The Bard’s dramatic gift alone would have secured his immediate popularity, but would hardly have ensured his eternal glory. For this, the credit goes to Shakespeare’s poetic style. The first dramatist was also the best poet of his day and one of the best of all time. We don’t need the intriguing sonnets as proof; his mesmerizingly entertaining plays alone would suffice.
This is not to discount his non-drama plain poetry. Indeed, he first became famous as a poet. Venus and Adonis (1593) was his first publication. Rape of Lucrece followed the next year. Both were successful, and he is famous for the Sonnets as well. While Venus and Rape represent the poet’s quest for immortality, his sonnets represent the passion in his life.
Still, by Shakespeare’s poetic style here I mean poetry in his plays. The reason is personal: decades ago when I was enamoured of Shakespeare, I had read his plays and not really non-drama verse. Moreover, I have always enjoyed poetry but have seldom grappled with the technicalities successfully – myself, not a student of English literature, you see. By the way, I am writing these pieces just to commemorate Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) birth and death in this week of April centuries ago – most likely on the same date i.e. April 23rd. Also, COVID-19 reminds us of the 1592 plague in London.
Shakespeare wrote in blank verse. His metrical pattern consisted of lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter. His metre choice, in general, followed the typical of the day so as to reach out to the theatre audience. Naturally, depending upon demands of the situation and the character, he freely deviated from the norm and wrote both other forms of poetry and simple prose as well. He wrote the sonnets also in iambic pentameter. However, he deviated in sonnet 145 to write in iambic tetrameter. He wrote the sonnets in three quatrains and a couplet later to be particularly known as Shakespearean.
Read: Shakespeare’s Art
Coming to the plays, the poet in Shakespeare is not only revealed by the hundred exquisite songs with which the plays are strewn. Most often the fusion of dramatic and lyric elements is perfect, absolute, and beyond analysis. His poetry lifts a whole scene to a higher mood. Beauty comes of the perfection of the style and the versification, the rarity of the images, and the accompanying music. Let’s take an example. When Iago sees Othello, already ravaged by the jealousy he has put him in, coming towards him, he says:
Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
which thou ow’dst yesterday,
The beauty of the rhythm and the syllables transforms Iago into an infernal magician. He has been a vile rascal; Shakespeare’s poetic style turns the rascal into a demon.
Criticism of his Poetic Style
Frailty he had none; his forte was his frailty. He enjoyed a rich genius for words; its qualities are dazzling. The defects nonetheless are no less glaring. There is on every occasion such a multitudinous flow of words and images to Shakespeare’s mind as nothing seems able to dam. Ben Jonson, noticing this irrepressible impetuosity, regretted that it could not be checked: ‘Suffiaminandus erat’. This lack of moderation is the limitation of his dramatic genius and his realism. It brings on to the stage a superfluity of lyricism at times ill-timed and out of place.
Secondly, it is probably true that, except the fuliginous Chapman, lost in metaphors and drowned in subtleties, Shakespeare has a more difficult style than any other Elizabethan dramatist. Despite eloquence Marlowe’s, despite vigorous realism Jonson’s and despite dry precision Middleton’s styles are more lucid than Shakespeare’s poetic style. Dekker’s easy grace, Fletcher’s rather superficial distinction, and Massinger’s oratorical swing also render their plays more lucid than this Bard’s. These names and their styles leave fewer difficulties to be solved and fewer knots to be untied. Although in many passages, and nearly always in the most beautiful, Shakespeare shows himself capable of complete clarity and frank simplicity, he yet had a personal taste for a twisted, slightly enigmatic mode of expression; for variants on the current uses of speech, and the hearer and even the reader must consequently exert ingenuity to understand him.
On a positive note, Shakespeare’s characters have life and life’s indefiniteness, and therefore they are not always fully intelligible but are mysteries. Men are a mystery; women are more so. Only antagonists are supposed to be black-and-white. It is even possible to ask whether Shakespeare himself understood them all. Had he an analytical comprehension of Hamlet? The watchmaker understands the watch he has made, but ‘it is a wise father that knows his own child.’
Appreciating His Poetic Style
In Jonson’s words, Shakespeare ‘was not of an age, but for all time.’ So astonishingly widespread is his glory, that it might also be said that’ he was not of a land, but of all lands.’ His prodigious vitality remains unimpaired after three centuries. It seems to grow every time he is read. Something of the mystery belongs to him which Enobarbus noticed in Cleopatra’s charm:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.
Free of every theory, accepting all of life, rejecting nothing, uniting the real and the poetic, appealing to the most varied men, to a rude workman as to a wit, Shakespeare’s drama is a great river of life and beauty. All who thirst for art or truth, the comic or the tender, ecstasy or satire, light or shade, can stoop to drink from its waters, and at almost every instant of their changing moods find the one drop to slake their thirst.
To conclude, a lack of moderation and enigmatic outpour is the main criticism of Shakespeare’s poetic style. With him, we suffer a problem of plenty. But, then it depends just on our perspective. Why can’t we just enjoy the plenty? Once acquainted with Shakespeare’s poetic style, we need the best of others so as not to feel monotonous. So, I would say, “Enjoy the plenty.”
Visit: Poetry Foundation