Language and structure of Shakespeare's plays

Language and structure of Shakespeare's plays

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Language and structure of Shakespeare's plays

​​In a nutshell 

At first glance, one may think that Shakespeare's language is foreign to a modern reader. However, the language used is actually early modern English, a lot of which is still used today. The structure of Shakespeare's work is effective in its storytelling. In this summary, you will learn how to better understand Shakespearean language and learn more about the structure of Shakespeare's dramas. 

Early modern English

Old English

Middle English

Modern English

The earliest form of the English language that has been preserved is Old English. In the early Middle Ages, it was spoken widely throughout England and in some areas of Scotland.
The Norman Conquest of 1066 marked the end of the Old English period. The language evolved into what is now known as Middle English as Anglo-Norman influence grew.
A series of changes in pronunciation occurred during the 14th century, resulting in Early Modern English, or New English.

Shakespeare wrote his plays when the Early Modern English language had been around for about 100 years. Over the course of his lifetime, Shakespeare added between 1,700 and 3,000 words to the English language. In the early 17th century, Shakespeare's version of English was spoken and written until about 1690. In the following decades, Modern English became more widely recognised.

Prose and verse 

Shakespeare used both prose and verse in his plays. The verse is laid out in smaller blocks, neatly aligned on the left, while the prose runs continuously from margin to margin. It is partly due to the conventions of his time that he deploys verse and prose in his plays. Despite the fact that we would probably anticipate a modern play to be written in prose, English dramatists prior to Shakespeare tended to write in rhymed verse. 

Blank verse

There are no rhymes in Shakespeare's dramatic verses, which is why it is often referred to as blank verse.


Shakespeare tends to write in prose when there is a less significant character speaking. Prose has no rhythm or rhyme and would usually appear as a block of writing on the page.


It follows the iambic pentameter pattern for rhythm, which is the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables.


In his writing, Shakespeare might use rhyming couplets. These are two lines that had rhyming words at the end. Couplets could be used for effect, such as emphasis or moment of tension.

Verse and prose with characters

Shakespeare's drama was influenced by the characters and the circumstances they found themselves in, as well as the genre of the play, which was one of the factors that affected whether prose or verse was used. Typically, verse was reserved for characters of high status, while prose was deemed appropriate for comic or low-status characters. Shakespeare occasionally used a different technique called syncope to eliminate vowels and alter the pronunciation of words to fit the pattern.


'Fetch me that flow’r; the herb I showed thee once' 

- A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare 

In this quotation, the word 'flower' has been shortened to one syllable.

Iambic pentameter

Shakespeare uses this metre throughout his plays. A verse line in iambic pentameter has five metrical feet, each of which has a short (or unstressed) syllable and a long (or stressed) syllable. Some describe the effect as mimicking a heartbeat. Iamb, which here denotes an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, is the type of foot that is used. A line of five "feet" is referred to as a "pentameter".


'But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?'

 - Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare 

Understanding language

Shakespeare's language can be difficult to understand, especially for a modern-day audience. Here are some tips on how to approach Shakespeare's language:

  1. Read aloud - You can get a better understanding of Shakespeare's poetry's rhythm and language by reading his works aloud.
  2. Follow to the end of the sentence - It is important, to follow the sentences from punctuation to punctuation. This helps in understanding the context of the language.
  3. Thou, Thee, Thy and Thine - Thou means you. Thee is you. Thy means your. It is important to differentiate these words as you go through them.
  4. Check the inverted sentences - Shakespeare's sentences could benefit from being rewritten with the subject coming before the verb to help you comprehend what is being said.
  5. Follow the stage directions - Stage directions must always be followed. Avoiding them can lead to reading confusion, which makes them crucial to comprehend Shakespeare's plays.




Shakespeare also used many different phrases that held specific meanings. Here are a few:



Neither rhyme nor reason
Without common sense 
The clothes make the man
People are judged by their looks
Jealousy is the green-eyed monster
Envy is so strong it makes one sick


Contractions are common in spoken speech, and this was no different in Shakespeare's time. When looking at these words or phrases, it might seem strange compared to our modern contractions. However, just remember that the apostrophe just shows that there is a missing letter or letters.




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Rhetorical language

Shakespeare used rhetorical devices in a lot of his work. There are three important devices to remember:

  1. Rhetorical questions - When characters are unsure of what to do, rhetorical questions are frequently used.
  2. Rule of three - Characters attempting to persuade others frequently employ the rule of three.
  3. Mirroring real life - Shakespeare employs rhetorical devices in settings where they may be applied in real life. 

Even though it was written in verse, rhetorical language gave way to the realistic speech of real people. Shakespeare's technique revolves around the use of verse to give the impression that his characters are speaking in speech that is both highly poetic and naturalistic.

Playing with words

Elizabethans enjoyed playing around with language. Shakespeare illustrates this with characters like Romeo, who employs oxymoron to convey his perplexity. Romeo also makes use of puns (double meanings), as do Beatrice and Benedick when they compete intellectually.  Sexual innuendoes frequently contain double meaning. Shakespeare also employs assonance and alliteration to evoke mood and feelings. Shakespeare enjoyed making a word into a verb from one that is typically used as a noun. Shakespeare focused on the importance of language and how manipulation of it can cause great theatrical affect.

Five-act structure

When reading a Shakespeare play, you may notice that most of his dramas have five acts. The number of scenes may vary, but there are almost always five acts. This is because the five-act structure breaks the play into sections, so it is easy for screenwriters or editors to work on.

The format of the five-act structure


The Exposition
This is the beginning of the play, where the setting is made, the characters are introduced and the conflict starts to develop.


The Rising Action
Here the protagonist might encounter obstacles. The rising action leads the audience to the climax.


The Climax
This is the turning point of the play which has the highest amount of suspense.


The Falling Action
This is the opposite of the rising action. Here the story is coming to an end. Any problems or unknown certainties are wrapped up.


The Resolution
This is the end of the final outcome of the drama. Sometimes at the end of the drama, we learn the moral of the play or the writer might reveal their opinions or thoughts through the main character.


The format of the five-act structure of Romeo and Juliet


The Exposition
Prologue - Romeo and Juliet are introduced in this first speech by the Chorus. We are informed of the play's setting and are given some backstory information regarding its main characters.


The Rising Action
Romeo and Juliet fall in love but are not allowed to be together due to their families. They get married in secret.


The Climax
Tybalt goes after the Montague family and kills Mercutio. Romeo then duels Tybalt and kills him. Romeo is banished.


The Falling Action
Juliet's father plans for her to marry Paris. To avoid this she takes a sleeping potion that makes her appear to have died.


The Resolution
Romeo finds Juliet dead and ends his life. Juliet wakes and finds Romeo dead. She ends her life. The families end their feud.

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