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Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter
Most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in blank verse, which is unrhymed poetry written in a
regular rhythm or meter known as iambic pentameter.
The majority of Othello is written in blank verse.
For example: OTHELLO Itgives me wonder great as my content
To see you here beforeme. O my soul’s joy! (Act 2 Scene 1)
Set out like a poem (verse) rather than a novel (prose), but they do not rhyme, but there is a regular rhythm:
te-DUM, te-DUM, te-DUM, te-DUM, te-DUM…
Shakespeare generally uses ten beats per line, divided into what are called iambs. Each iamb contains one unstressed
beat and one stressed beat (te-DUM). As each line has five iambs, this forms the rhythm called iambic pentameter.
For example: IAGO I’llPOUR this PEST-i-LENCE in-TO his EAR. (Act 2 Scene 3)
He also uses the technique across speakers:
For example: OTHELLO O my fair warrior!
DESDEMONA My dear Othello! (Act 2 Scene 2)
Shakespeare emphasises the bond between Othello and Desdemona by having Desdemona complete Othello’s line of
iambic pentameter. This is shown in the text by indenting Desdemona’s lines.
For example: IAGO I have’t! It is engendered! Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light (Act 1 Scene 3)
Sometimes a rhyming couplet (two consecutive lines that rhyme) helped the audience to know it was the end of the
scene, and that they could fidget a little. Structurally, it ties up a speech neatly and makes a point memorable, as in
the example above. The rhyming couplet is still in iambic pentameter.
At times, Shakespeare uses rhyming couplets to signal a shift in tone in the midst of a scene; this is particularly
notable in Othello. By way of illustration, when Brabantio reports Othello to the Duke for supposedly abusing
Desdemona, the tension of the scene is relaxed when the Duke responds to Brabantio in rhyming couplets:
DUKE The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief;
He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.
BRABANTIO So let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile;
We lose it not, so long as we can smile. (Act 1 Scene 3)
The Duke seems to trivialise Brabantio’s complaint, and Brabantio’s over polite reply to the Duke perhaps reflects this
At key moments in Othello, Shakespeare’s character share their thoughts by means of song (italicised in some
editions), using different rhyming schemes from the previously mentioned rhyming couplets.
Iago’s drinking songs (Act 2 Scene 3) seem particularly appropriate in establishing a sense of
realism; his colloquial wording and simple rhymes create an atmosphere of mischief as he
deliberately causes Cassio to become drunk.
A quite different tone is produced later in the play when Desdemona shares her pain and confusion over Othello’s
transformation with Emilia indirectly, via a song:
DESDEMONA The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow. (Act 4 Scene 3)
In this instance, Desdemona’s song is a useful dramatic device that prompts the audience to reflect on
the characters and their actions; it also slows the pace of the play before the action hurtles into the
painfully tragic conclusion.