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Technical Features

  • Peter Davison
Chapter
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Part of the Macmillan Master Guides book series

Abstract

At its simplest, the language of Henry V is of three kinds: prose, blank and rhymed verse. About 57 per cent of the play is in blank verse, 40 per cent in prose and just 3 per cent in rhyme. Blank verse is composed of ten-syllable lines made up of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables, each pair being known as an ‘iamb’, five of which go to a regular line (hence the technical term, ‘iambic pentameter’): ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’. The first task of the dramatic poet is to ensure that stress falls on more rather than less significant syllables so that rhythm enforces meaning. Blank verse is sometimes said to be the ‘natural’ verse form for the English language. Whilst we don’t speak or write in blank verse, it is surprising how closely on occasion Shakespeare is able to adapt the prose of his source materials to produce verse in this form. He even jokes about speaking blank verse in ordinary conversation (in As You Like It, IV.i.29). If it is relatively easy to cast a line of blank verse, doing so with variety and subtly demands art. Too much regularity, and a lack of variation in the placing of the half-pause (the caesura) that falls about the middle of most lines, quickly becomes tedious. There must be a tension between the set, expected pattern of rhythm and stress and a variation therefrom that ‘tricks expectancy’ without shattering the metric effect – and which supports the sense. Look, for example, at the irregular line, ‘Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host’ (IV.iii.34) and note how the stress on the first two syllables is inverted: Rather; how the line has ‘too many syllables’ (is ‘hypermetric’); then, having recorded these mechanical details, consider their effect and their relationship to what is being said. By so placing ‘Rather’ that it alters the position of the expected stress for the line (and he could easily have made the line regular at

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© Peter Davison 1987

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  • Peter Davison

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