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King Lear: Versification and Diction

From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1911.


The greater part of King Lear is in blank verse, the unrhymed, iambic five-stress (decasyllabic) verse, or iambic pentameter, introduced into England from Italy by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, about 1540, and used by him in a translation of the second and fourth books of Vergil's Aeneid, Nicholas Grimald (Tottel's Miscellany, 1557) employed the measure for the first time in English original poetry, and its roots began to strike deep into British soil and absorb substance. It is peculiarly significant that Sackville and Norton should have used it as the measure of Gorboduc, the first English tragedy. About the time when Shakespeare arrived in London the infinite possibilities of blank verse as a vehicle for dramatic poetry and passion were being shown by Kyd, and above all by Marlowe. Blank verse as used by Shakespeare is really an epitome of the development of the measure in connection with the English drama. In his earlier plays the blank verse is often similar to that of Gorboduc. The tendency is to adhere to the syllable-counting principle, to make the line the unit, the sentence and phrase coinciding with the line (end-stopped verse), and to use five perfect iambic feet to the line.1 In plays of the middle period, such as The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, written between 1596 and 1600, the blank verse is more like that of Kyd and Marlowe, with less monotonous regularity in the structure and an increasing tendency to carry on the sense from one line to another without a syntactical or rhetorical pause at the end of the line (run-on verse, enjambement). Redundant syllables now abound, and the melody is richer and fuller. In Shakespeare's later plays the blank verse breaks away from bondage to formal line limits, and sweeps all along with it in freedom, power, and organic unity.

In the 2238 lines of blank verse in King Lear are found stress modifications of all kinds. There are 67 feminine (or double, redundant, hypermetrical) endings, 5 light endings, 90 speech endings not coincident with line endings, and 191 short lines, the greatest number of short lines in any Shakespeare play. Such variations give to the verse flexibility and power, in addition to music and harmony. It is significant that in King Lear is only one weak ending. Light endings and weak endings2 are found most abundantly in Shakespeare's very latest plays. For example, in The Tempest are 42 light endings and 25 weak endings.


While French prosodists apply the term Alexandrine only to a twelve-syllable line with the pause after the sixth syllable, as in I, i, 219, it is generally used in English to designate iambic six-stress verse, or iambic hexameter, of which we have examples in I, i, 217; II, ii, 138; IV, iii, 42, etc. Many of these occur when there is a change of speaker. The Alexandrine was a favorite Elizabethan measure, and it was common in moral plays and the earlier heroic drama. English literature has no finer examples of this verse than the last line of each stanza of The Faerie Queene. In King Lear are about 60 Alexandrines.


1. Couplets. In the history of the English drama, rhyme as a vehicle of expression precedes blank verse and prose. Miracle plays, moral plays, and interludes are all in rhyming measures. In Shakespeare may be seen the same develop ment. A progress from more to less rhyme is a sure index to his growth as a dramatist and a master of expression. In the early Love's Labour's Lost are more than 500 rhyming five-stress iambic couplets; in the very late The Winter's Tale there is not one. In King Lear are 37 rhyming five-stress iambic couplets, used chiefly for the following purposes: (1) to give a certain amount of emotional pitch and intensity, as in the king of France's farewell, I, i, 248-255, Lear's reply, I, i, 256-259, and Edgar's speech, III, vi, 100-111; (2) to give epigrammatic effect to a sententious generalization, I, iv, 335-336; and (3), as so frequently in Elizabethan plays, to mark an exit or round off a speech.

2. The Fool's Snatches. The Fool's longer snatches of rhyming 'patter' recall both in spirit and in rhythm the extraordinary verse in which John Skelton wrote his satires against Wolsey and the vices and social abuses of the time of Henry VIII. Such 'Skeltonical verse' as that of I, iv, 111-118; I, iv, 307-311, etc., may be regarded either as irregular anapaestic two-stress (dimeter) with feminine ending and the first foot an iamb, or as amphibrachic two-stress changing to anapaestic in the closing couplet. In I, iv, 130-137, are eight lines of iambic three-stress (trimeter), and the two stanzas in the speeches which follow are, like the eight lines in II, iv, 72-79, examples of the ballad stanza of four- stress (tetrameter) iambic alternating with three-stress ('common metre'). The regular measure of the old ballads seems to have been originally four-stress throughout, as in the famous stanza, III, ii, 69-72. The Fool's 'prophecy,' III, ii, 75-86, is in iambic four-stress (octosyllabic) verse with feminine endings and trochaic variations.

3. Edgar's Snatches. Most of Edgar's snatches are in ballad rhythm, more or less irregular and with a tendency towards doggerel, but the most characteristic bit of rhyming verse which he utters when feigning madness, III, vi, 64-71, is in the four-stress trochaic verse catalectic, so often used by Shakespeare for the speech of supernatural beings. These lines may be regarded as a spell or incantation.


In the development of the English drama the use of prose as a vehicle of expression entitled to equal rights with verse was due to Lyly. He was the first to use prose with power and distinction in original plays, and did memorable service in preparing the way for Shakespeare's achievement. Interesting attempts have been made to explain Shakespeare's distinctive use of verse and prose; and of recent years there has been much discussion of the question "whether we are justified in supposing that Shakespeare was guided by any fixed principle in his employment of verse and prose, or whether he merely employed them, as fancy suggested, for the sake of variety and relief." It is a significant fact that in many of his earlier plays there is little or no prose, and that the proportion of prose to blank verse increases with the decrease of rhyme. In King Lear four kinds of prose may be distinguished: (1) The prose of formal documents, as in the forged letter, I, ii, 41-48 ; Goneril's letter, IV, vi, 239-245; and the Herald's proclamation, V, iii, 111-114. In Shakespeare, prose is the usual medium for letters, proclamations, and other formal documents. (2) The prose of 'lowlife' and the speech of comic characters, as in the Fool's speeches. This is a development of the humorous prose found, for example, in Greene's comedies that deal with country life. (3) The colloquial prose of dialogue, as in the talk between Kent, Gloucester, and Edmund, when the play opens. (4) The prose of abnormal mentality. It is an interesting fact that Shakespeare should so often make persons whose state of mind is abnormal, or seemingly so, speak in prose.

Prose is the speech of Lady Macbeth in the sleep-walking scene; Hamlet when playing the madman speaks prose, as Edgar does when feigning madness; Ophelia in her insanity either sings snatches of old songs or speaks prose; the development of Lear's insanity may be traced by the prose form of his speech, and, as Professor Bradley has pointed out, almost all his speeches, after he has become definitely insane, are in prose; where he wakes from sleep recovered, the verse returns. Bradley remarks further3:

The prose enters with that speech which closes with his trying to tear off his clothes; but he speaks in verse some of it very irregular in the Timon-like speeches where his intellect suddenly in his madness seems to regain the force of his best days (IV, vi). . . . The idea underlying this custom of Shakespeare's evidently is that the regular rhythm of verse would be inappropriate where the mind is supposed to have lost its balance and to be at the mercy of chance impressions coming from without (as sometimes with Lear), or of ideas emerging from its unconscious depths and pursuing one another across its passive surface.

Footnote 1: There are a few such normal lines in King Lear, for example, I, i, 39, 42, 52, etc.

Footnote 2: Light endings, as defined by Ingram, are such words as am, can, do, has, I, thou, etc., on which "the voice can to a certain small extent dwell"; weak endings are words like and, for, from, if, in, of, or, which "we are forced to run ... in pronunciation . . . into the closest connection with the opening words of the succeeding line."

Footnote 3: Shakespearean Tragedy, pages 398-399.

How to cite this article:

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1911. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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