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Blank Verse is a style of writing that emerged during the Renaissance and quickly became the medium of choice for any serious playwright or poet. Blank verse doesn't rhyme (although sometimes a line or two might), but it does have rhythm. This rhythm comes from the way each line is structured - there are strict rules which must be adhered to, and stricter rules on how the first set of rules can be broken. Simply put, each line should have ten syllables, and when it's read aloud, it should sound like the beat of a heart -
dadum, dadum, dadum, dadum, dadum.
The writers of the Renaissance period were fascinated with Greek and Roman literature, and one of the things that impressed them most was the strictly disciplined structures that these classical authors employed. But when they tried to translate the ancient Latin and Greek into their own languages, they found that the tightly controlled patterns (the number of syllables, the rhyme patterns and other literary devices) often disappeared. In 1514, an Italian writer named Francesco Maria Molza tried his hand at translating the Aeneid from the Latin. Molza experimented with ways in which to try and capture something of the style of the original, and developed in doing so the earliest known example of what was later termed blank verse.
This new form soon caught on in Italy, and in 1539 Giovanni Rucellai coined the phrase versi sciolti, when describing his poem Le api. Having become the standard metrical form for Italian renaissance drama, versi sciolti quickly caught the attention and the imagination of writers in other countries. In the 1550s, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, translated that old Virgil favourite, The Aeneid, not for the first time into English, but crucially for the first time using what was translated as 'blank verse'
Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton were the first English playwrights to see the potential of Surrey's discovery, and in 1561 they staged a new play called Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex. But it was Renaissance bad boy, Christopher Marlowe who harnessed the artistic (and commercial) appeal of the new medium, when he wrote his phenomenally successful play, Tamburlaine
Marlowe's Mighty Line
Tamburlaine was a bloody spectacular that offered its audience an escapist gore-fest not unlike an Elizabethan Tarantino flick. And yet, its language was some of the most beautiful, stately and altogether majestic ever written. Marlowe's poetry (blank verse is a form of poetic prose) captured the imagination of his audience, combining as it did the rhythm of everyday speech with the imagery and emotive power of poetry and liturgy. Before long, most British playwrights were using blank verse for their own plays, though few to such powerful effect as Christopher Marlowe and his successor, William Shakespeare .
The format of a piece of blank verse is usually described as 'unrhymed iambic pentameter'. The first part of this description needs no explanation1 - blank verse doesn't rhyme! As for the rest, well, this is where it gets interesting.
In a piece of blank verse, every line should be 10 syllables long. These syllables are arranged in pairs - which is where the word 'pentameter' comes in: a line of blank verse is a line of five ('penta') metres2. A metre is a rhythmic unit - here, that unit is two beats or syllables, in other verse types, it could be a different number of beats.
A famous example of blank verse from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus
Is this / the face / that launched / a thou / sand ships...
As you can see, each pair has two syllables, but they don't necessarily have to be in the same word, which is why 'thousand' can be split across two different pairs.
For the Love of iambs
Each of these pairs of syllables (or each meter of the line) is called an iamb (which is where the iambic part of the term comes from). An iamb is simply a fancy Latin name for an unstressed syllable that is followed by a stressed syllable3. For example, 'Pretend' and 'Serene' are iambs - an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The syllables don't have to be in the same word to make up an iamb - single syllable words paired together (the face, for example) can also be an iamb, and to make things even more interesting, an iamb can also be the last syllable of one word and the first syllable of the next as in thou/sand ships.
This rather well known line from Shakespeare's Richard III uses all these different combinations of iambs. The stressed words or syllables are underlined:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Because it is so much more intensely regular than 'free' speech, blank verse like the example above can sound almost incantory when used for long passages - its chant-like quality can be emphasised (or played down) by the actor, creating a heightened quality of language that marks out what we hear from the mundanity of ordinary speech. Yet if there is no variety at all in this rhythm, the hypnotic effect can become overwhelming and bombastic.
Breaking the Rules
In order to aid the expression of different emotions and to allow for more variety in the tone and pace of the language, writers using Blank Verse often deliberately break the rules that have been described above. But this isn't done in careless or haphazard way - there are just as many rules on how to break the rules, as there are rules to keep!
