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Studies in Shakespeare

Some Observations on Shakespeare's Dramatic Verse in Richard III and Macbeth

[The following document is the text of a lecture prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College. This document is in the public domain, released July 1999. This text was last revised on July 17, 1999. For other lectures in this series, please click here.]


To read, one immediately after the other, a play from Shakespeare's earliest work and a play from his mature tragic period (e.g., Richard III and Macbeth) is to become aware of an astonishing development in the quality of Shakespeare's dramatic poetry. Paying some attention to a few fairly obvious features of this development not only gives one a finer appreciation for the quality of Shakespeare's best work but also can serve as a very useful educational exercise in the criticism of poetry generally.

Initial Observations on Dramatic Poetry

The phrase Dramatic Poetry or Poetic Drama very simply refers to poetic language spoken aloud by characters in a drama or, in the case of individual poems, poetic language which suggests a strongly dramatic context (e.g., poetry directed to a particular listener in a specific setting, as in dramatic monologues). This definition is very loose, but for our purposes, what is particularly important is that Shakespeare's dramatic language is largely poetry, and thus a full appreciation for what matters in any particular play needs to take into account the poetic quality of the spoken language.

Traditional dramatic poetry differs from dramatic prose mainly in the formal construction of the poetic utterance, which is organized on the basis of a repetitive rhythmic structure for each line. Until this century (with the development of free verse), that regularly repeating rhythmic structure clearly differentiated virtually all poetry from prose. In addition, poetic language often tends to make much more frequent use of figures of speech (similes, metaphors, and images) and a range of special linguistic devices, most importantly, rhyme, alliteration, and specific patterns in the arrangements of words. Dramatic poetry, in other words, gives us spoken language which departs considerably from naturalistic speech patterns, mainly because the poetry is more tightly and formally organized (i.e., patterned).

Interpreting plays written in dramatic poetry thus requires the interpreter to take into account various features of poetic language in order to understand fully the meaning of any particular utterance. It is not enough simply to grasp the literal denoted meaning of what a particular character says. One needs also to attend carefully to the ways in which the various poetic qualities of the language evoke an emotional understanding in the listener of the utterance. This point is crucial. With many characters, what matters is not so much the literal meaning of what they say (or not just that), but the patterns in the language they use to express their thoughts. That language indicates to us their emotional intelligence, the particular nature of their feelings about what they are saying, the sense of values uppermost in their minds. Language, in other words, does not just reveal factual information; it also communicates to us a sense of the emotional attitude and intelligence of the speaker. This point is no less true of prose than poetry, but responding to this emotional quality in poetic speech generally is more challenging than doing the same with prose speech.

In some cases, this emotional factor may be decisive in the evaluation of a particular character. For example, to evaluate Hamlet's character intelligently, we need to attend, not just to what he literally says about his mother's remarriage, but to the way in which he expresses himself. In other words, we have to interpret his poetic utterances to explore the emotional intelligence at work in the character (and we need to account for the fact that his speech poetic patterns are, in some respects, very like those of his father).

One way of emphasizing this matter is to point out that, in examining dramatic speech, we should not fall into the easy habit of separating style and substance, talking first about what someone says and then about how the character expresses herself. The reason for this is the old principle that style is part of the substance. The way a character expresses her opinions is as much a part of the substance of what she is saying as is the information conveyed. To expresses that information in a different style is to say something different. Hence we need to remain alert to what the different styles of utterance reveal about the people acting out the drama.

Such interpretation is not always easy, and most new readers of Shakespeare require considerable practice before they are able to speak meaningfully about the poetic qualities of the text. However, no study of Shakespeare would be adequate without some attempt to introduce students to some ways of dealing with the basic medium of the plays, Shakespeare's poetic language.

Blank Verse

The most obvious poetic feature of Shakespeare's plays is the regularly repeating rhythmic arrangement of lines. The standard line contains ten syllables, five of which are stressed (i.e., emphasized) and five unstressed (i.e., not emphasized). The lines normally do not rhyme with those before or after (although, as we shall see, there are exceptions).

In the most regular form of Shakespeare's verse, the ten syllables are arranged so that every second one is stressed (i.e., the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables are stressed), and the others are unstressed. Such a line is called an iambic pentameter (the iamb is a pair of syllables in which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed; the pentameter refers to the fact that there are five such iambs in the line of blank verse). This basic line (the unrhymed iambic pentameter) is called blank verse, and it is the standard form for an enormous amount of English poetry, from well before Shakespeare until very modern times (when there was a deliberate attempt to break what some perceived as the tyranny of blank verse in English poetic styles). The iambic pentameter is particularly suitable for English dramatic verse because normally spoken English often falls into an iambic pattern.

