Lesson Plan - Get It!
Watch this scene from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.
Why do we read and write poetry? (Dead Poets Society):
- According to the teacher in the scene, why do people read and write poetry?
- Do you agree or disagree?
Explain your answer and read on to examine Shakespeare's poetry.
Shakespeare is famous today not only because of his plays, but also because of his poetry.
If you missed a lesson or want a refresher, you will find all of the Related Lessons in the right-hand sidebar.
He was an expert poet, and his skill influenced his writing style in his plays as well. His plays are made up of two styles of writing, verse and prose.
Verse, or lines of poetry, can be rhymed or unrhymed (blank).
- In The Tempest, most of the verse is not in a pattern that is always obvious to our ears. Instead, look for the visual clues: In both rhymed and blank verse, the line of print does not extend to fill the whole page, and the first word of every line is capitalized.
- Example of Rhymed (Act II, Scene I):
"Prospero my lord shall know what I have done:
So, king, go safely on to seek thy son"
- Example of Blank (unrhymed) (Act I, Scene II):
"The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies"
Prose refers to ordinary speech with no pattern or rhythm.
- Look for the visual clue: A long passage in prose is typically printed like an ordinary paragraph instead of being centered. Standard rules of capitalization apply.
- Example (Act II, Scene I):
"Here's neither bush nor shrub to bear off any weather at all, and another storm brewing; I hear it sing i' th' wind."
The verse in Shakespeare's plays is particularly interesting because most of it is written in iambic pentameter. Watch this TEDEd video for a thorough description of iambic pentameter:
Why Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter - David T. Freeman and Gregory Taylor:
To summarize, iambic pentameter is a five-foot metrical line of a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable. Remember the trick the video showed you: I AM a PI rate WITH a WOOD en LEG.
Now that you can identify the differences between verse and prose, you need to understand why Shakespeare used both in his plays.
In his essay, Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter in Shakespeare's Plays, Michael Cummings offers five reasons Shakespeare wrote in verse:
- To express deep emotions requiring elevated language. Because nobles and commoners were both capable of experiencing profound emotion, both expressed their emotions in verse from time to time.
- To make wise and reflective observations that require lofty language.
- To present a lyrical poem as a separate entity, like the song in Act 2, Scene 1, of The Tempest:
While you here do snoring lie,
His time doth take.
If of life you keep a care,
Shake off slumber and beware.
- To inject irony. When the highborn speak humble prose, and the everyday people speak elegant verse; Shakespeare may be saying up can be down, and down can be up.
- To suggest order and exactitude. A character who speaks in precise rhythms and patterns is a character with a tidy brain who plans ahead and executes actions on schedule.
Michael Cummings offers seven reasons Shakespeare wrote in prose:
- To express ordinary, undistinguished observations coming from the surface of the mind rather than its active, thoughtful interior.
- To make quick, one-line replies such as, "Ay, my lord," that are the stuff of day-to-day conversations.
- To present auditory relief for audiences (or visual relief for readers) from the intellectual density of the verse passages.
- To suggest madness or senility in a character.
- To depict the rambling, chaotic path of conversation from a tongue loosened by alcohol (pay close attention to the men in Act III, Scene II).
- To poke fun at characters who lack the wit to versify their lines.
- To demonstrate that prose has merits as a literary medium. In Shakespeare's day, verse (and its elegant cousin, poetry) was the exemplar of successful writing. As an innovator, Shakespeare may have wanted to preach the merits of prose.
Once you have absorbed and understood prose and poetry, continue on to the Got It? section to work with iambic pentameter.