Shakespeare's style

Shakespeare's style

Shakespeare's style borrowed from the conventions of the day, while at the same time adapting them to his needs.


Shakespeare's first plays were written in the conventional style of the day. He wrote them in a stylised language that does not always spring naturally from the needs of the characters or the drama. [Clemen, Wolfgang (2005). "Shakespeare's Dramatic Art: Collected Essays", 150. London; New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415352789.] The poetry depends on extended, sometimes elaborate metaphors and conceits, and the language is often rhetorical—written for actors to declaim rather than speak. For example, the grand speeches in "Titus Andronicus", in the view of some critics, often hold up the action; meanwhile, the verse in "Two Gentlemen of Verona" has been described as stilted. [Frye, 105, 177.
• Clemen, Wolfgang (2005). "Shakespeare's Imagery". London; New York: Routledge, 29. ISBN 0415352800.

Soon, however, Shakespeare began to adapt the traditional styles to his own purposes. The opening soliloquy of "Richard III" has its roots in the self-declaration of Vice in medieval drama. At the same time, Richard’s vivid self-awareness looks forward to the soliloquies of Shakespeare's mature plays. [Brooke, Nicholas, "Language and Speaker in Macbeth", 69; and Bradbrook, M.C., "Shakespeare's Recollection of Marlowe", 195: both in "Shakespeare's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir". Edwards, Philip; Inga-Stina Ewbank, and G.K. Hunter (eds.) (2004 edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521616948.] No single play marks a change from the traditional to the freer style. Shakespeare combined the two throughout his career, with "Romeo and Juliet" perhaps the best example of the mixing of the styles. [Clemen, "Shakespeare's Imagery", 63.] By the time of "Romeo and Juliet", "Richard II", and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare had begun to write a more natural poetry. He increasingly tuned his metaphors and images to the needs of the drama itself.

Shakespeare's standard poetic form was blank verse, composed in iambic pentameter. In practice, this meant that his verse was usually unrhymed and consisted of ten syllables to a line, spoken with a stress on every second syllable. The blank verse of his early plays is quite different from that of his later ones. It is often beautiful, but its sentences tend to start, pause, and finish at the end of lines, with the risk of monotony. [Frye, 185.] Once Shakespeare mastered traditional blank verse, he began to interrupt and vary its flow. This technique releases the new power and flexibility of the poetry in plays such as "Julius Caesar" and "Hamlet". Shakespeare uses it, for example, to convey the turmoil in Hamlet's mind: ["Hamlet", Act 5, Scene 2, 4–8. Wright, George T (2004). "The Play of Phrase and Line". In "Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 1945–2000". Russ McDonald (ed.). Oxford: Blackwell, 868. ISBN 0631234888.]

:"Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting":"That would not let me sleep. Methought I lay":"Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly—":"And prais'd be rashness for it—let us know" :"Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well..."

After "Hamlet", Shakespeare varied his poetic style further, particularly in the more emotional passages of the late tragedies. The literary critic A. C. Bradley described this style as "more concentrated, rapid, varied, and, in construction, less regular, not seldom twisted or elliptical". [Bradley, 91.] In the last phase of his career, Shakespeare adopted many techniques to achieve these effects. These included run-on lines, irregular pauses and stops, and extreme variations in sentence structure and length.McDonald, 42–6.] In "Macbeth", for example, the language darts from one unrelated metaphor or simile to another: "was the hope drunk/ Wherein you dressed yourself?" (1.7.35–38); "...pity, like a naked new-born babe/ Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, hors'd/ Upon the sightless couriers of the air..." (1.7.21–25). The listener is challenged to complete the sense.McDonald, 42–6.] The late romances, with their shifts in time and surprising turns of plot, inspired a last poetic style in which long and short sentences are set against one another, clauses are piled up, subject and object are reversed, and words are omitted, creating an effect of spontaneity. [McDonald, 36, 39, 75.]

Shakespeare's poetic genius was allied with a practical sense of the theatre. [Gibbons, 4.] Like all playwrights of the time, Shakespeare dramatised stories from sources such as Petrarch and Holinshed.Gibbons, 1–4.] He reshaped each plot to create several centres of interest and show as many sides of a narrative to the audience as possible. This strength of design ensures that a Shakespeare play can survive translation, cutting and wide interpretation without loss to its core drama. [Gibbons, 1–7, 15.] As Shakespeare’s mastery grew, he gave his characters clearer and more varied motivations and distinctive patterns of speech. He preserved aspects of his earlier style in the later plays, however. In his late romances, he deliberately returned to a more artificial style, which emphasised the illusion of theatre. [McDonald, 13.
• Meagher, John C (2003). "Pursuing Shakespeare's Dramaturgy: Some Contexts, Resources, and Strategies in his Playmaking". New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 358. ISBN 0838639933.