Here is an example from a pre-Shakespearean play of a series of lines, each of which is a perfect iambic pentameter. If you read this aloud, you will notice that the stress falls always on the even numbered syllables (underlined in the following lines).

Your lasting age shall be their longer stay,
For cares of kings, that rule as you have ruled,
For public health and not for private joy,
Do waste man's life, and hasten crooked age,
With furrowed face and with enfeebled limbs,
To draw on creeping Death a swifter pace. (Gorboduc)

The effect of such regular rhythm is to lend a certain formality to the utterance (in comparison with normal prose). The cadence of the lines is governed by a regularly repeating beat, and the punctuation (as in the above passage) can tend to encourage regular pauses (e.g., at the ends of lines).

[Parenthetically, one should observe that scanning blank verse, that is, indicating the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (and observing the stresses in reciting the lines) is partly a subjective matter. One can really emphasize the regularity by stressing every alternate syllable, even when that violates how one would normally pronounce the words. At the other extreme, one can pronounce the words as one normally would (given the dramatic context) and, if necessary, violate the regular rhythm, hence sacrificing some of the formal poetic cadence. At different times in the history of producing Shakespeare, these two different styles of speaking blank verse have been predominant. In the past fifty years (at least) the prevailing tendency has been the second of the two options outlined above, that is, letting the accent fall where it sounds most natural. In the above passage from Gorboduc, this is not a problem, because in each line the accent falls on the second syllable quite naturally]

The formality of blank verse in contrast to regular prose can be a significant feature in some of Shakespeare's plays, nowhere more so than in Henry IV, Part 1, where the contrast between the controlled political world of the court and the free-wheeling fun of the tavern is brought out repeatedly by the sudden change in language from formal poetry to colloquial prose. Part of the sense of anarchic freedom we sense in the tavern comes from the unfettered use of colloquial language. And Rosalind's decided preference for prose in As You Like It is an important indication of her attitude to love in contrast to the variously "poetic" styles of love adopted by those around her.

This formality can be considerably heightened by introducing a regular rhyme scheme so that the blank verse becomes rhyming iambic pentameter couplets or triplets:

My life thou shalt command, but not my shame.
The one my duty owes, but my fair name,
Despite of death that lives upon my grave,
To dark dishonour's use thou shalt not have.
I am disgraced, impeached and baffled here,
Pierced to the soul with slander's venomed spear. . . . (Richard II)

Shakespeare does not make frequent use of rhyming couplets, but when they do occur, the effect, as in this scene from Richard II, is generally to heighten the formality of the speech and thus to bring out more the ceremonious and ritualistic nature of the scene (an important point in the opening of Richard II, as we shall see in our discussions of that play). This is particularly the case when the lines have punctuation (i.e., pauses) at the end, as in the above selection, so that the pause forces one to dwell upon the emphatic and regular rhyme (more about this later). The effect of such regular rhythm, strong rhyme, and end punctuation is to bring out emphatically the regular cadence in the lines (and in the above passage the astute reader will also notice how the alliteration contributes to that same effect).

There are moments in Richard III where Shakespeare quite deliberately draws upon this formal quality of regular rhyming iambic pentameter to create a moment of high ritual:

Children: Ah, for our father, for our dear Lord Clarence!
Duchess of York: Alas, for both, both mine, Edward and Clarence!
Queen Elizabeth: What stay had I but Edward, and he's gone?
Children: What stay had we but Clarence, and he's gone?
Duchess of York: What stays had I but they, and they are gone?
Queen Elizabeth: Was never widow had so dear a loss!
Children: Were never orphans had so dear a loss!
Duchess of York: Was never mother had so dear a loss! (2.2.72-79)

Here's a similar example from later in the play:

Queen Margaret: I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
I had a husband, till a Richard killed him.
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him.

Duchess of York: I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, and thou holpst kill him.

Queen Margaret: Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard killed him. (4.4.40-46)

This shift to a suddenly much more formal pattern (virtually a group chant) seems deliberately designed to enhance the role of the grieving women and children as a ceremonial and ritualistic chorus which places the actions of this play into the context of the entire sequence of family killing depicted in the First History Cycle and thus to remind us of the long-term vision of history central to the tetralogy. I'm not sure how effective this technique is (and the lines are often omitted in productions), but the shift in the pattern of the blank verse seems to have that choral intention.

Now, blank verse as formally regular as the selection from Gorboduc or Richard III above obviously can become monotonously regular and thus emotionally inert. Hence, a great deal of the challenge of dramatic blank verse is varying the basic rhythm in significant ways, so that the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables serves to express appropriate states of feeling in a more vital and interesting way. In other words, the mere presence of blank verse does not convey artistic merit upon dramatic poetry; the form has to be used skillfully and flexibly, often in unexpected ways, so that the full poetic effects of patterned speech can be realized. It is important to remember that blank verse, like any artistic convention, needs to be put to significant use and not simply employed in a predictable and boring way.

