Which Language Tools Did Shakespeare Use?

shakespeare's literary devices include blank verse, antithesis

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

William Shakespeare is often considered the world’s best playwright. He made regular use of a wide array of literary devices to liven up his work. Which language tools did Shakespeare use?

Open page of Shakespeare book, Comedies, histories, and tragedies. On wooden background
William Shakespeare—the English poet, playwright, and actor—wrote at least 37 plays between 1590 and 1613. Image by Martin Droeshout / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Shakespeare’s plays—and many of his sonnets—are required reading in schools around the globe. His plays are a staple of theater worldwide and most actors are expected to have at least a working ability to perform them. Works like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet have been translated into over 100 languages and are still adapted into major motion pictures.

Two of the most striking components of Shakespeare’s work are the incredible flow of words and sharply contrasting images and ideas he used. In the video series Experiencing Shakespeare: From Page to Stage, Professor Alissa Branch, Associate Professor of Acting in the Helmerich School of Drama at the University of Oklahoma, divulges the secrets of Shakespeare’s language.

What Is Iambic Pentameter?

“Shakespeare writes his plays in a form called blank verse—also known as iambic pentameter,” Professor Branch said. “This just means that one verse line is made up of 10 beats, positioned in a roughly unstressed-stressed pattern.”

Professor Branch demonstrated with the line “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” from Romeo and Juliet. When read naturally, the quote rolls off the tongue. Every other syllable—the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables—are stressed more than their odd-numbered counterparts. Other famous Shakespeare lines flow similarly: “In fair Verona where we lay our scene,” for example, or “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

“That’s not only because Shakespeare knew how to arrange the words in such a way that they fall out like that,” Professor Branch said. “It’s also because the verse pattern is very close to the way a lot of the English language naturally falls out of our mouths. Elizabethans didn’t walk around worrying about whether their words were spoken in verse, of course, but they did happen to speak a language that naturally lent itself to the patterns found in iambic pentameter.”

What Is Antithesis?

Another handy device in Shakespeare’s toolbox is antithesis. Antithesis occurs when a writer makes use of sharply contrasting images or ideas in a relatively short space. The famous monologue from Hamlet opens with “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

“We can hear contrasting thoughts in the very first line of that speech,” Professor Branch said. “The thesis question question Hamlet is asking is ‘To be, or not to be’—whether to live or die. It’s hard to imagine greater contrast than that.”

Beginning with the following line of the monologue, Hamlet asks, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” Here, Professor Branch explained, Hamlet is asking whether it’s more noble to continue suffering or to make his suffering stop and end his life.

“A skillful actor uses those opposing images as signposts to help the audience understand the question, and the decision Hamlet is trying to make, in the speech,” she said.

Iambic pentameter and antithesis are just two of the many strong and dependable tools that Shakespeare employed successfully throughout his life as a playwright and a poet, helping to earn him a legacy that has endured more than 400 years after his death.

Experiencing Shakespeare: From Page to Stage is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily