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Language Features of A Midsummer Night's Dream

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Stephen Colyer

on 10 October 2016

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Transcript of Language Features of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Verse/Prose Usage:
Shakespeare wrote his plays using two different kinds of language:
verse and prose.
As a general rule
(applicable in about 95% of the cases) you can assume that ...

a.) upper class characters speak verse; lower class characters speak prose.
Theseus in verse (most of the time) and Bottom in prose.

b.) serious material will be in verse; comic material will be in prose;
Egeus condemning Hermia in Act I, scene 1 in verse
Bottom describing acting in Act I, scene 2 in prose.

c.) noble characters will speak verse; villains will speak prose.

d.) romantic passages will be in verse; non-romantic passages in prose.
Lysander declaring his love to Hermia in verse in Act I, scene 1
Bottom speaking prose throughout the play, except as Pyramus.
Use of Rhyme:
Much of Shakespeare’s verse is called
blank verse
, meaning there are 10 or 11 syllables in each line,
iambic pentameter

(five units or feet in an unstressed/stressed pattern) and the lines are
Think a heart beat or a horse galloping.

At times Shakespeare inverts common word order so the correct syllable in a word receives the stress, as in this example of
rhymed verse ...

"Before the time I did Lysander see
Seemed Athens as a paradise to me." (I,1)
You can tell if a passage is written in prose if ...
a.) the words go all the way across the page;

b.) the first word of each line does not begin with a capital unless it is the first word of a sentence;

c.) the words do not share a consistent rhythmic pattern.
Language Features of
"A Midsummer Night's Dream"
by William Shakespeare

You can tell if a passage is written in verse if ...

a.) the words do not go all the way across the page;

b.) the first word on each line is capitalized, regardless of the sentence break;

c.) there is usually a regular rhythm of unstressed and stressed syllables;

d.) there are usually 10 or 11 syllables in each line.
“For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father's will;
Or else the law of Athens yields you up --
Which by no means we may extenuate --
To death, or to a vow of single life.” (I,1)


“That will ask some tears in the true performing of it:
if I do it, let the audience look to their eyes; I will move storms, I will condole in some measure.” (I, 2)

Watch for places where a character changes from one form to another in the same scene, such as when Theseus in Act V, scene 1 changes from verse to prose when he moves from
speaking philosophically
about love to
the amateur actors.

"His speech, was like a tangled chain; nothing
impaired, but all disordered. Who is next?" (V,1)
Or watch when a character switches from one form which he has consistently used to another, as Bottom does when he begins to act a role.
"O grim-look'd night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night, O night! alack, alack, alack,
I fear my Thisby's promise is forgot!" (V, 1)
Sometimes Shakespeare will use verse which is rhymed with similar sounds at the end of the lines. Such rhymed passages are done to make the contents more formal (Hermia’s solemn vow to Lysander at lines 171--178 Act I, scene 1) or to emphasize the emotional content (Helena’s rhymed speech at the end of Act I, scene 1).

Sometimes Shakespeare will use verse which is

with similar sounds at the end of the lines.

Such rhymed passages are done to make the contents more
(Hermia’s solemn vow to Lysander, Act I, scene 1)

or to emphasize the
(Helena’s rhymed speech at the end of Act I, scene 1).

"By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
And by that fire which burn'd the Carthage queen,
When the false Troyan under sail was seen,
By all the vows that ever men have broke,
In number more than ever women spoke,
In that same place thou hast appointed me,
To-morrow truly will I meet with thee."
Rhyme and unusual rhythm can be used to evoke
magical charms
as in

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
See Oberon’s incantation when he puts the magic potion on Titania’s eyes at in Act II, Scene 2.

The lines here have seven syllables, in


(four units or feet in a stressed/unstressed pattern) and the lines are rhymed couplets.
They are meant to suggest a magic chant.
"What thou seest when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true-love take,
Love and languish for his sake:
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wakest, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near."

There was no way of physically separating the scenes in a Shakespearean play by means of curtains or lights. In many plays Shakespeare used a single rhyming couplet at the end of a scene to signal to the audience that the action or location was changing.
Unusual Metaphors:
One of the dominant qualities of
Shakespeare’s language
, regardless of the form, is the incidence of

, often expressed in
where the comparison is implied.

Lysander in Act I, scene 1, describes the transitory nature
of love:
"Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say 'Behold!'
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion."
Here Shakespeare uses a variety of metaphors:

Love is over as quickly as the lightning flash;

the blackness of the night is compared to that of a “colliery” or coal mine;

the speed of the flash is compared to the rash actions of a man controlled by his “spleen,” the organ associated with rashness;

the night is compared to a hungry beast that “devours” love.
A pun is a play on words, usually for comic effect.
In Act V, scene 1 Demetrius is making fun of an amateur actor who is playing a wall and has just finished a speech.

He says, “This is the wittiest partition that ever I heard discourse.”

The wall is a physical “partition,” but part of a speech was also called a “partition.”
These are words which have been misused for comic effect.

Often uneducated characters are shown misusing words, usually if they have two or more syllables ...

especially when they are trying to impress others.
For example:
the uneducated actor Peter Quince,
at Act IV, Scene 2, says of fellow actor Nick Bottom, “he is a very paramour for a sweet voice.”
He doesn’t mean “a lover” but rather
“a paragon” or ideal.

Taboo Words
Shakespeare has his characters use obscenities when he wishes to emphasize strong emotions.

These obscenities, however, do not refer to sex or bodily waste; they are sacrilegious terms, which treat God’s name in an irreverent fashion, the strongest taboo in Shakespeare’s day.

The two most frequent taboos are “Zounds” for “God’s wounds” and “’Sblood” for “God’s blood.”
Language Features
What effect do they have?
How do they create meaning?
Verse and Prose
Use of Rhyme
Unusual Metaphors
Taboo Words
A man whose wife was unfaithful was called a “cuckold.”
This fear of betrayal was an obsession for Shakespeare’s male characters.
The cuckold was associated with the cuckoo bird, which supposedly laid its eggs in other birds’ nests, much as a man might get a cuckold’s wife pregnant.

Accordingly to folklore a cuckold grew horns out of his forehead, invisible to him but plainly seen by everyone else as a badge of his public humiliation.
(Silly Old Goat!)
An oxymoron is a self-contradictory phrase, something that cancels itself. Such common phrases as “jumbo shrimp” or “freezer burn” really don’t belong together.
Shakespeare most often used oxymoronic phrases or concepts to talk about love and how it makes us feel
“sweet sorrow.”

Oxymoronic phrases can also be used for comic effect.

In Act V, Scene 1, Bottom, Peter Quince and the other amateur actors refer to their play as “A tedious, brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisby; very tragical mirth.”
Noting the oxymoronic phrases, Theseus asks,
“Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief?
That is,
hot ice and very strange snow

Verse and Prose
Use of Rhyme
Unusual Metaphors
Taboo Words
That's It!
Have fun discovering all the ways Shakespeare enhances meaning in his timeless stories that continue to delight audiences around the world
The obvious bawdy puns are
A weaver's reel of thread or bottom

. He should have worn the
on his head.

. He is no crescent, and his
are invisible within the circumference. (V, 1)
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