One common experience in moving directly from Richard III to Macbeth should be a sense of how much better the blank verse sounds in the latter play. For a great deal of the blank verse in Richard III is very conventionally written, without much rhythmic variety or interest. Many (perhaps most) of the speeches sound very much the same, even at times of heightened emotions, and it is far less easy in this play, as in later works, to recognize a particular speech pattern as belonging to a particular character (other than Richard himself, whose character seems to have inspired Shakespeare to invest his lines with a particular energy). As we shall see in a moment, this point is not simply a matter of rhythm alone, for other important factors are involved, but the remarkable shift in the poetic quality of the two plays indicates, among other things, Shakespeare's development in his use of blank verse.

One way to notice this as you read is to think about how overwritten a great deal of Richard III is. There are many scenes which prompt one to reach for the editor's pencil (none more so than the excessively long and inconclusive attempt of Richard to win Elizabeth as his wife in 4.4). And productions of the play routinely excise large portions of text as unnecessary. With Macbeth, on the other hand, it is very difficult to imagine removing anything from the poetry.

One should notice, too, how flexible the blank verse has become in Macbeth. Shakespeare has clearly learned not to be imprisoned by the demands of the iambic pentameter but to use it to evoke the mood appropriate to a particular moment, often deliberately violating the regular pattern:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

A cursory comparison of the rhythms of this speech with those from Gorboduc or almost any passage from Richard III provides a fine example of how, in Shakespeare's hands, the formal patterning of blank verse becomes something much more than simply a standard convention for patterning poetical language.

The Importance of Punctuation

Shakespeare's text is an acting script, and the punctuation is there primarily as an aid to speaking the lines. If you are in the habit, as you should be, of trying to read the verse aloud from time to time, it is really important that you respect the punctuation (and that means, among other things, that you do not provide any of your own where there is none, particularly at the ends of lines).

The major purposes of punctuation in Shakespeare's verse are to control the rate at which the speaker moves through the lines and to enhance the rhythm by forcing pauses (long or short) at particular words. The punctuation thus helps to set what I like to call the momentum of the verse, the accumulating energy which a sentence may or may not develop, depending upon how the pauses control the speaking rate. And by controlling the emphasis on certain words or patterns of words, the punctuation helps to establish sound patterns and emotional reverberations which are essential to understanding the speaker's feelings.

Here's a very obvious point, but one worth paying attention to. A punctuation mark which forces a major pause (i.e., a full stop or a semi-colon) very frequently (e.g., at the end of every line or every other line) will effectively prevent the momentum of the verse from gathering energy. The emotional power of the utterance will be kept firmly under control with a standard stop/start rhythm. This is an important feature of much eighteenth-century verse (the heroic couplet style, very frequent in Alexander Pope's poetry), where dispensing with the excessively emotional power of poetry is an important artistic principle. On the other hand, a punctuation which allows the sentence to uncoil over many lines can release certain energy which accumulates as the sentence progresses (a very common feature of Milton's and Wordsworth's best poetry).

Let us consider some particular examples. Here's a case in which a heavy punctuation, combined with certain patterns of words expressing strong feelings, can create a sense of extremely intense emotion:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust. . . . (Sonnet 129)

The power of the feelings expressed in the third and fourth lines here comes, not simply from the meaning and sound of the words (important as those are), but also from the way in which the punctuation forces the reader to slow down and dwell on each one individually. But there is no complete pause, and so one has to keep moving (in fact the first twelve lines of this sonnet form a single unrolling sentence). To read these lines out loud, paying attention to the strong rhythms and the punctuation, is to get a sense of the powerful self-hatred which the speaker of the poem is expressing about his own desires. What matters here is not the translated meaning ("Lust is a bad thing") but the range of emotional responses to his own lust which the speaker's patterning of the language evokes.

Here's another example of how the punctuation, in combination with the sentence structure, helps to create a very particular and powerful effect:

Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. (Troilus and Cressida 1.3)

Here the single sentence is quite frequently but lightly punctuated in a way that emphasizes the repetition (power,/Power . . . will, will . . .appetite;/ And appetite), so that the feeling of a slowly developing but inexorably powerful process builds up. Here again, the denoted meaning of the passage is simple enough ("The quest for power leads to self-destruction"), but the quality of the utterance comes from the way the structure of the lines brings with it an emotional sense of irresistible momentum, coming to rest only on the key point, "eat up himself." Notice here how the rhythm (especially that established by the repetition of words) is emphasized by the punctuation.

