Shakespeare’s Unconventional Conventions

Iambic pentameter

When the love-struck Romeo first sees Juliet emerge on her balcony, what poetic form could mirror his pounding heart? Iambic pentameter of course. “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter because it was believed to imitate the human heart beat. The word comes from the French iambique meaning “a foot of verse,” referring to the form’s basic two-syllable verse unit: unstressed, stressed (e.g., dum DUM). Pentameter comes from the Greek meaning “five” (five feet per line).


Are your verbs slacking off? Take a tip from the Bard and try a zeugma. From the Greek zeugnynai meaning “to yoke or join,” zeugma is the clever use of a single verb in two different idiomatic senses within one sentence: “Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” In this funeral song in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline chimney-sweepers encounter literal “dust” in their work, whereas “Golden lads and girls” become figurative “dust” in death. Groucho Marx also used zeugma in the film Duck Soup: “Leave in a minute,” he said, “and a huff.”


Queen Hermione stands trial in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale after being falsely accused of adultery by her husband. But could any literary device give voice to her frantic plea? Enjambment can try. “I am not prone to weeping,” Hermione says, “but I have / that honourable grief lodged here which burns / Worse than tears drown.” From the French word enjamb meaning “to encroach,” enjambment is the running on of a thought from one line of text onto the next without a syntactical break. Here, Hermione’s words spill over the way her tears would if she could cry.


In the third act of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony enters the Roman forum holding Caesar’s body. How will he convince the crowd that their emperor was murdered wrongly? Litotes! “You all did love him once,” Antony explains, “not without cause.” From the Greek litos meaning “plain, small, meager,” litotes is an understatement, usually illustrated using a double negative. Antony tells the assembled Romans that they loved their murdered emperor “not without cause,” using the double negative “not without” to imply that they had great cause to love Caesar.

Slant rhyme

Shakespeare’s King Lear is about to end, and with his last lines, the young Edgar looks toward his future as his whole family lies dead around him. “The oldest have borne most;” he says, “we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” This desperately sad slant rhyme on “young” and “long” recalls the fatal miscommunications between young and old that set the tragic events of the play in motion. Slant rhymes typically share at least one identical stressed phoneme, but like the ambitions of this ill-fated family, not all their syllables align.


Hamlet has just begun; Claudius just married Gertrude after killing her husband his brother. How can he show his happiness while publicly respecting his secret victim? Isocolon. Claudius says, “With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage.” From the Greek isokolos meaning “of equal members,” isocolon unites two clauses using parallel structure and similarly distributed syllables. Claudius uses “With __ in __” as a template to compare opposing concepts of equal syllable length: “mirth” vs. “dirge” and “funeral” (pronounced with two syllables) vs. “marriage.”


In the final act of Henry V, Pistol, a drunkard and braggart turned soldier, decides to return to England to become a pickpocket after winning the Battle of Agincourt in France, but how can he explain his plan with finesse? Antanaclasis! “To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal.” Pistol plans to flee or steal from France to England and once there, to steal people’s wallets, thus using the same word in two different senses in the same sentence. Derived from the combination of three Greek roots, antanaclasis literally translates as an “echo that is bent or broken.”


The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s last plays, is about to end. Prospero, a former wizard widely thought to represent Shakespeare himself in this epilogue, has renounced his magic powers and is about to leave his mystical island once and for all. But he is trapped onstage until the audience applauds, how can he gracefully ask for their approval? Perhaps a touch of assonance, or vowel rhyme would do the trick. “But release me from my bands / with the help of your good hands,” Prospero implores. The word is derived from the French assonare meaning “to sound.”

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Word of the Day

Can you guess the definition?


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Can you guess the definition?

Word of the day

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