Stuck with Shakespeare? Completely lost when it comes to pentameter and rhyming couplets? No longer laughing when it comes to comedy and ‘tragic’ is the only way to describe your relationship with Shakespeare? Fear not – we’ve heard you calling and have tried to cover as many of these issues as possible!
For both GCSE and AS & A2 students, we provide tips on the difficult language to the different settings; from monologues and soliloquies to exam technique. We’ve got you covered, so sit back, relax and start making notes!
Whichever Shakespeare play you’re studying, the starting point is to read it! Sacrificing a few hours of your time to read the play for yourself is the best way to get familiar with the main events and ideas.
Whilst reading, highlight your favourite moments/lines and anything that really stands out for you. Doing this means that you are interacting critically with the text, which will serve you well when you come to study the play more closely.
Shakespeare’s language can be daunting! The idea is not to understand absolutely everything you read, but to focus on key passages and the way that the play is written so you can get the most out of it.
Knowing the plot and the characters inside out is important, too. When tackling a difficult piece of language it can be helpful to think about who is saying it and why.
Consider the fact that Shakespeare does not always set his plays in England.
✓ Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona.
✓ Macbeth: Scotland.
✓ The Merchant of Venice: Venice.
✓ Julius Caesar: Rome.
Ask yourself why he chooses overseas locations. For example, a common English conception of Italy was a place full of feuds and passionate love affairs. However, how Italian is Romeo and Juliet, really?
The same question could be asked of Shakespeare’s other plays. Are they ever convincing portrayals of different cultures and societies or are they simple representations of ideas and attitudes that would be found in Elizabethan England?
Do you know the difference between soliloquy and monologue? What’s a sonnet? Do you know what blank verse is? What are rhyming couplets? To effectively comment on Shakespeare’s use of language, make sure that you:
✓ use correct terminology;
✓ show understanding of why Shakespeare opts for these different forms and techniques;
✓ comment on their effect.
To get you started, you’ll find below some key techniques with definitions and examples explained. Try to find examples for other key terms that you need to know!
REMEMBER: When writing about Shakespeare’s language, always ask yourself why he uses certain devices and what effect they have.
Technically speaking, blank verse consists of unrhymed iambic pentameter: a line of five iambs (see TIP 6: Iambic pentameter). Simply put, this means lines with 10 syllables, 5 of which are stressed, with no rhyme at the end. For example:
‘When now / I think / you can / behold / such sights’ (Macbeth, III.4.113)
Blank verse is flexible: Shakespeare uses the above basic pattern, but often varies it. For example, to capture the sound of speech, he changes the length and rhythm of lines.
REMEMBER: Shakespeare often uses blank verse when he wants to convey the intensity of characters’ feelings.
An iamb is the most common ‘metrical foot’, which basically means how the stress falls in a line (or even more crudely, the rhythm of a line). An iamb consists of a weak stress followed by a strong stress: think ‘ti-tum’. Pentameter simply refers to the length of the line, so, in this case, five ‘metrical feet’ (pent = five). So, put together, all iambic pentameter means is a line consisting of five iambs: (ti-tum / ti-tum / ti-tum / ti-tum / ti-tum). For example:
‘But, soft! / what light / through yon- / der win- / dow breaks?’ (Romeo and Juliet, II.2.2)
Iambic pentameter is the closest to the natural rhythm of spoken English. It’s very flexible, but an overuse of can feel mechanical, which is why Shakespeare varies the form of his language.
A soliloquy is a speech made by a character when he/she is on stage alone, exploring his/her feelings. Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be …’ speech is one of the most famous soliloquies in literature.
Soliloquies give characters the opportunity to explore their thoughts and feelings aloud, without the pressure of other characters’ opinions/views/interjections. For the audience, it allows us an insight into a character’s internal struggles, and increases the potential for empathy or distrust of a character.
Soliloquies can be key for creating dramatic irony. Iago’s soliloquies in Othello are a great example – they convey his evil intentions to the audience only, while the other characters still view him as ‘good, honest, Iago.’
Monologues are extended speeches which other characters are privy to, and which are sometimes addressed to the audience. For example, Shylock’s speeches in The Merchant of Venice (III.1.49–61; IV.1.43–61), and Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar (III.2.70–104).
Monologues are usually rhetorically impressive, full of powerful imagery and important messages. Characters dominate the stage with their reasoning/declarations of love/elaborate deceptions, making monologues both captivating and crucial to your understanding of the plot and where the action may be headed. Look out for any foreshadowing of tragic/comic outcomes in these speeches.
REMEMBER: Monologues are often used to reinforce dramatic irony or to reveal truths to other characters, so they may mark a turning-point in the play.
Simply put, lines of verse that rhyme! Often rhymed verse is made up of rhyming couplets, which are pairs of rhymed lines following the rhyme pattern AA, BB, CC. For example:
‘Eye of newt, and toe of frog, (A)
Wool of bat and tongue of dog. (A)
Adder’s fork, and blind-worms sting, (B)
Lizards leg, and owlet’s wing – (B)
For a charm of powerful trouble, (C)
Like a hell-broth, boil and bubble.’ (C) (IV.1.12–19)
Rhyming couplets create a compelling and strong rhythm, which can prove effective when trying to reinforce certain ideas/concepts/feelings. They can be both playful, keeping the pace of a scene moving, but they can also be deeply moving and even ominous, thus enhancing the romance or tragedy of a scene/speech.
REMEMBER: Shakespeare often uses rhyming couplets to close a scene; a kind of poetic flourish, if you will!
Depending on the play that you are studying, you will need to identify and familiarise yourself with its key themes. Draw a spider-diagram for each theme, noting any links between them. Here are some ideas to help you:
✓ In Macbeth, is there a link between the theme of Ambition and the downfall of characters such as Lady Macbeth?
✓ In Romeo and Juliet, can you break down the umbrella term of Love into different kinds of love (courtly, sexual and true love)? How do these different portrayals of love interact? How does the theme of a warring society conflict with the theme of love?
✓ In The Merchant of Venice, consider how Justice and mercy is closely related with the theme of Money. Does money corrupt? Is justice done at the end of the play?
✓ In Julius Caesar, look at the relationship between Rhetoric and Political power. How is power shown to lead to corruption; and does this affect loyalty?
Now it’s your turn!