Michael J. Cummings..©
Preparing a Manuscript
dipped in ink.
A quill was the hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The word “pen"
is derived from the Latin name for “feather"—“penna." Shakespeare and other
writers of his day used a variety of quills that they dipped in an ink
container (inkwell) on a stand (standish) that held all the
writing materials. If a writer’s pocket lacked jingle, he invested in a
goose quill. If he could afford something better, he invested in a swan
quill. Writers or artists who needed quills to produce fine lines purchased
crow quills. Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks and owls also served
as “word processors," producing plays, poems, and sometimes revolution.
Quills were the writing instruments of choice between 500 A.D. and 1850
A.D. (In the ancient world, writers used a variety of other instruments
to write history, literature, announcements, bureaucratic records, and
so on. These instruments included shaped twigs or branches that impressed
words into clay, mallet-driven chisels that etched words in stone, brushes
that wrote on pottery and other smooth surfaces (such as plaster and animal
skins), sharpened bone or metal that inscribed words on wax surfaces, and
sharpened reed stems dipped in ink that wrote on papyrus, an Egyptian water
plant whose pith (the soft center of a stem) was dried and pressed to make
thin sheets suitable for receiving impressions. The introduction of the
quill in the 500's (an event recorded by St. Isidore, a Spanish theologian)
greatly eased the task of writers, much as personal computers did when
they replaced typewriters in the last half of the 20th Century.)
and candlelight. Shakespeare probably
tried to do most of his writing during the day, perhaps near a window,
because writing at night required lit candles or an oil lamp. Candles were
expensive. A writer could easily spend a day's earnings or more on candlelight
illuminating the first draft of a poem or a soliloquy in a play. The alternative–oil
lamps–gave off smoke and unpleasant odors. And they, too, required a pretty
penny to buy, fuel and maintain. However, if Shakespeare attempted to confine
all of his writing to mornings and afternoons, he probably failed. After
all, as a playwright and an actor, he had to appear for the daytime rehearsals
and performances of his works. Like people today, he had a "nine-to-five
job" that probably forced him to moonlight. Also, passages in his plays
suggest that he could have been something of an insomniac addicted to "burning
the candle at both ends." In his book Shakespeare: the Biography,
(New York: Doubleday, 2005) Peter Ackroyd speculates that as a result
of his various employments in the theatre, [Shakespeare] was obliged to
write at night; there are various references in the plays to "oil-dried
lamps," to candles, and to "the smoakie light" that is "fed with stinking
Tallow" (Page 273).
official English dictionaries existed in Shakespeare's time.
Therefore, he was free to use spellings and meanings that did not agree
with accepted spellings and meanings. He could also choose from among words
imported from Italy, France and other countries by seafaring traders, soldiers,
tourists, and adventurers. When words did not exist to express his thoughts,
Shakespeare made up his own–hundreds of them. Many of his neologisms are
now in common use around the world. Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless,
authors of Coined by Shakespeare (Merriam-Webster, 1998), list numerous
words originated by Shakespeare, including bedroom, eyeball, generous,
investment, madcap, obscene, radiance, torture, unreal, and varied.
of words used by Shakespeare have changed meanings or connotations over
time. For example, "Fellow, which has friendly overtones for us,
was insulting in Shakespeare's day. Phrases that were metaphors to him
have often lost their coloring with us: "Since we seldom play the game
of bowls, we overlook the concrete implications of 'There's the rub' [a
phrase used by Hamlet in his famous soliloquy] (an impediment on the green)."–Levin,
Harry. "General Introduction." The Riverside Shakespeare. G. Blakemore
Evans, textual ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Page 9.)
myth, other writers. To write his plays,
Shakespeare borrowed from history, mythology and other literary works,
then used his genius to enliven histories and myths and improve on plots,
reworking them and sometimes adding new characters, such as Beatrice and
Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch
in Twelfth Night, and the fool in King Lear.
How Settings Affected
Writing: Because settings on an Elizabethan stage were spare, Shakespeare
had to write descriptions of them into his dialogue. This handicap proved
to be a boon, for it motivated Shakespeare to write some of his best descriptions.
place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them
could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic
effects were needed, they could be created by the poet's pen. Hence, it
is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the
exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover,
encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience
in the production of a play, and this active participation was further
increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy,
soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as
they are in modern theatre.–Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines
of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (Page 8).
of Plays and Censorship:..Shakespeare's
manuscripts had to be submitted for approval.
