Shakespeare’s Language

FairyBy Kalina Ko, Literary Intern

The language Shakespeare used is complex and can be unfamiliar to modern audiences. 

Take, for example, these first lines of the character, Hippolyta:

“Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;

Four nights will quickly dream away the time;

And then the moon, like to a silver bow

New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night

of our solemnities”

Those five lines are just a very descriptive way of saying “Four days will go by quickly and then we’ll get married at night!” Although very different from the way we speak today, the language used is also an integral part of the beauty of Shakespeare’s plays.

The lines can be split into two categories: prose and poetry. Prose is what people tend to speak in every day. We might call it “normal speech.” The mechanicals all speak in prose in this play. Poetry has a rhythmic pattern to it and is usually broken into lines. In this play, the humans usually speak in a pattern called “iambic pentameter.” This means that each line consists of ten syllables following an “unstressed-stressed” pattern. For example:

“Four days will quickly steep themselves in night”

da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM

This style of writing creates a very regular and musical sound. When the pattern is broken, the words tend to stick out more and draw attention. The fairies have their own rhythmic pattern that they follow (and often break). Of course, sometimes achieving the perfect ten syllable line is difficult and as such Shakespeare would squish together two syllables in order to fix this problem. Keep an ear out during the show and see if you can identify when Shakespeare breaks the rhythmic scheme. Can you guess why he did that?

Another notable aspect of Shakespeare’s writing is the rhyme scheme. Many of the poetic lines in the play do rhyme. However, it is sometimes not noticeable to the modern audience because of the way we speak now. In Shakespearean England, everyone spoke in a different accent, which we now call “original pronunciation.” As such, many of the words would rhyme. Take, for example, the following two lines:

“When thou wak’st, if she be by

Beg of her for remedy.”

In modern American English, “by” and “remedy” usually do not rhyme. However, in original pronunciation, these two lines would rhyme perfectly. You might notice in our production that some words are intentionally said in original pronunciation in order to achieve the rhyme.

A Beginner's Guide to Poetic Meter

Sources:

 

 

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