Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 22. His progress in versification

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 22. His progress in versification

There is no need to acknowledge defeat, in this way, as regards the last point to be handled, Shakespeare’s versification. This, while it is of the highest importance for the arrangement of his work, requires merely a little attention to the prosody of his predecessors, and a moderate degree of patient and intelligent observation, to make it comparatively plain sailing. In no respect is the Meres list of more importance than in this; for, though it does not arrange its own items in order, it sets them definitely against the others as later, and enables us, by observing the differences between the groups as wholes, to construct the order of sequence between individual plays. Hardly less valuable is the practical certainty that The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest are the latest plays, and, to say the least, the extreme probability of the grouping of the greatest of the others as belonging to a short period immediately before and a rather longer period immediately after the meeting of the centuries.

Putting these facts together with the certain conditions of prosody in the plays of the Marlowe group, and in the nondescripts of the third quarter of the sixteenth century, we are in a condition to judge Shakespeare’s progress in versification with fair safety. For the earliest period, we have pieces like Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Comedy of Errors on the one hand, like Titus Andronicus on the other. In this last, we see an attempt to play the game of the Marlowe heroic, the unrimed “drumming decasyllabon,” strictly and uncompromisingly. The verses are turned out like bullets, singly from the mould; there is little condescendence (though there is some) to rime, even at the end of scenes and tirades; there is no prose proper. But there is considerable variation of pause; and, though the inflexibility of the line sound is little affected by it, there is a certain running over of sense in which, especially when conjoined with the pause, there is promise for the future.

The two other plays represent a quite different order of experiment. Love’s Labour’s Lost, especially, is a perfect macédoine of metres. There is blank verse, and plenty of it, and sometimes very good, though always inclining to the “single-mould.” But there is also abundance of rime; plenty of prose; arrangement in stanza, especially quatrain; doggerel, sometimes refining itself to tolerably regular anapaests; fourteeners; octosyllables or, rather, the octosyllable shortened catalectically and made trochaic; finally, pure lyric of the most melodious kind. The poet has not made up his mind which is the best instrument and is trying all—not, in every case, with a certain touch, but, in every case with a touch which brings out the capacities of the instrument itself as it has rarely, if ever, been brought out before.

In the other early plays, with a slight variation in proportion to subject, and with regard to the fact whether they are adaptations or not, this process of promiscuous experiment and perhaps, half unconscious selection continues. The blank verse steadily improves and, by degrees, shakes off any suggestion of the chain, still more of the tale of bullets, and acquires the astonishing continuity and variety of its best Shakespearean form. Still, it constantly relapses into rime—often for long passages and, still oftener, at the ends or breaks of scenes and at the conclusion of long speeches; sometimes, perhaps, merely to give a cue; sometimes, to emphasise a sentiment or call attention to an incident or an appearance. The very stanza is not relinquished; it appears in Romeo and Juliet, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even in The Merchant of Venice. The doggerel and the fourteeners, except when the latter are used (as they sometimes are) to extend and diversify the blank verse itself, gradually disappear; but the octosyllabic, and more directly lyrical, insets are used freely. The point, however, in that which is, probably, the latest of this batch, and in the whole of the great central group of comedies and tragedies, is the final selection of blank verse itself for reliance, and its development. Not only, as has just been noticed, do the deficiencies of the form in its earlier examples—its stiffness, its want of fluency and symphony, the gasps, as it has been put, of a pavior with the lifting and setting down of his rammer—not only do these defects disappear, but the merits and capabilities of the form appear contrariwise in ways for which there is no precedent in prosodic history. The most important of these, for the special dramatic purpose, if also the most obvious, is the easy and unforced breaking up of the line itself for the purpose of dialogue. But this, of course, has been done with many metres before; even medieval octosyllable writers had had no difficulty with it, though the unsuitableness of rime for dialogue necessarily appeared. But Shakespeare enlarged greatly and boldly on their practice. In all his mature plays—Hamlet is a very good example to use for illustration—the decasyllabic or five-foot norm is rather a norm than a positive rule. He always, or almost always, makes his lines, whether single, continuous, or broken, referable to this norm. But he will cut them down to shorter, or extend them to greater, length without the least hesitation. Alexandrines are frequent and fourteeners not uncommon, on the one hand; octosyllables and other fractions equally usual. But all adjust themselves to the five-foot scheme; and the pure examples of that scheme preponderate so that there is no danger of its being confused or mistaken.

Secondly, the lines, by manipulation of pause and of enjambement or overrunning, are induced to compose a continuous symphonic run—not a series of gasps. In some passages—for instance, the opening lines of Antony and Cleopatra—the pause will hardly be found identical in any two of a considerable batch of verses. As to its location, the poet entirely disregards the centripetal rule dear to critics at almost all times. He sometimes disregards it to the extent—horrible to the straiter sect of such critics—of putting a heavy pause at the first or at the ninth syllable. Always, in his middle period, he practises what he taught to Milton—the secret of the verse period and paragraph—though in drama he has a greater liberty still of beginning this and ending it at any of his varied pause places, without troubling himself whether these places begin and end a line or not. Sometimes, indeed, he seems to prefer that they should not coincide.