After writing out a manuscript, Shakespeare (or a professional scribe)
made a copy of it in which obvious errors were corrected. The two versions
had special names: the original manuscript was the "foul papers" because
of the blots and crossouts on it. The new version was called a fair
copy. It was submitted to the Master of Revels, a government censor
who examined it for material offensive to the crown. If approved, the fair
copy became known as a prompt copy, which the actors used to memorize
their lines. The acting company bought the prompt copy, gaining sole possession
of it, after paying the writer. The company then wrote in the stage directions
(exit, enter, etc.). John Russell Brown,
author of Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and
Shepard, 1982, Page 31) discusses the circumstances under which the censor
forbade the staging of one of Shakespeare's plays:
At a time of unrest, when
the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen's [Elizabeth's] authority and
armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain's Men [Shakespeare's
company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed
and performed, because it contains a scene in which a king is compelled
to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen's counsellors believed that this
might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was
taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political
issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious
ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in
ancient Rome or foreign countries.
of the Copy:..An
acting company could alter the manuscript.
With or without a playwright's approval, an acting company could change
the script as it saw fit. It is possible that editors improved some of
Shakespeare's manuscripts. It is also possible that they weakened the manuscripts.
original copy, or foul papers, of a Shakespeare play survived to the present
day except for a few pages of Sir Thomas More, partly written by Shakespeare.
Fredson Bowers explains why the manuscripts were lost:
Shakespeare manuscript is in existence. This is not surprising: they were
not collectors' items. Printers would have thrown them away after setting
type from them; almost twenty years passed in the Commonwealth with no
public performances of plays, and the manuscripts of the disbanded theatrical
companies were completely dispersed; the Great Fire of London must have
destroyed some. Indeed, only a relative handful of the hundreds and hundreds
of Elizabethan plays have come down to us in manuscript form, and it is
our bad luck that so few of these are by major dramatists. None is Shakespeare's
if we except the good possibility that one scene in the manuscript of the
unacted Sir Thomas More is in his hand.–Bowers, Fredson. ''What
Shakespeare Wrote.'' Approaches to Shakespeare, by Norma Rabkin.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964 (Page 266).
Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry
wrote his plays partly in verse and partly in prose, freely alternating
between the two in the same acts and scenes. It is not unusual, in fact,
for one character to address a second character in verse while the second
character responds in prose. Sometimes, the same character–Hamlet or King
Lear, for example–speaks in verse in one moment and in prose in another.
is a collection of lines that follow a regular, rhythmic pattern–in Shakespeare,
usually iambic pentameter, a metric scheme in which each line has ten syllables
consisting of five unaccented and accented syllable pairs. In its highest
form–when the language is lyrical and the content sublime–verse can become
poetry, either rhymed or unrhymed. Prose, on the other hand, is the everyday
language of conversation, letters, lectures, sermons, newspaper articles,
book chapters, and encyclopedia articles. Prose has no rhyme or metric
did Shakespeare mix verse (including poetry) and prose in his plays? That
is a question that inevitably occupies anyone studying Shakespeare’s writing
techniques. Before considering that question, the Shakespeare analyst first
needs to learn how to identify the verse and prose passages in a play.
That task is easy. Here’s why:
most modern editions of the plays, each line in multi-line verse passages
begins with a capital letter, and each line in multi-line prose passages
begins with a small letter except the first line or a line beginning with
the opening word of a sentence. In addition, verse passages have a shortened
right margin, but prose passages have a full right margin. Following are
examples of these visual cues in verse and prose passages from Hamlet,
Prince of Denmark:
Passage Spoken by Hamlet (Act III, Scene I):
be, or not to be: that is the question:
Passage Spoken by Hamlet (Act II, Scene II):
‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
to take arms against a sea of troubles,
by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
more; and by a sleep to say we end
heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
sir. For the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards, that
their faces are wrinkled, their eyes
then, what about single lines–those spoken in conversation as questions,
replies, or ripostes? They are in prose if one line has no paired rhyming
line or is too abrupt to contain a metric scheme. The following exchange
between Hamlet and Guildenstern in Act III, Scene III, of Hamlet, Prince
of Denmark contains such short lines absent of meter and rhyme. The
exchange begins when Hamlet asks Guildenstern to play a wind instrument
called a recorder, which resembles a flute:
thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit,
together with most weak hams. All which, sir, though I most powerfully
and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down;
for yourself, sir, should be old as I am if like a crab you could go backward.
you play upon this pipe?
these lines are too short to contain a pattern of meter or rhyme. Moreover,
the content is mundane and prosaic. “I pray you" does not a poem make.
For these reasons, the passage qualifies only as prose.
lord, I cannot.
me, I cannot.
do beseech you.
what of the multi-line passages? Why are some in verse and others in prose?
The answer some Shakespeare commentators provide–an answer that is simplistic
wholly accurate–is that Shakespeare reserved verse for noble, highborn
characters and prose for common, lowborn characters. It is true that royalty
and nobility often speak in verse and that peasants and plebeians–or wine-swilling
hooligans, like Falstaff (Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II)–often
speak in prose. But it is also true that noble characters, like Hamlet
and Volumnia (Coriolanus), sometimes speak in prose and that lowborn
characters, like the witches in Macbeth, often speak in verse. Even
the lowest of the low–the beast-man Caliban in The Tempest–speaks
often in verse. In The Merchant of Venice, the characters associated
with the dirty world of money speak frequently in verse, and the characters
associated with the rarefied world of nobility and refinement speak often
in prose. Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing is almost
entirely in prose, with highborn characters only occasionally speaking
then, does Shakespeare alternate between verse and prose?
used verse to do the following:
Express deep emotion requiring elevated language. Because nobles and commoners
were both capable of experiencing profound emotion, both expressed their
emotions in verse from time to time.
Make wise, penetrating, and reflective observations that require lofty
language. Such a passage is a famous one recited by the outlaw Jaques in
Act II, Scene VII, of As You Like It. The passage–which begins with
the often-quoted line “All the world’s a stage"–philosophizes about the
“seven ages" of man, from infancy to senility.
Present a lyrical poem as a separate entity, like the famous song in Act
V, Scene III, of As You Like It. The first stanza of that poem follows:
was a lover and his lass,
a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
o’er the green corn-field did pass
the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding:
lovers love the spring.
Inject irony. When the highborn speak humble prose and the hoi polloi speak
elegant verse, as is sometimes the case in The Merchant of Venice,
Shakespeare may be saying up can be down, and down can be up. In The
Merchant, the noble characters are just as reprehensible as–or perhaps
even more reprehensible than–the workaday, unsophisticated characters.
Portia is often depicted in critical analyses of the play as its noblest
character. But a close reading of the play reveals her as a racist and
a self-seeking conniver. Thus, Shakespeare makes her tongue wag in prose
and verse, revealing her Janus personality.
Suggest order and exactitude. A character who speaks in precise rhythms
and patterns is a character with a tidy brain that plans ahead and executes
actions on schedule.
used prose to do the following:
Express ordinary, undistinguished observations coming from the surface
of the mind rather than its active, ruminating interior.
Make quick, one-line replies such as “Ay, my lord" that are the stuff of
Present auditory relief for audiences (or visual relief for readers) from
the intellectual and connotative density of the verse passages.
Suggest madness or senility. In King Lear, Lear speaks almost exclusively
in verse in the first half of the play. Then suddenly, he lurches back
and forth between verse and prose, perhaps to suggest the frenzied state
of his aging mind. Hamlet sometimes shifts to prose in front of observers,
perhaps in hopes of presenting his feigned madness as real.
Depict the rambling, desultory path of conversation from a tongue loosened
by alcohol, as in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II.
Poke fun at characters who lack the wit to versify their lines.
Demonstrate that prose has merits as a literary medium. In Shakespeare’s
day, verse (and its elegant cousin, poetry) was the sine qua non of successful
writing. As an innovator, Shakespeare may have wanted to tout the merits
of prose. Thus, on occasion, he infused his plays with prose passages so
graceful and thought-provoking that they equalled, and sometimes even surpassed,
the majesty of verse or poetry passages. Such a prose passage is the following,
spoken by Hamlet in Act II, Scene II:
a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!
in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of
animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights
not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.3.
Verse and Iambic Pentameter
Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry, you read Shakespeare wrote his
plays in verse, prose, and poetry and that he used a rhythm format called
his verse lines in iambic pentamenter do not rhyme, they are said to be
in blank verse. (Note that Shakespeare also wrote his sonnets in iambic
pentameter, but the lines had a rhyming scheme. For more information on
this scheme, see sonnets.)
understand iambic pentameter, you first need to understand the term ''iamb.''
An iamb is a unit of rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable followed
by a stressed syllable. The words ''annoy,'' ''fulfill,'' ''pretend,''
''regard,'' and ''serene'' are all iambs because the first syllable of
each word is unstressed (or unaccented) and the second syllable is stressed
(or accented). Iambs can also consist of one word with a single unstressed
(unaccented) syllable followed by another word with a single stressed (accented)
syllable. In addition, they may consist of a final unstressed syllable
of one word followed by an initial stressed syllable of the next word.
The following line from Romeo and Juliet demonstrates the use of
iambs. The stressed words or syllables are underlined:
light through yonder windowbreaks?Here are
two more lines from Romeo and Juliet that also demonstrate the use
fail: 'tis twenty years tillthen.
