The Bard of Avon: Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon

Home | Contact me | 日本語

Essential knowledge and literary terms to understand Shakespeare

Essential knowledge for understanding Shakespeare

1.Essential literary terms for understanding poetry
2.Essential literary terms for understanding Renaissance dramas
3. Cultural Backgraound
4.The Periods of English Literature

1.Essential literary terms for understanding poetry


A pair of rhyming verse lines

Tearing of papers, breaking rings a-twain, [a]
Storming her world with sorrow's wind and rain. [a]

(A Lover's Complaint)

Heroic couplet
iambic pentameter with couplets

iambic pentameter without rhyming <--- blank verse


A repetition of consonants, especially at the beginning of related words. It is a characteristic for the poems of Anglo-Saxons.

bitrebreostceare gebiden haebbe,
(Bitter breast-cares have I abide,
   --Ezra Pound's translation)
(The Seafarer, 8th century Old English)

Galling the gleaned land with hot assys,
Girding with grievous siege castles and towns

(Henry V. 1.2.151-2)

tercet / triplet A unit of three verse lines, usually rhyming with either with each other or with neighbouring lines.
terza rima

Composed of tercets which are interlinked, in that each is joined to the one following by a common rhyme: aba, bcb, cdc.

My mother's maydes when they did sowe and spynne,
       They sang sometymes a song of the feld mowse,
       That forbicause her lyvelood was but thynne,
Would nedes go seek her townyssh systers howse.
       She thought her self endured to much pain:
       The sormy blastes her cave so sore did sowse.
That wehn the forowse swymmed with the rain
       Shye must lye cold and whete in sorry plight;
       And wours then that, bare meet then did remain

        (Wyatt, Thomas. Second Satire CVI)

quatrain four-line stanza. The most common in English versification.
ottava rima

as the Italian name indicates, it has eight lines iambic stanza rhyming ab ab ab cc. This form was introduced into English verse by Sir Thomas Wyatt in early in the 16th c.


weak, strong=ti-tum
eg. revolve

strong, weak =tum-ti
eg. forward

weak, weak, strong =ti-ti-tum
eg. repossess
strong, weak, weak =tum-ti-ti
eg. pulverize
weak, strong, weak =ti-tum-ti
eg. redouble
strong, strong =tum-tum
eg. no more
meter monometer: one foot
dimeter: two feet
trimeter: three feet
tetrameter: four feet
pentameter: five feet
hexameter: six feet
heptameter: seven feet
octameter: eight feet
ballad meter or ballad stanza
Usually a form of the folk ballad and its literary imitations, consisting of a quatrain in which the first and third lines have four stresses while the second and fourth have three stresses.
scansion / to scan eg.

(Richard II.2.3.169-70.)
iambic pentameter with a couplet
rhyme royal

Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucerece, A Lover's Complaint are written in rhyme royal. Geoffrey Chaucer(1343?-1400) employed it in his Torilus and Criseyde, The Parlement of Foules and several of The Canterbury Tales.

From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded [a]
A plaintful story from a sistering vale, [b]
My spirits to attend this double voice accorded, [a]
And down I laid to list the sad-tuned tale; [b]
Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale, [b]
Tearing of papers, breaking rings a-twain, [c]
Storming her world with sorrow's wind and rain. [c]

(A Lover's Complaint)


The term derives from the Italian sonetto a 'little sound' or 'song'. A lyric poem comprising 14 rhyming lines

Shakespeare (English) Sonnet

abab cdcd efef gg (3 quatrains, a couplet)

From fairest creatures we desire increase, [a]
That thereby beauty's rose might never die, [b]
But as the riper should by time decease, [a]
His tender heir might bear his memoriy: [b]
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes, [c]
Feed'st thy light'st flame with self-substantial fuel, [d]
Making a famine where abundance lies, [c]
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel. [d]
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament [e]
And only herald to the gaudy spring, [f]
Within thine own bud buriest thy content [e]
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding. [f]
Pity the world, or else this glutton be, [g]
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee. [g]

