Blank Verse in Romeo & Juliet

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

In this lesson, you will learn what the popular English style of poetry, blank verse, is, as well as about how it is used in Shakespeare's tragedy 'Romeo and Juliet.'

What Is Blank Verse?

Blank verse is a popular style of poetry most often associated with Shakespeare. In blank verse, the meter, or rhythmic pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is iambic pentameter and there is no rhyme. What is iambic pentameter, you ask? The root 'iamb' means 'foot,' and 'pent' means five. This means that each line of poetry contains five feet. A foot is a unit of two syllables where the first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. Still confused? Here is a popular example from Romeo and Juliet, with the stressed syllables in bold, that might make the concept clearer:

''But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?''

In this famous line from the play, where Romeo is gazing up at Juliet, who is up on her balcony, there are five sets of stressed and unstressed syllables (iambs).

Aspects of Blank Verse

Iambic pentameter is the most common meter Shakespeare uses in his plays, though there are some deviations from this rhythm. It is also the poetic meter that most closely mimics real human speech. This seems like a natural choice for writing plays in the form of poetry as Shakespeare did, knowing that all of his words would be spoken rather than merely read. The main aspect of blank verse that distinguishes it is that it is iambic pentameter that is always unrhymed.

Blank Verse in Romeo and Juliet

Before Shakespeare's time, drama and poetry were always rhymed. Blank verse was a relatively new development in the late 16th century. As Shakespeare wrote more plays, he used rhyme more and more sparingly in favor of blank verse. This reveals a growth in his writing over time and also makes his use of rhyme more powerful when it is in such stark contrast to his more typical use of blank verse.

Much of Romeo and Juliet is written in blank verse, more so than in his earlier plays. There are also some examples of prose, or writing that is not any kind of poetry at all, such as letters sent from one character to another, or in the speech of lower class characters such as the nurse and servants. In Romeo and Juliet, blank verse is sometimes juxtaposed with rhyming iambic pentameter and prose to emphasize differences in characters and class. For example, nobility such as Juliet's parents and Romeo and Juliet themselves often deliver lines in blank verse. In contrast, Juliet's nurse, a lower-class, vulgar character, speaks in prose or rhyme.

Shakespeare used blank verse and other types of speech to contrast the Nurse and Juliet
Nurse and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet

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