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Analysis: Writing Style

Poetry (Blank Verse, Rhymed Couplets)

We've said it before and we'll say it again: Willy Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (the way we talk every day). In general, the upper class characters tend to speak verse, which is a fancy-shmancy, formal way to talk. (The idea is that speaking verse fits their noble status.) On the other hand, commoners, or everyday Joes, tend to speak regular old prose (like us).

But... Richard II is the one exception to this rule. Almost the entire play is written in verse, which means that EVERYBODY speaks poetry, even the "lowly" gardeners.

Why? There are boatloads of possible explanations, but here's how we see things. The world of Richard II is full of corruption, conspiracy, and hypocrisy. It seems artificial when everyone in the play runs around speaking in carefully constructed verse, which reminds us that hardly anyone can be trusted.

Of course, you've probably got more questions, like what kind of poetry does everybody speak? Wait, you weren't wondering that? Well, we'll tell you anyway: usually blank verse a.k.a. unrhymed iambic pentameter. But there are also a lot of rhymed couplets in this play, too. What the heck are blank verse and rhymed couplets? you ask. Let's break it down:

Blank Verse (Unrhymed Iambic Pentameter)

Don't let the fancy names intimidate you – it's simple once you get the hang of it. Let's start with a definition of "iambic pentameter":

An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:

da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM.

Let's try it out on this line, where Richard fells sorry for himself:

I WASTEd TIME, and NOW doth TIME waste ME;

For NOW hath TIME made ME his NUMBering CLOCK:

Every second syllable is accented (stressed), so this is classic iambic pentameter. (Note: the word "numbering" is pronounced with only two syllables and sounds like "numb'ring.") Since the lines have no regular rhyme scheme, we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse.

Rhymed Couplets in Iambic Pentameter

A "rhymed couplet" is just two lines of verse that rhyme at the end. Take these two lines from Act 1, Scene 1, where Mowbray defends himself against Bolingbroke's accusation of treason and the murder of Woodstock:

I am disgraced, impeached, and baffled here,
Pierced to the soul with slander's venomed spear,

Why so many rhymed couplets in this play? Some scholars think it had to do with Shakespeare's recent experiments in sonnet-writing. (Shakespeare's sonnets always end with a rhymed couplet. Check out our guide to Sonnet 18 if you want to know more about this.) Was Shakespeare just on a big rhyming kick? Or was he trying to show us how good some characters are at controlling their language? For instance, Mowbray, Richard II, and Henry are really good at composing tight couplets when they're talking about Henry Bolingbroke's challenge to Mowbray in Act 1, Scene 1.

Let's think about this for a minute. Everyone (including Richard) knows that when Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason and the murder of Woodstock, he is really accusing King Richard of killing Woodstock. Bolingbroke can't say anything bad against the king, though, and the king can't acknowledge what's happening without fessing up to murdering his uncle. When these guys (who are all being pretty dishonest here) start talking in rhymed couplets all of sudden, we wonder if they're just hiding behind fancy speech.

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