Iambic Pentameter; Rhymed Verse; Catalectic Trochaic Tetrameter; Prose
A Midsummer Night's Dream contains a fair amount of regular old prose (how we talk every day), but it's famous for its dazzling displays of verse, or poetry. The three most common types of verse in the play are:
- iambic pentameter
- rhymed verse, and
- catalectic trochaic tetrameter.
Catalectic, huh? Don't worry Shmoopsters. It's all pretty simple once you break it down, so don't ever let the fancy names scare you.
Blank Verse or, Unrhymed Iambic Pentameter (The Nobles)
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the noble characters often speak in unrhymed "iambic pentameter" (also called "blank verse"). This is considered a fancy way to talk and it helps separate upper class characters from the commoners or everyday Joes of the play. 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
Here's an example from Theseus's speech to Hippolyta:
hippOLyTA, i WOO'D thee WITH my SWORD,
and WON thy LOVE, doING thee INjurIES;
Every second syllable is accented (stressed), so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since the lines have no regular rhyme scheme we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter, a.k.a. blank verse.
When the young Athenian lovers (also members of the nobility) speak passionately about love, their lines of poetry tend to rhyme, like when Helena goes on about the nature of love. Notice that the rhyme scheme below follows this pattern: AABBCC.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; (A rhyme)
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind: (A rhyme)
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgment taste; (B rhyme)
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste: (B rhyme)
And therefore is Love said to be a child, (C rhyme)
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled. (C rhyme)
By the way, we've got three "heroic couplets" here. (Heroic couplets are just rhyming pairs of verse in iambic pentameter.)
Catalectic Trochaic Tetrameter (The Fairies)
The fairies also speak in verse, but it's done in a way that sets them apart from the other characters. Many of their lines are delivered in what's called "catalectic trochaic tetrameter." That's a mouthful, but, again, it's actually pretty simple once you wrap your brain around it. Let's take a closer look.
A "trochee" is the opposite of an "iamb." It's an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable that sounds like DUM-da. "Tetra" means "four" and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "trochaic tetrameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of four trochees per line. It sounds like this:
DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da
When the last syllable of the line is cut off, it's called catalectic trochaic tetrameter. Here's an example where Puck addresses Oberon:
CAPtain OF our FAIry BAND,
HELeNA is HERE at HAND;
Shakespeare's a big fan of using trochaic verse for supernatural beings like fairies (and the Witches in Macbeth) because it's light and airy. Let's face it, it's also kind of fun.
Prose (the Mechanicals)
Ordinary folks like the Mechanicals (craftsmen) usually don't talk in a special rhythm—they just talk. Check out this passage, where Bottom and his pals talk about the play they want to perform:
There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and
Thisbe that will never please. First, Pyramus must
draw a sword to kill himself, which the ladies
cannot abide. How answer you that? (3.1.9-12)
Prose makes sense for this scene, because it's a very practical way to talk. Notice, though, that when the Mechanicals perform the play Pyramus and Thisbe, their lines are spoken in rhymed verse, which has a comical effect. Check out these lines where Flute (playing the role of Thisbe) tries to be poetic about Pyramus's beauty:
Most radiant Pyramus, most lily-white of hue,
Of color like the red rose on triumphant brier,
Most brisky juvenal and eke most lovely Jew,
As true as truest horse that yet would never tire, (3.1.92-95)
It's obvious that Peter Quince (the guy who wrote the play script) tried really, really hard to come up with a rhyme for "hue," but the speech just sounds silly and absurd. This suggests that Quince and the other "rude Mechanicals" aren't actually capable of writing or speaking in verse like the nobles and fairies.