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Julius Caesar: Versification and Diction

From Julius Caesar. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1908.


The characteristics of Shakespeare's blank verse -- the rhymeless, iambic five-stress (decasyllabic) verse, or iambic pentameter, introduced into England by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, about 1540 -- and its proportion to rhyme and to prose have been much used in recent years to determine the chronological order of the plays and the development of the poet's art. In blank verse as used by Shakespeare we have 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 first English tragedy. 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. 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 all bondage to formal line limits, and the organic continuity is found in a succession of great metrical periods.

The verse of Julius Cæsar is less monotonously regular than that of the earlier plays; it is more flexible and varied, more musical and sonorous, but it lacks the superb movement of the verse in Othello, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. End-stopped, normally regular iambic pentameter lines often occur (as, for instance, I, i, 37, 41, 44, 62, 76), but everywhere are variations and deviations from the norm, and there is an unusual number of short lines and interjectional lines of two or three stresses. See Abbott's A Shakespearian Grammar, §§ 511, 512.


Apart from the use of rhyme in songs, lyrics, and portions of masques (as in The Tempest, IV, i, 60-138), a progress from more to less rhyme is a sure index to Shakespeare's development as a dramatist and a master of expression. In the early Love's Labour's Lost are more than one thousand rhyming five-stress iambic lines; in The Tempest are only two; in The Winter's Tale not one. In Julius Cæsar are found only thirty-four rhyming lines.


If "of the soule the bodie forme doth take," it is small wonder that attempts have been made to explain Shakespeare's distinctive use of verse and prose. Of recent years there have been interesting discussions 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."1 It is a significant fact that in many of Shakespeare's earlier plays there is little or no prose, and that the proportion of prose to blank verse increases with the decrease of rhyme. In Julius Cæsar three kinds of prose may be distinguished: (1) The prose of homely dialogue, as in the talk of the common people in I, i, and III, iii. (2) The prose of serious information as to the nature of a situation, as in Casca's description of the offer of the crown to Cæsar. This kind of prose reaches its highest development in Brutus's famous speech, III, ii, with its dignified defense and laconic exposition of his honesty of purpose. (3) The prose of formal documents, as in the letter of Artemidorus, II, iii, 1-8.

Footnote 1: Professor J. Churton Collins's Shakespeare as a Prose Writer. See Delius's Die Prosa in Shakespeares Dramen (Shakespeare Jahrbuch, V, 227-273); Janssen's Die Prosa in Shakespeares Dramen; Professor Hiram Corson's An Introduction to the Study of Shakespeare, pp. 83-98.

How to cite this article:

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1908. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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