Shakespeare’s Prosody and Language: Notes on Othello

Shakespeare’s Prosody and Language: Notes on Othello

(Prosody refers to the patterns of sound and rhythm in poetry, drama and spoken language.)

In this article, Shakespeare’s Prosody and Language: Notes on Othello, we will be identifying and defining some useful devices and then exploring them in relation to the play Othello by examining several extracts from the play.

  Shakespeare's Prosody and Language: Notes on OthelloUseful terms for understanding Shakespeare’s prosody and language 

Metre: a recognisable rhythm in a line of verse consisting of a pattern of regularly recurring stressed and unstressed syllables.

Foot/feet: a metric ‘foot’ refers to a combination of a strong stress and the associated stress (or stresses) that make up the recurrent metric unit of a line of verse.

Iamb: a particular type of metric foot consisting of two syllables, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (‘da DUM’). A stressed syllable is conventionally represented by a / and an unstressed syllable by a U. Thus, an iamb is conventionally represented ~ /.

Trochee: the opposite of an iamb. It consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (‘DUM da’). A troche is conventionally represented / ~ 

Pentameter: (penta = five). A line consisting of five metric feet. So,

  • iambic pentameter is ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /, whereas
  • trochaic pentameter is / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~.

 

When read aloud, such verse naturally follows a beat. In written form, the iambic rhythm looks like this:

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

(weak STRONG / weak STRONG / weak STRONG / weak STRONG / weak STRONG)

Trochaic pentameter goes:

DUM-da/ DUM-da  /DUM-do/  DUM-da  /DUM-do

William Shakespeare wrote much of his poetry and drama in iambic pentameter with occasional trochaic pentameter to create various effects.

LISTEN FOR THE STRESS PATTERN IN EACH SPEECH.

Study the following lines from Othello and identify whether it Is an iambic or trochaic pentameter? 

  1. ‘Double, double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble’
  2. ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’
  3. Thou told’st /me thou /didst hold /him in /thy hate.
  4. ‘A bird that sang a song for thee and me.’

More on iambic pentameter: It is a metre in poetry, consisting of lines with ten syllables divided into five feet (hence “pentameter”) in which the iamb (weakSTRONG) is the dominant foot (hence “iambic”).

Iambic rhythms are quite easy to write in English and the iambic pentameter is among the most common metrical forms in English poetry. It is also closely linked to our natural speaking rhythms.

Write three one liners in iambic pentameter using modern English.

Blank Verse

Blank verse can be defined as unrhymed iambic pentameter. The extract we scanned above was not in blank verse. Brabantio was talking in rhyming couplets. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in blank verse though.

Exercise 1

  1. Make a scansion the following extracts from Othello. Remember that the iambic pentameter is seldom followed strictly without variation by Shakespeare. He keeps to a basic pattern, but also constantly:
  • varies the number of syllables (beats) per line
  • changes the order from da-Dum to Dum-da (trochaic)
  • changes the order from da-Dum to Dum-Dum (spondaic)

Remember, too, that variations from the ‘normal’ pattern are done to create a specific effect – to emphasise a point, draw attention to something (foreground), to subtly imply, etc. Therefore, when you notice any variation or deviation from the basic pattern, ask yourself what effect the variation has on the meaning of the line/passage.

Brabantio:   So let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile,

We lose it not so long as we can smile.

He bears the sentence well that nothing bears

But the free comfort which from thence he hears;

He bears both the sentence and the sorrow

That to pay grief must of poor patience borrow.

These sentences to sugar or to gall

Being strong on both sides, are equivocal.

But words are words; I never yet did hear

That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.

Comment on the results of the scansion.

  1. Did Shakespeare stick to an iambic pentameter rhyme strictly without variation throughout the passage?
  2. What significant variations in the rhythm did you find?
  3. Select 2 variations and describe what effect they have on the meaning in the passage?