When a line has five iambs, it is in iambic pentameter. The prefix ''pent''
means ''five.'' (A figure with five sides is called a ''pentagon''; an
athletic competition with five track-and-field events is called a ''pentathlon.'')
The suffix ''meter'' (in ''pentameter'') refers to the recurrence of a
rhythmic unit (also called a ''foot''). Thus, because the above lines contain
iambs, they are ''iambic.'' Because they contain five iambs (five feet)
they are said to be in iambic pentameter. Finally, because the words at
the end of each line don't rhyme, the lines are said to be in unrhymed
iambic pentameter, or blank verse.
why I did call theeback.
Blank verse was modeled after ancient Greek and Latin verse. It was first
used in 1514 in Renaissance Italy by Francesco Maria Molza. In 1539, Italian
Giovanni Rucellai was the first poet to label the unrhymed iambic pentameter
in his poetry as blank verse (versi sciolti in Italian). Henry Howard,
the Earl of Surrey, first used blank verse in English in his translation
of Vergil's epic Latin poem The Aeneid. The first English drama
in blank verse was Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex, staged
in 1561, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. It was about an early British
king. Later in the same century, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare
turned blank verse into high art when they used it in their plays. Marlowe
used the verse form in Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, and Edward
II. Shakespeare used it in all of his plays. In Germany, Gotthold Ephraim
Lessing (1729-1781) popularized blank verse in his poem "Nathan the Wise"
("Nathan der Weise"), published in 1779.
Directions and Drama Terms
One of the main divisions of a play. Shakespeare's plays each have five
acts. Each act is subdivided into scenes. An act generally focuses on one
major aspect of the plot or theme. Between acts, stagehands may change
scenery, and the setting may shift to another locale.
Stage direction indicating the coming of a battle; a call to arms
Tapestry hung on the stage to conceal scenery until the right moment. In
an arras played a crucial role. Polonius hid behind one to eavesdrop on
a conversation between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. When Hamlet
saw the tapestry move, he stabbed at it, thinking King Claudius was behind
it, and killed Polonius.
Words an actor speaks to the audience which other actors on the stage cannot
hear. Sometimes the actor cups his mouth toward the audience or turns away
from the other actors. An aside serves to reveal a character's thoughts
or concerns to the audience without revealing them to other characters
in a play. Near the end of Hamlet, Queen Gertrude raises a cup of
wine to her lips during the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes. King
Claudius had poisoned the wine and intended it for Hamlet. In an aside,
Claudius–unwilling to warn Gertrude in an effort to preserve his innocence–says,
"It is the poison'd cup: it is too late."
In published Shakespeare plays in earlier times, a single word on the bottom
of the right side of every page. This word was the first word appearing
on the next page.
The chorus was a single person who recited a prologue before Act I (and
sometimes a passage between acts) in Henry V, Henry VIII, Troilus and
Cressida, and Romeo and Juliet. Generally, the chorus informed the
audience of action offstage or outside the time frame of the play.
Personae: List of the characters in a play. Such a list is found at
the beginning of each Shakespeare play.
direction indicating the entrance onto the stage
of a character or characters.
Short address spoken by an actor at the end of a play that comments on
the meaning of the events in the play or looks ahead to expected events;
an afterword in any literary work.
direction indicating that a military attack is taking
place. The opening of Scene II in Act III of King John contains
such a stage direction.
direction indicating the departure of two or more
characters from the stage.
direction indicating the departure of a character
from the stage.
Music usually introducing the entrance or exit of a king or another important
person. The music may consist of a short trumpet passage.
Copy: Play manuscript after it has been edited.
Papers: Original manuscript of a playwright which was later edited.
Roofed seating area of a theatre, such as the Globe, that resembled the
grandstand of a baseball park. The Globe had three galleries that could
accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 playgoers.
Stage direction indicating that entering characters are playing hautboys
(OH bwah), which are Elizabethan oboes
Preface or prelude to a play. The Taming of the Shrew contains an
induction that precedes the main plot.
of Revels: Government censor who examined all plays for offensive material
Introduction of a play. In Henry V, a chorus (one person) speaks
a prologue that encourages the audience members to use their imaginations
to create what an Elizabethan stage cannot: battlefields, clashing swords,
the might of warriors. Shakespeare writes, "Think when we talk of horses,
that you see them printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth."
or Prompt Copy: Edited version of a play in which an acting company
inserted stage directions.
Re-Enter: Stage direction
indicating the re-entrance onto the stage of a character or characters.