Learning to read with a careful attention to the combined effects of the rhythm (especially the variations in the rhythm) and the punctuation, especially as these contribute to the characteristic momentum of a speech takes a good deal of practice. And we do not expect all students to be experts. But it is important that one begins to get a sense of how the formal arrangement of words in dramatic poetry contributes to an understanding of its emotional content. That point becomes increasingly important, as Shakespeare masters the medium and develops it to its fullest potential, because patterns of speech become indicators of emotional qualities in the character (a key point in Richard II and many other plays).

To repeat a point made earlier, one can quickly sense that much of the dramatic verse in Richard III is fairly conventional and uninspired. With the exceptions of the speeches of Richard himself and some other instances (like Clarence's dream and the seduction of Lady Anne), there is nothing in this play to suggest the sort of quality we witness in Macbeth. More about this later.

A Note on Shakespeare's Imagery

The same point stressed above, about the astonishing improvement in the quality of the verse as one moves from Richard III to Macbeth, applies also to the imagery and the use of figures of speech (similes and metaphors). These, of course, are a crucial element in all poetry, since pictures and comparisons are essential in any communication which seeks to illuminate a state of feeling. The comparisons people use to express how they feel about themselves or other people reveal important things about their own sensibilities, emotional states, and intelligence. Hence, interpreting dramatic verse requires some attention to imagery and figures of speech.

Now, images and figures of speech, like blank verse rhythms, can be used conventionally and predictably or intelligently and with original significance. And, as a general observation, we can note that in his early plays Shakespeare relies very heavily on imagery and comparisons which are very conventional, that is, they are part of the stock in trade of being a poet and there is nothing particularly remarkable about them (as in much conventional popular song writing today).

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
And now--instead of mounting barbèd steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries--
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasings of a lute.

For all the interesting poetic quality in the language here, there is nothing very remarkable about the imagery, the opening comparison of the son of York to the arrival of the summer sun or the personification of war capering about to the sound of a lute. The images are familiar and expressed expansively, that is, there is nothing compressed or surprising about them. They are developed over a few lines each and are easy enough to follow. Compare these images with the following:

Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed.--Come seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale. Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse.

The first thing one notices about the imagery here is the compression. There is nothing expansive or loose about the image of night as a monster which blinds the light of the world so that evil may initiate its destructive course of mutilation. And the extraordinarily compressed metaphor in the phrase "Light thickens," together with the vision of the "good things of day" slowly falling asleep as the agents of evil set about their work, is anything but conventional or unexpected or easy to pass by. The emotional pressure of Macbeth's fully conscious commitment to evil is here evoked unforgettably. This is a single example, and the comparison is perhaps not entirely fair, but the contrast between the imagery in the two passages is stark.

Following the development of Shakespeare's use of imagery and figures of speech is a complex and very detailed business. But there are some general trends worth remarking upon. In his very early style, Shakespeare, as one might expect from a poet still learning his craft, relies heavily on the conventions which he inherits (and which his listeners are used to). There are many classical references, the majority of them taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses or from handbooks advising poets of appropriate comparisons (as sly as Ulysses, as talkative as Nestor, as tearful as Niobe, as beautiful as Helen of Troy, and so on). Often there is a sense that they have been included merely to display the poet's ability to write the same sorts of metaphors as his colleagues. There is often little sense of emotional pressure or compression behind the imagery.

This style quickly matures into something far more interesting, so that, by the time we read, say, Richard II, the importance of particular images and their emotional impact is becoming much more important. When we read Macbeth or the finest poems in the sequence of sonnets, we see, among other things, the culmination of Shakespeare's ability to communicate emotions with extraordinary power in apparently simple language. Gone is the reliance on relatively stale inherited conventions of imagery and metaphor. In their place appears a greater proportion of images from nature but present in newly evocative ways. Many of the images may be drawn from common traditional sources, but the treatment of them (as is that example from Macbeth) is startlingly original and evocative.

The most distinctive pattern of images in Richard III concerns the various animals with which Richard is associated by his enemies. For the most part these are relatively unsubtle and repetitive and make more or less the same point, that Richard is a destructive beast lacking essential human qualities. There is very little of the later complexity we find in Shakespeare's finest style. Notice the two examples below, which both express the same general sense in the hero of the destructive futility of his actions:

Richard: I must be married to my brother's daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.
Murder her brothers, and then marry her?
Uncertain way of gain, but I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. (Richard III 4.2.62-66)

Macbeth: I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (Macbeth 3.4.135-7)

The image in the second passage, in which Macbeth envisions himself wading through a river of blood so far that he might as well keep going as stop and return confronts us with a much more complex and disturbing emotional sense than Richard's similar but unevocative picture of himself so far in blood that the sins will prompt more sins. Notice, too, the economy of the language in the Macbeth quotation, two and a half lines summoning up a complex and unforgettable image of Macbeth pushing himself through the river of his own murders. Macbeth's sense of frustration and boredom with what his commitment to evil has turned his life into is here made emotionally explicit.

As I have mentioned before, interpreting the quality of images and metaphors is not always easy, and it tends to require considerable practice, so that one can distinguish more readily the conventional image from the more effective figures of speech. But it is important to start to pay attention to such figures of speech, especially when they reveal a pattern in the utterances of a particular character or even in an entire play. In Shakespeare's maturing and mature style, particular characters often have favorite patterns of imagery, and understanding their characters fully requires some attention to these patterns (e.g., Richard II's "conceited" style, Hamlet's constant use of images of disease and death, Othello's love of lofty poetical language, Hotspur's "blood and honour" rhetoric, and so on).

Shakespeare's Poetic Vocabulary

However, the single most remarkable feature about Shakespeare's poetic language is his extraordinary vocabulary, his choice of particular words to convey particular emotional attitudes. Earlier I have had occasion to note that Shakespeare's working vocabulary is enormous (about 25,000 words, more than twice as many as his nearest rival, John Milton). More important than that, however, is the way in which the particular words he chooses evoke, through their sound and their meaning, very specific and often complex associations.

One feature, for example, which makes Richard far more interesting than any other character in Richard III (a characteristic which strongly suggests that Shakespeare's imagination was fired up by this character) is the energy in his language. Much of the poetry Richard speaks may have relatively conventional imagery, but his vocabulary has a robust energy which makes the other characters sound flat by comparison.

In the opening speech of the play (to which I have already referred), the imagery may be relatively conventional, but what commands our attention immediately is Richard's vocabulary, full of emotional energy in his language: "capers nimbly," "To strut before a wanton, ambling nymph," "Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/ Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time/ Into this breathing world scarce half made up--" and so on. Throughout the play (with some exceptions), Richard sustains this quality in his language, in a way that sets him apart from the other characters.

This feature of the play is particularly obvious in a comparison between Richmond's address to his soldiers before the final battle and Richard's speech in the next scene:

Richmond: Then if you fight against God's enemy,
God will, in justice ward you as his soldiers.
If you do sweat to put a tyrant down,
You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain.
If you do fight against your country's foes,
Your country's foison pays your pains the hire.
If you do fight in safeguard of your wives,
Your wives shall welcome home the conquerors.
If you do free your children from the sword,
Your children's children quites it in your age. (5.5.207-216)

Richard: Let's whip these stragglers o'er the seas again,
Lash hence these overweening rags of France,
These famished beggars, weary of their lives,
Who--but for dreaming on this fond exploit--
For want of means, poor rats, had hanged themselves.
If we be conquered, let men conquer us,
And not these bastard Bretons, whom our fathers
Have in their own land beaten, bobbed, and thumped,
And in record left them the heirs of shame. (5.7.57-65)

No one would pretend that Richard's speech here is truly moving poetry, but it has an energy characteristic of Richard, and that energy comes very largely from the force of his vocabulary, especially verbs like "whip," "lash," "beaten, bobbed, and thumped," all short, common words with sounds which enhance the energy in the lines. The same point can be made about words like "rags," " rats," "bastard Bretons." Notice, too, the way the punctuation lets the momentum of Richard's language gather strength (as does the rhythm)--especially in the last four lines.

Richmond's speech, by contrast, seems deflated, a limp necessary gesture. The verse is regular, the tone unvaryingly formal, and the sentences are structured in a repetitive pattern. Richmond's vocabulary is generally quite inert and marked by rather odd words like "quites" and "foison." What we lack is any sense of a particular emotional personality speaking lines appropriate to a moment of high drama.

I don't want to belabour this comparison, because, as I say, neither passage, is particularly outstanding. But I do want to offer again the observation that Shakespeare's vocabulary, his choice of particular words and word patterns, is almost always worth attending to. He has an uncanny knack, as his style develops, of choosing simple words which bring with them strong connotations of particular emotional attitudes. And, generally speaking, the more his style matures, the more apparently simple the vocabulary. This point is particularly true of the sonnets, as well.

There is no time to go into a series of examples, but consider this selection from one of the very greatest of all Shakespeare's plays:

                                 Out, out, brief candle.
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Nothing could be apparently more simple than the choice of language here. This is a key moment in the play, Macbeth's response to the news that his wife is dead. And yet there is no high rhetoric, no lofty declamation. But notice the enormous emotional power of this utterance, an expression of Macbeth's sense of the total emptiness and uselessness of life. The emotional power is conveyed in a number of ways, particularly in words like "struts and frets," and "idiot." If you read this passage aloud, attending to the rhythm, you observe how these words (and their sounds) are emphasized. And the punctuation forces one to keep moving beyond the end of the lines, coming to rest on "no more" and "nothing." The key image at work here is a very conventional one, life as a staged drama, but there's nothing conventional about this use of it to convey an unforgettable expression of an emotional state.

The Courtly and the Plain Style

By way of bring all these points together into some more or less coherent framework, I'd like to focus for a while on a very important and common distinction between poetic styles generally. This is the well known difference between what have come to be called the Courtly (or sometimes the Petrarchan) Style and the Plain Style. These terms refer specifically to sixteenth century poetry, but I'd like to begin by placing them in a much wider context.

All artistic expression (and perhaps all human activity of any value) is a complex compound of two essential features: passion and skill. By passion I mean imaginative excitement--the source of whatever it is that the artist has to express, his or her sincerely felt insights into a particular subject matter like love, hate, despair, anger, joy, melancholy, and so on, the very basis of the emotional understanding of life which prompts artistic expression of value. But such imaginative passion is clearly not enough; the artist also requires skill to shape the medium in order to construct an adequate symbolic equivalent of this emotional understanding. In a poet, such skill will obviously require a high level of ability to pattern language in evocative ways, so that the reader or listener responds to the creation (the poem) with a heightened understanding of the feelings the poet is exploring.

All poetic art thus has at its heart a creative tension between, on the one hand, the emotional and imaginative intensity and intelligence which prompt the work and, on the other hand, the formal patterns of the language (the shaping of the medium of expression). And the success of the work will depend upon an appropriate synthesis between them. It is clear that there are and have always been very imaginatively gifted writers who lack writing skill, whose abilities to shape language do not match the profundity of their insights. Alternatively, it is equally clear that there are writers who have an enormous skill with language but who have little of interest to say--their imaginative resources are not a match for their sophisticated command of the medium.

This distinction should not be difficult to grasp, for it is commonly observed in many areas of popular culture. In a good deal of popular music and jazz for example, one can make distinctions between very gifted musicians who are worth listening to for their skill but whose work does not seem to take one anywhere beyond that style (they lack, as the saying has it, "soul") and other musicians who are passionately sincere about what they play or sing but whose music is often excessively simple and unsophisticated (and therefore often boring).

Anyone who makes a decision to become an artist spends a great deal of time learning the various skills associated with expressing insights into human feeling in the particular medium of that art. Schools and teachers often have trouble providing inspiration ready made; that quality must come from the individual's inner self (although inspired teaching can often nurture such natural gifts). Much of this technical training can be very repetitive (like learning musical scales or writing practice poems), but the purpose of it is obvious: it is designed to make sure the would-be artist has the right tools and facility in using them, so that when inspiration strikes he or she will have the immediate means to shape that inspiration in a skillful manner. To dedicate oneself to being a creative artist is, in most cases, to commit oneself to a life of constant practice in the medium, so that one is ready when inspiration comes. An artist who writes only when inspired will probably never use the medium enough to develop the technical skill necessary to the finest expressions in the art form. This point is as true of the art of teaching as of everything else.

Now, I mention these points in order to stress a point about Elizabethan poetry (in sonnets and drama). It was a highly sophisticated technical art form. No one is born with the ability to dash off iambic pentameters and compose complex poetic images in poems with fixed rhyme schemes. Mastering this art form takes a lot of practice, and one cannot wait for inspiration to strike before setting down to compose. The result is that a great deal of Elizabethan poetry is an exercise in developing and displaying technical skill, the ability of the poet to do clever things with words, to manipulate them in new ways (e.g., with startling new images or the skillful use of multiple meanings). To these sorts of stylistic techniques, the Elizabethans gave the general all-purpose term "wit," and displays of wit in poetry became an important quality if one was interested in showing off one's poetic skill.

Out of this tendency arose what has come to be called the Courtly Style. This rather general label refers to a popular form of poetry which stressed witty love poems answering to aristocratic ideals. The basic experiential requirements set out in the poem were generally quite simple: a declaration of love to a noble and generally unattainable (and often cruel) lady. The challenge was to frame one's tribute in language which displayed one's cleverness (one's wit) as a poet. In other words, this style tended to encourage a preponderance of wit over substance, or, alternatively put, it invited the poet to sacrifice sincerity for technical ingenuity.

This point may become clearer if we think about certain forms of music. There are styles of jazz, for example, where the primary purpose is to show off one's technical versatility (e.g., be-bop), and an important element in any jazz solo improvisation is clearly to show off the technical skill of the player. In many cases, that is much more important than anything else. And most of us can think of musical artists who really impress us with their technical ability but who do not challenge us emotionally.

