Shakespeare’s tragedies, although they are plays, are written as a form of poetry. They contain lots of rhyme, lots of imagery and a rhythm called iambic pentameter. Basically this is a sentence made up of ten syllables. The second syllable is stressed each time so the rhythm becomes:
di|DUM di|DUM di|DUM di|Dum di|DUM
In|sooth I | know not |why I | am so| sad
It | wear ies | me you | say it |wear ies | you
If it doesn’t rhyme it’s known as ‘blank verse’. If it does rhyme then it’s just plain old iambic pentameter, occasionally with extra syllables or odd stresses here and there. Here’s an example from Macbeth:
“Hear it not Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell”
Anyway, the basic point is that Shakespeare had all of his characters speak in a very vivid and poetic way.
So why did he do it?
- Some critics have suggested that he was trying to make up for the fact that he didn’t have any special effects – lighting, smoke machines, sound effects. This makes sense if you consider that when the witches appear they set the scene saying they will meet again “in thunder, lightening or in rain” as they “hover through the fog and filthy air“. Thus vivid imagery is used to create atmosphere.
- A second reason he wrote poetically was because he was a poet and he wanted to show off. Word play was very popular back in the day, it was a way of showing off how clever you were.
- Thirdly, this may seem obvious to the point of it being completely stupid for me to even mention it, but this was an era with no photos, no TV, no cinema, no screens. Basically no moving images. The only static images were paintings and only rich people could afford them. Although artists had managed to develop perspective in their paintings during the renaissance (from about 1400 onwards), they didn’t have photocopiers and when Shakespeare was writing in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s the printing press was still a pretty expensive way to create books and pass on knowledge. Plus most people were still illiterate (they couldn’t read or write). So for the regular pleb on the street their only access to images was in their dreams or in the theatre. The only way you could plant images in someone’s head (outside of SHOWING them the thing in person) was by creating pictures using words. So people who could create vivid imagery using words were like OMG a really really big deal. Basically they were Gods. We don’t have the same respect for wordsmiths these days because if you want to show people something you can take a photo, or search google images, or film it on your phone, or make a movie. You get the idea.
- Finally, Shakespeare used images to illustrate his themes and to help his audience to understand his characters better.