Blank verse as we’ve just learnt consists of unrhymed iambic pentameter. I am sure you noticed that Brabantio spoke in rhyming couplets and not blank verse in the extract above.  Shakespeare mostly used blank verse for his plays, although, he did occasionally use couplets to achieve specific effects.

The following passage of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) has had its line breaks removed.  Work out where they should go. (Note: punctuation has also been removed from the start of lines.)

These are the forgeries of jealousy: And never, since the middle summer’s spring, met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead, by paved fountain or by rushy brook, or in the beached margent of the sea, to dance our ringlets to the whistling wind, but with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport. Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, as in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea contagious fogs; which falling in the land have every pelting river made so proud that they have overborne their continents: the ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain, the ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard; the fold stands empty in the drowned field, and crows are fatted with the murrion flock; the nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud, and the quaint mazes in the wanton green for lack of tread are undistinguishable:

Shakespeare’s language in his plays is always in one of three forms:

  1. prose
  2. rhymed verse (iambic or trochaic pentameter) or
  3. blank verse (usually unrhymed iambic and, less often, trochaic pentameter)

 

He would choose to use one or the other to create very specific effects. It is essential that we learn to recognise when and why he has used each form.

  1. Prose: This is usually ordinary speech with no regular patterns or stresses. Lines of text do not always have the same number of syllables. If you unsure whether a passage is in prose or in blank verse, look for the following visual clue:
  • A long passage in prose is typically printed like a paragraph of prose and uses the normal rules of capitalisation, as in, for example:

Iago: “Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God if the devil bid you. Because we come to do you service, and you think we are ruffians, you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse. You’ll have your nephews neigh to you – you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.” Act 1 Scene 1

  1. Rhymed verse: This is usually in rhymed couplets to make it easier for us to spot. When a single rhyming couplet is used at the end of a speech or scene in blank verse, it is usually referred to as a ‘capping couplet’. If a whole passage is in rhyming couplets they are referred to as ‘heroic couplets’. The visual clue here is that:
    • the first word of every line is capitalised and
    • the line of print will not extend to fill the whole page.

 

Brabantio:          So let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile,

We lose it not so long as we can smile.

He bears the sentence well that nothing bears

But the free comfort which from thence he hears;

He bears both the sentence and the sorrow

That to pay grief must of poor patience borrow.

These sentences to sugar or to gall

Being strong on both sides, are equivocal.

But words are words; I never yet did hear

That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.

Blank verse: refers to unrhymed iambic pentameter. Take care: blank verse resembles prose in that the final words of the lines do not rhyme in any regular pattern. Unlike prose, there is a recognisable metre. If you are unsure if a passage is in prose or blank verse, READ IT ALOUD. If you can feel the da DUM da DUM rhythm of iambic pentameter (for much/most of the line at any rate), it is in blank verse.

The visual clue here again is that:

  • the first word of every line is capitalised
  • the line of print will not extend to fill the whole page.Read the following two extracts out loud and then scan the lines to see whether they follow the da Dum da Dum rhythm. Mark off the rhythm to help you decide.Othello:      My life upon her faith! Honest Iago

     My Desdemona must I leave to thee:

    I prithee, let thy wife attend on her;

    And bring them after in the best advantage.

    Come, Desdemona, I have but an hour

    Of love, of worldly matters and direction,

    To spend with thee: We must obey the time.

    and later

    It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.

    Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!

    It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,

    Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow

    And smooth as monumental alabaster.

    Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

    Put out the light, and then put out the light.

    If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,

    I can again thy former light restore,

    Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,

    Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,

    I know not where is that Promethean heat

    That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,

    I cannot give it vital growth again,

    It must needs wither; I’ll smell it on the tree.

    I hope working through these practical exercises has helped you come to a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s prosody and language in Othello, the Moor of Venice.

    I will also be making Shakespeare’s Prosody and Language: Notes on Othello available in PDF format, so that you will be able to download it, print it and then complete the exercises on the hard copy if you so wish.

    For more on Shakespeare’s Othello, go here.