So it is in some forms of Elizabethan poetry. Here is a particularly famous example of Shakespeare's wit employed in such a style:

Why all delights are vain, but that most vain
Which, with pain purchased, doth inherit pain;
As painfully to pour upon a book
To seek the light of truth while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile. (Love's Labour's Lost 1.1.72-77)

The extraordinary technical complexity of the last line, where the word "light" is used four times to refer to four different things, is an example of Elizabethan "wit" at its most complex. It has the effect of calling attention to the intricacy of the language and the multiple meanings cleverly invoked rather than to any significant sense of inner feeling.

This technique of sophisticated wit is common also in many of early sonnets, as well:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And, darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow's form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!

Here again, there is a clear sense of the great sophistication in the skillful use of the medium, but there's a sense that the poet's display of his own wit is more important to him than any sincerely passionate communication about his feelings. The same point holds for Sonnet 135, which is constructed around the various meanings of Will.

The point I wish to stress here (and it's a vitally important interpretative principle) is that a skillful style can at times get in the way of the poem's achieving any deeper insights into the feelings about the experience being evoked. One leaves such a poem with great admiration for the technical skill on display but without any sense of having been moved by an insight into something important.

As I say, if you pause to reflect for a moment, you can probably think of a number of similar examples from popular music or jazz (especially the latter), where the great technical skill of the artist is the most memorable feature of a particular work. The pleasure one derives come from the medium itself, not from any message. Clearly, it is not easy to write poetry or music like this, but one often senses that there's something essential missing, some deeper imaginative pressure to put all this skill in the service of something insightful.

At the extreme opposite the wit of the Courtly Style is what has come to be called the Plain Style. This (again very general) label refers to a style in which the emotional insights are expressed in a plain and unvarnished language, where the wit is kept firmly in check, so that the language does not call attention to itself. In the Plain Style, the full resources of the medium are not on ostentatious display. A particularly obvious example is Shakespeare's Sonnet 66:

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry:
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill.
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that to die I leave my love alone.

This poem has a traditional sonnet structure and a series of poetic images and metaphors. But the language is very simple (perhaps excessively so), with a repetitive structure to the lines and no attempt to startle the reader with some daringly witty double or triple meanings. In this poem, by contrast with the selections quoted earlier, the speaker's mood of despondency at the world's unfairness prevails over the skill in the language (although the poem clearly is not so plain as it might appear, since it still has the form of a conventional sonnet).

Now, this poem should suggest to a number of readers both the strength and the potential weakness of the Plain Style. It puts the reader immediately in touch with something that really matters--the sincerely felt emotional response of the speaker to a living situation. But at the same time there's a repetitive simplicity in the language and structure which (for some readers) may run out of steam before the end. That is to say, the Plain Style runs the risk of becoming predictable and inert, in a word, too plain. I'm not saying that this poem necessarily suffers from these qualities, but one can see the possibility (especially if this poem were to go on for much longer).

The greatest single example of the sustained Plain Style in English is the translation of the King James Bible, which deliberately eschewed any attempt at rhetorical excess or wit (although it was produced in an age in which such excess was a marked feature of a great deal of writing in poetry and prose). The translators established and maintained throughout a direct plainness in the style (short, plain sentences, a familiar common vocabulary, direct and relatively simple imagery), sacrificing any chances to embellish the sacred text with linguistic inventiveness. And the enduring preference English speakers for the Plain Style owes more to the King James Version than to anything else.

The Plain Style, it should be clear, seeks to harness language in such a way that it does not preempt our sense that there is something important being communicated here. The Courtly Style, by contrast, tends to celebrate the possibilities of language over and above anything the language might be communicating. Both styles (in their extreme versions) can produce unsatisfactory works: the Plain Style poem can be too plain, repetitive, rhetorically uninventive, and, well, boring, so that, for all the sincerity in the speaker, we turn set the book down; the Courtly Style can so insist on the preeminence of wit in the language over anything else that we turn away seeking something with more content.

The best poetry (to come to the main point of these remarks) is obviously a combination of both passion and skill. The work conveys a sense of sincerity and a commitment to the feelings being explored and yet, at the same time, is sufficiently sophisticated that the style hold our attention (without calling attention to itself in a manner which makes us doubt the writer's intention). This point applies to more than just Elizabethan poetry, of course. We can apply it to the use of language generally (including lectures posted on the Internet): it should be prompted by a genuine and sincere imaginative desire to communicate something and also be sufficiently skillful so that we continue to be interested.

Students of English literature may be already familiar with some well-known writers who are more celebrated for their stylistic accomplishments than for having anything to say. It is not uncommon to see, say, Spenser or Ezra Pound so described, writers who had a truly inventive command of the medium but who had little to communicate (a more controversial name here might also be James Joyce in his later works). These writers are often called poets' poets, a term which calls attention to their value for those who wish to learn about the full range of resources in that medium. Over against these we can set someone like, say, John Bunyan, who was passionately committed to communicating insights of central importance and who did so often in a style which does not sustain interest.