Scene: (1) Time and
place of the action in a play; (2) part of an act in a play that usually
takes place in one location.
Sennet: Trumpet flourish
to introduce the entrance of a character, such as King Lear (Act 1).
Soliloquy: Long passage
in which a character reveals his thoughts to the audience but not to other
characters. Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" speech is an example.
Solus: Stage direction
indicating a character is alone on the stage.
Register: Book in which the English government required printers to
register the title of a play before the play was published. The full official
name of the Stationers' Register was the Hall Book of the Worshipful
Company of Stationers.
Tiring House: Dressing
rooms of actors behind a wall at the back of the stage. To
tire means to dress–that is, to attire oneself. Sometimes,
the wall of the tiring house could stand as the wall of a fortress under
Torches: Stage direction
indicating that entering characters are carrying lit torches.
Within: Stage direction
indicating that a person speaking or being spoken to is behind a door or
inside a room...
Study Guide in Book Form
a Guide to the Complete Works is now available in hardback and paperback.
It incorporates virtually all of the information on this web site, including
plot summaries of all the plays. It also gives dates and sources of each
play, describes the setting and characters, discusses imagery, identifies
themes, points out the climax, and provides historical background wherever
necessary. In addition, it discusses and analyzes the sonnets, as well
as other poems written by Shakespeare.
the many additional features of the book are essays, glossaries, explanations
of versification and iambic pentameter, and a section on the Globe Theatre.
purchase of this book will help maintain this web site as a free resource
for teachers and students. You can order the book directly from the publisher's
web site or from Amazon.com.
Publication of a Play
publishing industry operated under the control of the Worshipful Company
of Stationers, a trade organization which the government established
and supervised in order to guard against printing subversive books or books
unduly critical of the Crown. If a play met government
standards–that is, if it did not attempt to inflame the people against
the crown–a publisher could print and sell the play. Authors of plays often
had misgivings about committing their work to print.
plays of the first professional companies [in Shakespeare's day] were written
mainly by actors themselves. . . . The players were reluctant to allow
their dramas to be printed. They apparently thought that if a play could
be read, few people would wish to see it acted. They may also have feared
that their plays, if printed, would be appropriated for acting by rival
companies. This reluctance explains the fact that only eighteen of Shakespeare's
plays were printed during his lifetime. They were published in small pamphlets
called quartos, which sold for only sixpence a piece.–Alden, Raymond MacDonald.
Shakespeare Handbook. Revised and enlarged by Oscar James Campbell.
Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1970 (Page 74).
For a detailed discussion of
publishing formats–in particular, folio and quarto texts–click
on DVD (or VHS)
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Nunn, John Schoffield
Johnson, Janet Suzman
You Like It (2010)
Laskey, Naomi Frederick
You Like It (1937)
Ainley, Felix Aylmer
Comedy of Errors
Howard, Irene Worth
Bloom, Richard Johnson, Helen Mirren
Box: The Comedies
Box: The Histories
Box: The Tragedies
Olivier, Jean Simmons
Gibson, Glenn Close
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Gielgud, Bill Colleran
Burton, Hume Cronyn
Scott, Eric Simonson
Scott, Blair Brown
Branaugh, Derek Jacobi
Banks, Felix Aylmer
VI Part I
Benson, Trevor Peacock
VI Part II
VI Part III
Stride, Claire Bloom, Julian Glover
Pasco, Keith Michell
Brando, James Mason
Heston, Jason Robards
Cusack, Susan Engel
Mower, Ann Lynn
Olivier, Colin Blakely
Labour's Lost (2000)
Branagh, Alicia Silverstone
McKellen, Judy Dench
Merchant of Venice
Mitchell, Gemma Jones
Merchant of Venice (2001)
Hunt, Trevor Nunn
Bamber, Peter De Jersey
Merchant of Venice (1973)
Olivier, Joan Plowright
Merry Wives of Windsor (1970)
Charles, Gloria Grahame
Night's Dream (1996)
Duncan, Alex Jennings
Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer
Ado About Nothing (1993)
Ado About Nothing (1973)
Waterston, F. Murray Abraham
Haines, John Kaki
McKellen, Michael Grandage
Olivier, Frank Finlay
MacLean, Bob Hoskins, Jenny Agutter
(1985) Japanese Version of King Lear
Nakadai, Akira Terao
Osian, Kadina de Elejalde
Calmettes, James Keane
Gemp, Frederick Warde
III - Criterion Collection (1956)
Olivier, Ralph Richardson
McKellen, Annette Bening
Cook, Brian Protheroe, Michael Byrne
and Juliet (1968)
Whiting, Olivia Hussey