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Shakespeare’s use of Blank Verse (The Merchant of Venice)

We’ve said that Shakespeare provides pointers  to an actor on how to play a speech. He does this in many ways, and in this post we’re going to focus on how he uses blank verse to provide such pointers. Of course the player can choose to ignore these pointers and say the speech as thought appropriate, but, it is at the very least, interesting to see what Shakespeare is suggesting.

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If you want to study this subject n depth,  you could do worse than watch the RSC’s Playing Shakespeare series of 9 videos of 45 minutes each led by John Barton, available on DVD and YouTube. We will only provide a brief introduction to the subject to get you started.

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Shakespeare’s plays are made up of prose and verse. The verse is mostly blank verse (usually non-rhyming verse where each line is made up of five feet, usually of one weak syllable, followed by a strong  syllable). There are other forms of verse used (e.g. the wtiches in Macbeth).

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Blank verse is very similar to the rhythm of spoken Enlgish. as the following blank lines illustrate:

‘I think I’ll have a plate of fish and chips.’

‘Mrs Baker drank a pint of lager’

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A ‘standard’ line of blank verse has the form:

‘De dum, de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum’

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The first line of the extract from The Merchant of Venice  you can see below is a standard line of  blank verse:

‘ In sooth I know not why I am so sad,’

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(Incidentally, Portia’s first line in the play in A1S2, though prose, has a similar melancholic feel: ‘By my troth Nerissa, my little body is weary of this great world.’)

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And now let’s watch the extract below which consists of the first four speeches from A1S1 of The Merchant of Venice,  in blank verse. Note that the focus of the reading is on the structure of the verse, rather than the content. There’ll be some comments on the verse after the Video Reading:

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Note the following:

The first speech by Antonio is in very simple English. In the first five lines there’s barely a word of difficulty, except perhaps ‘sooth’ which isn’t used much any more, but can be thought of as ‘truth’.

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By contrast, the second speech, by Salarino, is full of similes and metaphors: ‘mind is tossing on the Ocean’; Argosies with portly sail’ ‘Like Signiors and rich Burghers on the flood’. This is ‘heightened language’ and is best spoken in a different tone, depending on the context. Here, Salarino’s intention is perhaps to cheer Antonio up, and so the metaphors and similies can be spoken ‘in inverted commas’ and with humour.

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The blank verse has a certain rhythm, rather like the beat of some music, so that each line might roughly take the same time. But what do we do with a short line? In Antonio’s first speech, his fifth line is short: ‘I am to learn:’, so normally this line would have a pause in it, to ‘make up the missing beats / feet of the verse line’.

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Salanio, in his speech, also has a short line to end his speech, but Salarino also has a short line to start the following speech, and it is right-aligned. Together these two short lines make a whole line and this is known as a ‘shared line’. Usually, the speaker of the second speech will come in quickly after the first speaker to make the shared line feel like a continuous line. Note that a ‘shared line’ can consist of more than two bits.

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Some lines of verse are ‘end-stopped’ – a phrase or sentence ends at the end of the line (e.g. ‘In sooth I know not why I am so sad’) so the line ends with a pause. But some phrases continue on past the end of the line, and so there is no pause at the end of the line (e.g.
SALANIO:
….                                         I should be still
Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind,

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So now, perhaps, you might like to play the Video Reading above again, bearing in mind these comments.

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Now, perhaps, can read Shakespeare’s plays with a view to spotting heightened verse, looking out for shared lines, places where Shakespeare suggests a pause, end-stopped lines, etc.. All of these should change the way you say the lines.

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Let’s Play!!!

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

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