(Sonnet 1)

Spenser Sonnet

abab bcbc cdcd ee…i3 quatrains, a couplet…j

Happy ye leaves when as those lily hands,
Which hold my life in their dead doing might,
Shall handle you and hold in loves soft bands,
Lyke captives trembling at the victors sight.
And happy lines, on which with starry light,
Those lamping eyes will deigne sometimes to look
And reade the sorowes of my dying spright,
Written with teares in harts close bleeding book.
And happy rymes bathed in the sacred brooke,
Of Helicon whence she derived is,
When ye behold that Angels blessed looke,
My soules long lacked foode, my heavens blis.
Leaves, lines, and rymes, seeke her to please alone,
Whom if ye please, I care for other none.

                (Spenser, Edmund. Amoretti, Sonnet 1)

Petrarcan Sonnet

abbaabba cdecde (octave, sestet)
Also known as the Italian sonnet, the form originated in Italy in the 13th c. and was perfected by Petrarch (1304-1374). It was imported to English poetry in the 16th century.

a piece of verse eight lines long with alternating rhymes; a term usually employed to describe the earlier and larger section of a sonnet.

the second part of a sonnet, consisting of six lines, as distinct form the larger first part, the octave.

2. Essential literary terms for understanding Renaissance dramas

Verse and Prose

Verse is the principal means of expression in Shakespeare, while prose is used in particular circumstances. Four plays are entirely in verse (Richard II , King John, 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI ). Most plays contain far moer verse than prose. Only five plays have more prose then verse. (2 Henry IV, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It,and Twelfth Night ). Please consider the effects and reasons of the shift from verse to prose in the following scene.

HOTSPUR:But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my toungue. No, Pecy, thou art dust,
And food for ----

: For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well, great heart!
Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough: this earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
If thou wert sensible of courtesy,
I should not make so dear a show of zeal:
But let my favours hide thy mangled face;
And, even in thy behalf, I'll thank myself
For doing these fair rites of tenderness.
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave,
But not remember'd in thy epitaph!
     [He spieth FALSTAFF on the ground]
What, old acquaintance! could not all this flesh
Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell!
I could have better spared a better man:
O, I should have a heavy miss of thee,
If I were much in love with vanity!
Death hath not struck so fat a deer to-day,
Though many dearer, in this bloody fray.
Embowell'd will I see thee by and by:
Till then in blood by noble Percy lie.
      [Exit PRINCE HENRY]
FALSTAFF: Embowelled! if thou embowel me to-day, I'll give you leave to powder me and eat me too to-morrow. 'Sblood,'twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too. Counterfeit? I lie, .... (1 Henry VI. 5.4.83-112)
Blank verse

Unrhymed verse, with five iambic feet to a line, a measure introduced into England by the Earl of Surrey (1517-47), the poet, which became the basic verse form of Elizabethan drama. iambic pentameter.

But soft, what light through younder window breaks? (Romeo and Juliet. 2.1.44-5) (Bold=strong=feet)

The human heatbeat is the same rhythm of iamb.

feminine ending

The line ends with an extra unstressed syllable, giving eleven syllables instead of ten. the effect of making the thought itself ironic, the effect of making the line more pliant, and often give a quality of working through the thought, sometimes giving it a haunted and unfinished sound as though leaving the thought in the air: the effects are different.

e.g. motion, notion
cf. masculine ending - end with a stressed syllable

short line Fewer than five beats in a line in an otherwise regular passage. Please look for the reasons. The line is a short line because, for instance, a movement is needed, it make make the line rhythmically, it may the time is need for the character to do something, the thought may overwhelm the character, the character may be waiting for an answer from other characters, or it may be just winding up of the scene, etc.
long line A six feet line. The speaker might lose in his own oratory. Please look for the reasons.

A slight pause occurring mid-line. Sometimes a caesura is used for the listener to be ready to take in the rhyme.

As my sweet Richard.  Yet again, methinks
Some unborn sorrow ripe in fortune's womb.

(Richard II.2.2.9-10)

feminine caesura
masculine caesura

split line

A line is split between two or more characters. The split line heightens the sense of people sharing a situation. Sometimes they may express irony or characters are sharing a situation and yet their viewpoints are very different.

eg. 1

  My nyas*?
  What o'clock tomorrow?
Shall I send to thee?
    By the hour of nine.
       *nyas=young hawk

eg. 2
But note me, signor ---
  Mark you this, Bassanio?
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

final rhyming couplet

They are used quite purposefully to finish off a scene, or part of a scene or a soliloquy.

I'll so offend to make offence a skill
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

(1 Henry IV.1.2)

Stock Character

character types that occur repeatedly in a particular literary genre so that it is recognizable as part of of the conventions.

Imagery Its applications range all the way from the "mental pictures" experienced by the reader of a poem to the totality of the components withch make up a poem.

figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstract ideas are endowed with human qualities, e.g., allegorical morality plays where characters include Good Deeds, Beauty, and Death. John Ruskin termed sentimentalized, exaggerated personification the "pathetic fallacy." (From )

Irony Shakespeare used two types of irony:verbal and dramatic.
Verbal irony is saying one things but meaning another. In Julius Caesar, when Mark Antony refers in his funeral oration to Brutus as "an honorable man" repeatedly, he really means the opposite. Dramatic irony occurs in a play when the audience knows facts that the characters in the play are ignorant of. For instance, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus try to avoid to kis his father and marry to his own mother but he does without knowing it, while the audience is fully aware of the fact.

two incongruous or classing words brought together to make a striking expression.

Parting is such sweet sorrow. (Romeo and Juliet. 2.1.229)

O brawling love, O loving hate,
(Romeo and Juliet. 1.1.169)

Pun use of words, usually humorous, based on (a) the several meanings of one word, (b) a similarity of meaning between words that are pronounced the same, or (c) the difference in meanings between two words pronounced the same and spelled somewhat similarly. (From

inappropriate, muddled or mistaken use of words. Hostess Quickly in 2 Henry IV is a notable example.

DOGBERRY: Marry, sir, I would have some confidence* with you that decerns** you nearly. (Much Ado About Nothing. 3.5.2)
confidence* =conference, decerns**=concerns


Bombast is boastfull or ranting language.

Tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide. (3 Henry VI 1.4.138)


Hyperbole is extravagant and obvious exaggeration.

Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch
of the ranged empire fall!
(Antony and Cleopatra. 1.1.35-6)

You and thou

You - you- your- your
formal and distant form of address suggesting respect for a superior or courtesy to a social equal.

Thou - thee - thy - thine
informal and close form and can imply either closeness or contempt.

ye/you (singular) unmarked expected, usual, polite, superior
thou/thee (singular) marked unexpected, unusual, affection,
familiar/intimacy, inferior,
contempt, emphatic

Gertrude: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Hamlet: Mother, you have my father much offended.
Gertrude: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
Hamlet: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
Gertrude: Why, how now, Hamlet!
Hamlet: What's the matter now?
Gertrude: Have you forgot me?
Hamlet: No, by the rood, not so:
You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife;
And--would it were not so!--you are my mother.
Gertrude: Nay, then, I'll set those to you that can speak.
Hamlet: Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
Gertrude: What wilt thou do? thou wilt not murder me? Help, help, ho!

(Hamlet. 3. 6)

Hamlet always addresses Gertrude as "you," which shows his formal attitude and a mental/social distance. On the other hand, Queen Gertrude uses both "thou" and "you" which implys her emotional turbulence.

"Ye/you" or "thou/thee" sometimes show social classes, too.