Although Shakespeare wrote some passages in prose, he wrote a large proportion of his plays and poems in iambic pentameter. In some of his early works, he added punctuation at the end of the iambic pentameter lines to strengthen the rhythm.Introduction to "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare, Barron's Educational Series, 2002, 11.] He and other dramatists at the time used this form of blank verse for much of the dialogue between characters in order to elevate the poetry of drama.Citation
year = 2005
title = Elizabethan Period (1558–1603), from ProQuest Period Pages
publisher =ProQuest
] To end many scenes in his plays he used a rhyming couplet, thus creating suspense. [cite book
last =Miller
first =Carol
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Irresistible Shakespeare
publisher =Scholastic Professional
date =2001
location = New York
pages = p18
url =
doi =
id = ISBN 0-439-09844-0
] A typical example occurs in "Macbeth": as Macbeth leaves the stage to murder Duncan (to the sound of a chiming clock), he says, ["Macbeth" Act 2, Scene 1] cquote| Hear it not Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

His plays make effective use of the soliloquy, in which a character makes a solitary speech, giving the audience insight to the character's motivations and inner conflict. [Clemen, Wolfgang H. (1987) "Shakespeare's Soliloquies", trans. Charity S. Stokes, Routledge, 11.] Among his most famous soliloquies are To be or not to be, All the world's a stage, and What a piece of work is a man [cite book
last = Barnet
first = Sylvan
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = A Midsummer Night’s Dream
publisher = Signet Classics
date = 1998
location = London, England
pages = vii - lxi
url =
doi =
id =
isbn =
] . The character either speaks to the audience directly (in the case of choruses, or characters that become epilogues), or more commonly, speaks to himself or herself in the fictional realm. [cite journal |last=Maurer |first=Margaret |year=2005 |month= |title= Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies|journal=Shakespeare Quarterly |volume=56 |issue=4 |pages=504 |accessdate=|doi= 10.1353/shq.2006.0027 Retrieved through Proquest on June 6, 2007 [ here] .] Shakespeare's writing features extensive wordplay of double entendres and clever rhetorical flourishes. [cite book |last=Mahood |first=Molly Maureen |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Shakespeare's Wordplay |year=1988 |publisher=Routledge |location= |pages=9 |isbn= ] Humour is a key element in all of Shakespeare's plays. His works have been considered controversial through the centuries for his use of bawdy punning, [cite book
last =Partridge
first =Eric
title =Shakespeare's Bawdy
publisher =Routledge
date =1947
location =London
pages =Preface p.xi
isbn =0-415-05076-6
] to the extent that "virtually every play is shot through with sexual puns." [cite book
last =Wells,
first =Stanley
title =Looking for Sex in Shakespeare
publisher =Cambridge University Press
date =2004
pages =1
isbn =0-521-54039-9
] Indeed, in the nineteenth century, popular censored versions of the plays were produced as "The Family Shakespeare" by Henrietta Bowdler (writing anonymously) and later by her brother Thomas Bowdler. [Wells, Stanley "Looking for Sex in Shakespeare" 19-20.] Comedy is not confined to Shakespeare's comedies, and is a core element of many of the tragedy and history plays. For example, comic scenes dominate over historical material in Henry IV, Part 1. [Kastan, David Scott (ed.) "King Henry IV, Part 1" (The Arden Shakespeare:Third Series, Thomson, London 2002) Introduction, 14.]

imilarities to contemporaries

Besides following the popular forms of his day, Shakespeare's general style is comparable to several of his contemporaries. His works have many similarities to the writing of Christopher Marlowe, and seem to reveal strong influences from the Queen's Men's performances, especially in his history plays. His style is also comparable to Francis Beaumont's and John Fletcher's, other playwrights of the time.Holland, Peter. (Sept 2004) "Shakespeare, William (1564–1616)", "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford University Press; online ed, Jan 2007, Retrieved 25 June 2007]

Shakespeare often borrowed plots from other plays and stories. "Hamlet", for example, is comparable to Saxo Grammaticus' "Gesta Danorum".Fact|date=June 2007 "Romeo and Juliet" is thought to be based on Arthur Brooke's narrative poem "The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet". [cite journal|title=The Sources of Romeo and Juliet|author=Arthur J. Roberts|journal=Modern Language Notes|volume=17|issue=2|year=Feb 1902|pages=41–44|doi=10.2307/2917639] "King Lear" is based on the story of King Leir in "Historia Regum Britanniae" by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which was retold in 1587 by Raphael Holinshed.Fact|date=June 2007 Borrowing plots in this way was not uncommon at the time. After Shakespeare's death, playwrights quickly began borrowing from his works, a tradition that continues to this day.

Differences from contemporaries

Shakespeare's works express the complete range of human experience. [Reich, John J., and Cunningham, Lawrence S. "Culture And Values: A Survey of the Humanities" Thomson Wadsworth, 2005, 354.] His characters were human beings [Webster, Margaret. "Shakespeare Without Tears" Courier Dover Publications, 2000, 194.] who commanded the sympathy of audiences when many other playwrights' characters were flat or archetypes. [Bennett, J. A. W. , Gray, Douglas, et al. "The Oxford history of English literature: The Age of Shakespeare" Oxford University Press, 1997, 503.] [Leggatt, Alexander. "Arden of Faversham" from "Shakespeare Survey" by Stanley Wells (editor), Cambridge University Press, 2002, 121.] Macbeth commits six murders by the end of the fourth act, and is responsible for many deaths offstage, yet still commands an audience's sympathy until the very end [Dotterer, Ronald L. "Shakespeare: Text, Subtext, and Context" Susquehanna University Press, 1989, 91.] because he is seen as a flawed human being, not a monster. [McCarthy, Mary. "General MacBeth" from "The Tragedy of Macbeth" by William Shakespeare, Signet Classic, 1998, 162.] Hamlet knows that he must avenge the death of his father, but he is too indecisive, too self-doubting, to carry this out until he has no choice. [Berryman, John. "Berryman's Shakespeare: Essays, Letters and Other Writings" Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2001, pages 114-116.] His failings cause his downfall, and he exhibits some of the most basic human reactions and emotions. Shakespeare's characters were complex and human in nature. By making the protagonist's character development central to the plot, Shakespeare changed what could be accomplished with drama. [Frye, Roland Mushat. (2005) "Shakespeare:The Art of the Dramatist". Routledge, pg. 118. ISBN 0-415-35289-4]


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