How He Prepared Them for Stage Productions
Shakespeare Study Guides in Kindle Format
With Complete Texts That Define Difficult Words and Explain Difficult Passages
Table of Contents
Preparing a Manuscript Writing Format: Verse, Prose, Poetry Blank Verse
Iambic Pentameter Publication of a Play Censorship
Michael J. Cummings..© 2003
Revised in 2006, 2011
Writing Tool: Quill Dipped in Ink
A quill was the
hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The
word pen is derived from the Latin name
for feather—penna. Shakespeare and other
writers of his day used a variety of quills that
they dipped in an ink container (inkwell)
on a stand (standish) that held all the
writing materials. If a writer’s pocket lacked
jingle, he invested in a goose quill. If he
could afford something better, he invested in a
swan quill. Writers or artists who needed quills
to produce fine lines purchased crow quills.
Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks and
owls also served as “word processors,” producing
plays, poems, and sometimes revolution.
Lighting: Daylight, Candlelight, Oil Lamps
probably tried to do most of his writing during
the day, perhaps near a window, because writing
at night required lit candles or an oil lamp.
Candles were expensive. A writer could easily
spend a day's earnings or more on candlelight
illuminating the first draft of a poem or a
soliloquy in a play. The alternative—oil
lamps—gave off smoke and unpleasant odors. And
they, too, required a pretty penny to buy, fuel,
Choosing Words and Spellings
dictionaries as we know them today did not exist
in Shakespeare's time. However, a book containing
a collection of words and definitions was
published in England in 1573 by John Baret, a
professor at Cambridge University's Trinity
College. It was called An Alvearie, a
triple dictionary, in English, Latine,
and French. An alvearie is a beehive.
Baret's title is a compliment to his students,
who collected words for him with the diligence
of bees collecting honey. A second edition of
Baret's dictionary appeared in 1580 under this
title, An Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictonarie,
containing foure sundrie tongues, namlie
English, Latine, Greek, and French. There
has been speculation that Shakespeare possessed
a copy of this dictionary with notes he jotted
on the margins. No strong evidence of any kind
has emerged to support a connection between
Shakespeare and Baret's book.
Because of the
lack of established standards of for orthography
and word meanings, Shakespeare was free to use
spellings and meanings that did not agree with
accepted spellings and meanings. He could also
choose from among words imported from Italy,
France, and other countries by seafaring
traders, soldiers, tourists, and
Hundreds of words used by Shakespeare
have changed meanings or connotations over time.
For example, "Fellow, which has friendly
overtones for us, was insulting in Shakespeare's
day. Phrases that were metaphors to him have often
lost their coloring with us: "Since we seldom play
the game of bowls, we overlook the concrete
implications of 'There's the rub' [a phrase used
by Hamlet in his famous soliloquy] (an impediment
on the green)."—Levin,
Harry. "General Introduction." The Riverside
Shakespeare. G. Blakemore Evans, textual ed.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, page 9.)
To write his plays, Shakespeare borrowed from history, mythology, and other literary works, then used his genius to enliven histories and myths and improve on plots, reworking them and sometimes adding new characters, such as Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, and the fool in King Lear.
How Settings Affected Writing
Because settings on an Elizabethan stage were spare, Shakespeare had to write descriptions of them into his dialogue. This handicap proved to be a boon, for it motivated Shakespeare to write some of his best descriptions.
Shakespeare's manuscripts had to be submitted for approval. After writing out a manuscript, Shakespeare (or a professional scribe) made a copy of it in which obvious errors were corrected. The two versions had special names: the original manuscript was called the "foul papers" because of the blots and crossouts on it. The new version was called a "fair copy." It was submitted to the Master of Revels, a government censor who examined it for material offensive to the crown. If approved, the fair copy became known as a "prompt copy," which the actors used to memorize their lines. The acting company bought the prompt copy, gaining sole possession of it, after paying the writer. The company then wrote in the stage directions (exit, enter, etc.). John Russell Brown, author of Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, page 31) discusses the circumstances under which the censor forbade the staging of one of Shakespeare's plays:
An acting company could alter a playwright's manuscript with or without his approval. It is possible that editors improved some of Shakespeare's manuscripts. It is also possible that they weakened the manuscripts.
No original copy, or foul papers, of a Shakespeare play survived to the present day except for a few pages of Sir Thomas More, partly written by Shakespeare. Fredson Bowers explains why the manuscripts were lost:.
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2. Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry
wrote his plays partly in verse and partly in
prose, freely alternating between the two in the
same acts and scenes. It is not unusual, in
fact, for one character to address a second
character in verse while the second character
responds in prose. Sometimes, the same
character—Hamlet or King Lear, for
example—speaks in verse in one moment and in
prose in another.