Falstaff: Dost thou hear, hostess?
Hostess: Pray ye, pacify yourself, Sir John.
(2 Henry IV. 2.4.77-8)

Here, Falstaff is disreputable but he is still a knight so the hostess used "ye" in order to show his superiority.

SIR TOBY BELCH: O knight thou lackest a cup of canary: when did I see thee so put down?
SIR ANDREW: Never in your life, I think; unless you see canary put me down. Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit.
SIR TOBY BELCH: No question. (Twelfth Night. 1.3.68-74)

It can be insulting if it was used by an inferior to address a superior social rank.

"-th" and "-s"

The third person singular present indicative "-s" which we are familiar with was originally a dialect of Northern England or North Midland. By the 15th century, the usage of "-s" ending spread to south and by 16th century, it became popular as colloquial and informal way and on the other hand -eth ending remained as a formal and old-fashioned usage. In short, "-th" and "-s" were alternatives in Shakespearean text. Look at the next quotation. He changed "-eth" and "-s" even in the same line.

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest,
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

(The Merchant of Venice 4.1.181-4)
cf. Hath (has), doth (does)

double negative Nor I know not where I did lodge last night. (King Lear 4.7.67-8)
double comparable Nor that I am more better than Prospero...
(The Tempest. 1.2.19-20)
double superlative This was the most unkindest cut of all.
(Julius Caesar. 3.2.184)

3. Cultural Backgraound
Renaissance meaning 'rebirth'. a term used to describe theflowering of art, scholarship, and litereture that took place during the fifteenth and sixteenthe century in Eurpoe. The movement began in Italy in the fourteenth century. Since the Renaissance began in Italy, many of the leading Renaissance figures were Italian. eg. Dante Alighieri(1265-1321), Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) or Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Reformation The movement that began when King Henry VIII split from the Pope and the Catholic Church of Rome and founded the Protestant Church of England.
Age of
By about 1400 the breakup of the Mongol empire and the growth of the Ottoman Empire had blocked Europe's overland trade routes to the East. The search for new trade routes, the rise of merchant capitalism, and the desire to exploit the potential of a global economy initiated the European 2age of discovery.O´ Henry the Navigator promoted voyages along the coast of Africa that helped dispel the superstition and misinformation that had impeded previous attempts to sail through the torrid zone. The extent of the globe was revealed by Bartholomew Diaz's rounding of the Cape of Good Hope (1486-87), Vasco da Gama's voyage to India (1497-98), Christopher Columbus's first voyage to America (1492), and the circumnavigation of the globe by the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan (1519-22). In the 16th cent. Spanish explorers, notably Vasco de Balboa, Hern|n Cort»s, Francisco Pizarro, Cabeza de Vaca, Hern|n De Soto, and Francisco de Coronado, explored large areas of the Americas. Much of the interior of North America was revealed in the 17th cent. by Samuel de Champlain, Sieur de La Salle, Louis Jolliet, Jacques Marquette, and other French explorers. (From )

4. the Periods of English Literature
450-1066 Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Period
1066-1500 Middle English Period
1500-1660 The Renaissance
1558-1603 Elizabethan Age
1603-1625 Jacobean Age
1625-1649 Caroline Age
1649-1660 Commonwealth Period(Puritan Interregnum)
1660-1785 The Neoclassical Period
1660-1700 The Restoration
1700-1745 The Augustan Age (Age of Pope)
1745-1785 The Age of Sensibility (Age of Johnson)
1785-1830 The Romantic Period
1832-1901 The Victorian Period
1848-1860 The Pre-Raphaelite
1880-1901 Aestheticism and Decadence
1901-1914 The Edwardian Period
1910-1936 The Georgian Period
1914- The Modern Period
1945- Postmodernism




Shakespeare Theatre reviews

Read more Shakespeare Theatre reviews

Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) News


Read more Royal Shakespeare Company news

Shakespeare / theatre Gossips etc

Read more Shakespeare/theatre gossips

Recent Blog Posts (in Japanese)