We’re not going to sugar-coat it for you. The Winter’s Tale has a reputation for its difficult language, which can be a bit off-putting until you get the hang of it. That’s because most of the action takes place at court and, as we know, the nobility tends to speak in a way that’s in keeping with their high social status.
Like Shakespeare’s other plays, The Winter’s Tale is written in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (how we talk every day). (Note: The play Richard II is the one exception to this rule – it’s the only Shakespeare play written entirely in verse.)
Reading The Winter’s Tale often feels like reading a very lengthy poem, and that’s because Shakespeare’s characters often speak in verse.
What kind of verse do they speak? Well, the nobles typically speak in unrhymed iambic pentameter (also called “blank verse”). Don’t let the fancy names intimidate you – it’s really pretty 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, putting it all together, iambic pentameter is a kind of rhythmic pattern that typically consists of five iambs per line. (Note: Shakespeare varies the line lengths so not all lines are “perfect” iambic pentameter.) 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 Hermione’s line from The Winter’s Tale:
the BUG | which YOU | would FRIGHT | me WITH, | i SEEK.
to ME | can LIFE | be NO | coMMO|diTY (3.2.5)
Every second syllable is accented, so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since these lines have no rhyme scheme (“seek” and “commodity” don’t rhyme), we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is also known as blank verse.
King Leontes speaks a lot of iambic pentameter, but you should keep an eye for how his speech breaks down and becomes erratic when he’s ticked off at his wife and best friend.
In Shakespeare’s plays, characters on the lower end of the social ladder tend to speak in prose. Characters like the Clown, Mopsa, and Dorcas (the play’s country bumpkins) don’t talk in a special poetic rhythm; they just talk. For example, when Mopsa wants the Clown to buy her a present she says “Pray you now, buy it” (4.4.6). Pretty straightforward, don’t you think?
The thing about The Winter’s Tale, however, is that even some of the noble characters speak in prose. When they do, the language tends to be formal and can be difficult (at first) to read. Here’s an example from the play’s opening lines:
“They were trained together in their childhoods, and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now” (1.1.4).
Translation: Leontes and Polixenes were raised together and became the best of friends, but live far apart now.