Verse Passage Spoken by Hamlet
To be, or not to be: that is the question:Prose Passage Spoken by Hamlet
Slanders, sir. For the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams. All which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down; for yourself, sir, should be old as I am if like a crab you could go backward. (2.2.204)Now, then, what about single lines—those spoken in conversation as questions, replies, or ripostes? They are in prose if one line has no paired rhyming line or is too abrupt to contain a metric scheme. The following exchange between Hamlet and Guildenstern contains such short lines absent of meter and rhyme. The exchange begins when Hamlet asks Guildenstern to play a wind instrument called a recorder, which resembles a flute:
HAMLET:..Will you play upon this pipe?Obviously, these lines are too short to contain a pattern of meter or rhyme. Moreover, the content is mundane and prosaic. “I pray you” does not a poem make. For these reasons, the passage qualifies only as prose.
But what of the multi-line passages? Why are some in verse and others in prose? The answer some Shakespeare commentators provide—an answer that is simplistic and not wholly accurate—is that Shakespeare reserved verse for noble, highborn characters and prose for common, lowborn characters. It is true that royalty and nobility often speak in verse and that peasants and plebeians—or wine-swilling hooligans, like Falstaff (Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II)—often speak in prose. But it is also true that noble characters, like Hamlet and Volumnia (Coriolanus), sometimes speak in prose and that lowborn characters, like the witches in Macbeth, often speak in verse. Even the lowest of the low—the beast-man Caliban in The Tempest—speaks often in verse. In The Merchant of Venice, the characters associated with the dirty world of money speak frequently in verse, and the characters associated with the rarefied world of nobility and refinement speak often in prose. Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing is almost entirely in prose, with highborn characters only occasionally speaking in verse.
Why, then, does Shakespeare alternate between verse and prose?
Shakespeare used verse to do the following:
Express deep emotion requiring elevated
language. Because nobles and commoners were both
capable of experiencing profound emotion, both
expressed their emotions in verse from time to
It was a lover and his lass,Four: Inject irony. When the highborn speak humble prose and the hoi polloi speak elegant verse, as is sometimes the case in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare may be saying up can be down, and down can be up. In The Merchant, the noble characters are just as reprehensible as—or perhaps even more reprehensible than—the workaday, unsophisticated characters. Portia is often depicted in critical analyses of the play as its noblest character. But a close reading of the play reveals her as a racist and a self-seeking conniver. Thus, Shakespeare makes her tongue wag in prose and verse, revealing her Janus personality.
Five: Suggest order and exactitude. A character who speaks in precise rhythms and patterns is a character with a tidy brain that plans ahead and executes actions on schedule.
Shakespeare used prose to do the following:
Express ordinary, undistinguished observations
coming from the surface of the mind rather than
its active, ruminating interior.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (2.2.250)3. Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter
Under Writing Format: Verse,
Prose, and Poetry, you read that
Shakespeare wrote his plays in verse, prose, and
poetry and that he used a rhythm format called
But, SOFT!..|..what LIGHT..|..through YON..|..der WIN..|..dow BREAKS?Here are two more lines from Romeo and Juliet that also demonstrate the use of iambs:
I WILL..|..not FAIL:..|..'tis TWEN..|..ty YEARS..|..till THEN.When a line has five iambs, it is in iambic pentameter. The prefix ''pent'' means ''five.'' (A figure with five sides is called a ''pentagon''; an athletic competition with five track-and-field events is called a ''pentathlon.'') The suffix ''meter'' (in ''pentameter'') refers to the recurrence of a rhythmic unit (also called a ''foot''). Thus, because the above lines contain iambs, they are ''iambic.'' Because they contain five iambs (five feet) they are said to be in iambic pentameter. Finally, because the words at the end of each line don't rhyme, the lines are said to be in unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse.
Blank verse was modeled after ancient Greek and Latin verse. It was first used in 1514 in Renaissance Italy by Francesco Maria Molza. In 1539, Italian Giovanni Rucellai was the first poet to label the unrhymed iambic pentameter in his poetry as blank verse (versi sciolti in Italian). Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, first used blank verse in English in his translation of Vergil's epic Latin poem The Aeneid. The first English drama in blank verse was Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex, staged in 1561, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. It was about an early British king. Later in the same century, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare turned blank verse into high art when they used it in their plays. Marlowe used the verse form in Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, and Edward II. Shakespeare used it in all of his plays. In Germany, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) popularized blank verse in his poem Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), published in 1779.
4. Publication of a Play