Meter: prose and verse
Language is very important in Shakespeare: The way a character speaks reflects the character’s social status as well as the character’s state of mind. This means that you will be able to make some pretty impressive analytical points about Romeo and Juliet, just by paying attention to the language.
The dominant style of language in Romeo and Juliet is verse and to a lesser extent prose. Whereas prose is what we would call ordinary language, verse is characterized by a specific rhythm called meter.
Verse: iambic pentameter
The dominant type of verse spoken in the play is iambic pentameter, which is also called blank verse. It consists of a line of verse written with a five-beat rhythm where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. The combination of a short syllable with a long syllable is known as an “iamb”. When Romeo says his very first words to Juliet, he speaks in this type of meter. We have underlined the stressed syllables here:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. (1.5.92-95)
You will see that each line has five underlined stressed syllables. If you read these four lines out loud to yourself, you should be able to hear the rhythm. The steady beat helped the actors remember their many lines.
Iambic pentameter (or verse in general) generally signals high social status in Shakespeare’s plays. Romeo and Juliet is a play about upper-class people where most of the characters are noblemen or royalty. Thus, characters such as Romeo, Juliet, and Prince Escalus speak in iambic pentameter. When Romeo addresses Juliet in the example above, his use of blank verse shows her (and us) that he is a nobleman.
Note that you will sometimes see characters completing each other’s verse to make up a unit of, say, five feet. This is sometimes used to suggest that the two characters are close – for example, lovers or close friends. Most book versions of the play today indicate this via the placement of lines on the page.
Prose – ordinary language without meter – can be used to signal low social status, which is why non-nobles or commoners such as Juliet’s Nurse or the Capulet servants speak this way. At the same time, it may be used for comical purposes. One example is the cheerful Nurse who is generally a comical character. She frequently makes embarrassing sexual jokes and acts in a silly way, always speaking in prose. A good example is Act 1, Scene 3, where we meet the Nurse for the first time.
However, prose may also be used to show darker sides of the characters by signaling madness or unpredictability. Romeo’s friend Mercutio is an impulsive, hotheaded character, and we get the feeling that he might do or say anything. His uncontrolled nature affects his state of mind and this is reflected in his language: Despite being a nobleman, he mostly speaks in prose instead of iambic pentameter. Act 3, Scene1, where Mercutio fights Tybalt and is killed, is an example of this.
If you find it hard to tell iambic pentameter from prose, we have a tip for you: Try to compare the length of the lines on the page. Prose lines look much longer. You should be able to see this for both the Nurse and Mercutio.
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