A good deal of modern poetry (and jazz and painting) is dominated by people with much skill but little vision (perhaps that comes about because it's much easier to acquire skill in a poetic medium than to acquire imaginative insight into something important). This gave rise to a famous indictment of some modern poets: "They've got the bridle and the bit all right/ But where's the bloody horse?" A rider may have much skill for us to admire, but if she has no large powerful beast to carry her forward, the attractions of her art are somewhat limited.

Let me end this section with what I hope will be a contemporary illustration, if people still remember the Beatles. Their extraordinarily popular style at their best was clearly a synthesis of two very different approaches to music and song, Paul McCartney's wit, sophistication, and inventive musicality and John Lennon's passionate sincerity. When these two worked together, the results were often truly memorable songs, sophisticated and passionate, witty and sincere. When they broke up, McCartney's music lost much of its emotional interest, but retained its skillful musicality; Lennon's music lost its inventiveness and became so plain that at times his songs are hard to distinguish from prose. I could extend this comparison, but I fear it may be badly outdated (as would a similar analytic reference to another great popular artist whose work exhibits the same polarity and synthesis, Bob Dylan).

Back to Shakespeare

These remarks about the different styles in poetry are directly relevant to Shakespeare's work for two reasons: first, his own style shows a marked development away from the Courtly Style in some of the earliest plays and poems towards an increasing plainness (especially in the vocabulary and imagery), and, second, an exploration of the uses and abuses of language in the expression of feeling is a key feature of some of the plays.

Shakespeare's earlier work is often mark by an abundance of witty, sophisticated, courtly poetical moments. This is particularly true of some of the early sonnets (which are dated early largely on the basis of that characteristic), some plays (especially Love's Labour's Lost, which may have been written for a private audience of young urban "wits"), and some of the early poems (Venus and Adonis). As his style matures, such moments become less and less frequent, and he tends to subordinate his desire for displays of stylistic sophistication to the demands of the emotional moment (although the excess often remains in the prose humour, much to the disgust of some later critics).

However, it's not a case that an extreme Plain Style takes over. The style still demonstrates a complex skill at work, but the skill rarely calls attention to itself. One will search, say, Macbeth in vain to find a passage of complex verse which is not first and foremost concerned with an expression of the feeling of a particular character. In fact, if one wants to sum up Shakespeare's preeminent genius in a single observations one might observe that no other writer has ever managed such a synthesis of skill and imaginative power. His formidable powers of language are put into the service of a profound vision of human life.

What I have been discussing is an important element in many plays, where one of the major points is either a contrast between characters based, in part, on the language they use to express themselves (e.g., Richard II and Bolingbroke or Othello and Iago) or, beyond that, the need for someone to learn to use the right sort of language in order to understand what emotional honesty is all about. In Shakespearean comedy for example (especially in As You Like It) one of the central issues which must be taken care of before the lovers can move to their final union is that the hero must learn to correct the errors of poetical attitudinizing, that is, using language in false ways to communicate a sentimentalized vision of love. This invariably means learning to drop a courtly style and take up a much plainer and more directly sincere way of expressing one's own feelings. One of the most delightful things about Rosalind in As You Like It is her attitude to language and the zest with which she sets out to correct Orlando's false notions of the language most appropriate to love. There is an important idea at work in the comic business: that until one learns to express oneself in the most appropriate language one cannot truly understand one's own feelings of love.

The same thing happens in Romeo and Juliet. At the start of the play, Romeo is a moon-struck lover fond of composing elaborate images to express his sense of his powerful love (which is not, of course, for Juliet at this point). By the end of the play, he has dropped that style of expressing himself and substituted something much plainer ("Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight").

We see this theme taken up in the very famous Sonnet 130:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red.
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. . . .

Here the plain style comes out in a direct repudiation of the conventional images associated with the Courtly Style in love poetry. And the point which emerges is, among other things, that really passionate love does not require the conventional wit. What matters is a language more appropriate to the urgent sincerity of feeling for the experience (as opposed to the conventional linguistic attitudinizing, however cleverly carried out).

And this point, we might add, is central to understanding why Shakespeare's best sonnets are among the most eloquent, evocative, and moving poems every written. They explore a conventional subject, the speaker's feelings about love. But Shakespeare's commitment to the sincere passion of the Plain Style transforms a conventional situation (the speaker in despair at or in love with his lady) into something uniquely felt, urgently experienced. Here the sophistication in the form and the language is put fully into the service of an imaginative insight, so that we witness the extraordinary inventiveness in the poetic language and at the same time explore the complexities of a vital and important experience--a perfect fusion of style and substance.


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