There are several other 'feet' or metres that can be substituted for iambs to break the monotony of a speech, or to place greater emphasis on part of a line. The three main alternatives are as follows:
Trochee- two syllables, stressed-unstressed, as in "standard"
Anapest- three syllables, unstressed-unstressed-stressed, as in "disengage"
Dactyl- three syllables, stressed-unstressed-unstressed, as in "probably"
further variations include:
Headless Iamb - one stressed syllable at the start of the line
Tailess Trochee- one stressed syllable at the end of the line
Spondee- two stressed syllables, as in "hot dog"
Amphibrach- three syllables, unstressed-stressed-unstressed, as in "forgetful"
Double Iamb- four syllables, unstressed-unstressed-stressed-stressed, as in "will you eat it?" A double iamb is counted as two feet
Feminine Ending - an extra unstressed syllable at the end of a line
Any of these metres can be used in a piece of blank verse, but the dominant form must always be the standard iamb.
In addition to these odd feet, there are other ways to vary the rhythm of Blank Verse, such as moving the caesura (another fancy Latin term - this just means the pauses), or by using enjambment (carrying on the end of a sentence beyond the end of the line). All such techniques can have a significant influence on the way the words are spoken and on how the meaning of the lines could be interpreted.
Take, for example, one of the most famous lines ever written:
To be, or not to be, that is the question
In this speech, Hamlet is arguing with himself whether or not he should commit suicide (to be, or not to be). The important words are all stressed by the natural iambic rhythm - 'being', or 'not' being is what Hamlet is debating, and his uncertainty is emphasised by the feminine ending of the line - there is no strong stressed syllable to show he has made up his mind at the end of the line; instead it tails away into nothing...
Another, less well known, example is from Christopher Marlowe's groundbreaking play Tamburlaine. In a scene where the warrior-king is testing the valour of his three sons, one of them asks him why all of the brothers must become soldiers. Tamburlaine replies
Be all / a scourge / and terr / or to / the world
Or else / you are / not sons / of Tamb / urlaine.
The spondee (double stressed-syllables) at the start of the first line breaks through the regular rhythm to underline the absolute conviction of Tamburlaine's belief that all his sons must prove worthy of their parentage by being warriors, or he will not consider them to be his sons. The moment anticipates the tragic future of this particular son who does not 'prove worthy' and so is ruthlessly murdered by his own father.
Blank Verse or not Blank Verse?
We live in the age of the soundbite - masters of the art of cramming a world of information, connotation and allusion into a single line or image. This ability has opened up new ways of communication in art and in life, but it has lead us so far from the way our Renaissance ancestors crafted language that many now shy away from approaching 'old' literature and plays because they feel it is difficult to understand. William Shakespeare and his peers used a lot of words that have ceased to be part of Modern English. These archaic words and phrases - 'thou's and 'thy's, 'verily's and 'forsooth's - have fallen by the wayside of common usage because languages develop and change as they grow, and Shakespeare was writing in a vernacular that had only just been born as a written language4.
Still, the majority of these words are still understood, even if they are no longer used. So it is not merely the vocabulary of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that sets apart their work from literature of today, but also (and just as importantly) the bones beneath the skin; the formal structures they used to give shape, substance, beauty and even meaning to the poetry they wrote. Understanding the stylized forms of writing that they borrowed and adapted from Classical and European literature is a key part to understanding the work as a whole, and chief among these forms was the Renaissance discovery and development of Blank Verse
All the devices that Renaissance playwrights and poets used to give shape and form to their work are aids to further understanding the author's intended meaning. They are meant to enhance the poetry by giving it structure and rhythm, and, as demonstrated above, the deliberate misuse of these devices can be as important and effective as using them correctly. One could read and watch these plays and poems knowing nothing of blank verse without loosing any enjoyment or understanding, but with an understanding of the structure new layers of ambiguity and subtlety are opened up that can only add to your appreciation and enjoyment.
Christopher Marlowe: Life and Death, Poetry and PlaysHave a look at other entries on Marlowe's life and work:
- Dido, Queen of Carthage
- Edward II
- The Jew of Malta
- Tamburlaine the Great
- A Biography of Christopher Marlowe
- Conspiracy Theories and Christopher Marlowe
- What is Blank Verse?