What is blank verse and how does Shakespeare use it?

Shakespeare's use of blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, is an important element of his plays. In rhymed verse, the words that fall at the end of lines sound very similar, like "love" and "dove," or "moon" and "June." Shakespeare sometimes uses rhyming couplets in his plays, which are two consecutive lines of rhyming verse. An example would be "Indeed this counselor / Is now most still, most secret, and most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave" (Hamlet Act III, Scene 4).

Blank verse, on the other hand, has no rhyme, but is does have a definite rhythm created by the careful structuring of iambic feet - patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. One poetic foot is a single unit that is repeated in a steady rhythm to a line of verse. The iambic foot (or iamb) consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, like "inSIST" or "reSIST."

The pentameter portion of iambic pentameter refers to the number of feet (iambs) that are repeated in each line of verse, in this case five. So, remember that a line of blank verse in iambic pentameter does not rhyme, but it will always follow this rhythm:

weak STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG

Here's an example of blank verse from Hamlet. As you read it, listen for the iambic pentameter rhythm:

But, woe is me, you are so sick of late,
So far from cheer and from your former state,
That I distrust you. Yet, though I distrust,
Discomfort you, my lord, it nothing must.

Incidentally, once you get into the groove of iambic pentameter, you might find that reading Shakespeare becomes a little easier. At least now you know part of why the phrasing of his language can seem so odd. He's making a deliberate effort to work out the syllables in a very specific way. Try it yourself sometime and your words might come out a little strange, too!