Analysis: Writing Style
Iambic Pentameter, Prose, and Lots and Lots of Puns
Like all of Shakespeare's plays, Titus Andronicus is written in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (how we talk every day). In general, here's what you should remember about Shakespeare's plays: The upper-class characters tend to speak in unrhymed "iambic pentameter" or "blank verse," which is a pretty formal way to talk. The commoners, or everyday Joes, tend to speak just like we do, in regular old prose. (Note: The play Richard II is the one exception to this rule – it's the only Shakespeare play written entirely in verse. Even the gardeners speak poetry!)
We're going to break all this verse vs. prose stuff down for you in a moment, but first we point out that Titus Andronicus is famous for its grisly puns. Here's an example:
Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I'll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads (5.2.18)
When Titus announces that he's going to make a pie out of Demetrius and Chiron, he plays on the word "coffin," which means both 1) a container for burial and 2) a piecrust. This is kind of gross and kind of funny at the same time, don't you think? Because Titus plans on serving Demetrius and Chiron to their mother for dinner, Shakespeare is also playing on the idea that revenge is a "dish best served cold."
OK, now that you've had a little taste of the kind of wordplay you can expect from Titus, we dare you to find even more examples of gruesome punning. (Tip: Pay close attention to the words "hands" and "deer" and you can't go wrong.)
Like we said, in Titus Andronicus, the upper class characters speak in iambic pentameter. Don't let the fancy name intimidate you – it's really pretty simple once you get the hang of it.
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:
ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM.
Let's try it out on the first two lines of the play:
noBLE paTRIcians, PAtrons OF my RIGHT,
deFEND the JUStice OF my CAUSE with ARMS,
Every second syllable is accented (stressed), so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since the last words of each sentence don't rhyme, we call this unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Like we said, the commoners in Shakespeare's plays don't usually speak in verse, they just talk. As an example, here's what the Clown says when Titus asks him is he came "from heaven":
From heaven! alas, sir, I never came there God
forbid I should be so bold to press to heaven in my
young days. Why, I am going with my pigeons to the
tribunal plebs, to take up a matter of brawl
betwixt my uncle and one of the emperial's men. (4.3.3)