end of the line and (c) use of short lines. In fact, with these enjambment, Shakespeare imposes a secondary rhetorical rhythm on lime primary one of metre. The fact is discernible from his Love’s Labour’s Lost to the last of his romances.
Shakespearean sense of Beauty: Shakespeare, as has been already said, was fairly regular in his blank verse as we find him employing it with a new-born genre in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Love’s Labour’s Lost, in fact, is a feast festival of words which hold the poet-dramatist a prisoner by their attraction. Gradually he progressed as be learnt to take increasing liberties with his blank verse and ultimately freed himself from the sparkle of verbiage to attain his sense of beauty. In this struggle of that comprehensive soul in search of beauty, the constant weapon had been his blank verse. Very often he is found going beyond the norm of ten syllables as a consequence of which double or feminine endings increase in frequency. Pentameter is lengthened into Hexameter and vice versa. Often the blank verse normal line is cut short and that also to a good purpose. When Shakespeare came to the stage, words were by themselves excitements sought for their own sake. His contemporaries almost without exception were tradesmen in words and this could not have failed to influence the young Shakespeare. Thus Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is one of the earliest Shakespeare plays, is found fully occupied with words without much of a plot or variation in verse.
The Change: The first change perceptible in his use of blank verse curiously coincides with the period when he switches over from mere words to dramatic action. Thus we find his blank verse revealing a new vigour in his early histories different somewhat from his earlier plays. The young dramatist had not attained the rhetorical powers of Marlowe scanning heaven and earth for comparisons and declamations. Shakespeare’s verse here is quiet and rather humble but the poet-dramatist seems fully aware of poetic function in drama— poetry must serve the dramatic purpose and not be a master to it. As a result, Shakespeare’s humble verse is more adaptable and effective as a dramatic medium than ever was the case with Marlovian rhetoric.
Historical Plays: A comparison of Richard III and Richard II with the Henry VI plays would more than confirm the rapidity with which Shakespeare began to mature. The stern apprenticeship in Henry VI plays was paying rich dividends now, of course, not without some help from great Marlowe. He has learnt by now, not only to subdue the tyranny of unending incidents but also to eschew some of the monotony of his regular blank verse which though still displaying ample and violent rhetoric has become more pliant and purposeful. At times he allows this verse to relax gaily and even permits it to unearth the requirements of narrative or explanatory historical straits which are generally dull and intractable. Concentration on a tragic theme and a central character in these plays, of course, helps much the verse to perform its dramatic function. Richard III, broadly speaking, highly stylized bearing often the influence Marlowe’s mighty line and Senecan verse devices. All in all, no particular picture emerges from the history plays in general concept that Shakespeare has learnt by now to use his blank verse for active dramatic action and to expel the tediousness of the verse which was previously clogging for mere, verbiage. A different eloquence was peeping through the verse which aided by imagery, personification and dramatic adaptation was beginning to reveal e remarkable power of maturing.
Middle Comedies: Coming to the middle comedies comprising the group of The Merry Wives, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, we find a spectacular development in prose but nothing of the sort in verse.
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Great Tragic Verses: Shakespeare’s tackling of his tragedies in blank verse has a very special flavour. Among the tragedies again Hamlet has a special place because it is a tragedy of wit and reflection where each turn of the phrase and the quality of words have a fascination of their own. There is not, however, the wantonness for words as in Love’s Labour’s Lost but a different preoccupation of the philologist Prince whose interest in language is brought to the service of dramatic action by a creative ingenuity resulting in a natural characterization integral to the play’s conception. One example of Shakespeare’s return to language of wit when he can with a rare maturity relate speech to action is found in his skill in clothing a whole argument in the garb of blank verse. Although Shakespeare tried hard to differentiate in Hamlet the language of major characters, he did not succeed with such precision as he was to do later in Othello and Macbeth. In Hamlet a common pool of blank verse was available to all for argument, reflection, imagery, or lyricism. However, Hamlet exhibits fully the increased linguistic concentration typical of the tragedies as distinguished from his earlier plays.
Concluding Words: What is more interesting in Shakespeare is not only descriptive texture in blank verse but also long tailed imagery and fantasy gallery which the later poets followed if not copied.