by: Ernest Clapp Noyes

The following article was originally published in Shakespeare's Comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ed. Ernest Clapp Noyes. New York: Macmillan Co., 1908.


Both prose and verse are found in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but they are not used at random. Each has its purpose. In general, prose is employed by Shakespeare for humorous passages and for the conversation of vulgar characters, while verse is the medium of expression for the more elevated and poetical parts of the play. Thus Bottom and his friends regularly speak in prose, while the fairies and the lovers speak in verse. When prose and verse are used together, the conjunction is usually for the purpose of heightening a contrast either between the speakers, as in III., i., 128-200, where Bottom uses prose, and Titania, verse; or between the persons spoken to, as in V., i., 353-365, where Theseus addresses Bottom in prose and the lovers in verse. The variation in the mode of expression, when skilfully managed, contributes not a little to the general effect.


The verse generally used in Shakespeare's plays consists of ten-syllabled lines accented on every other syllable beginning with the second, and not rhymed. An example of such a line with the accents marked is:

"Four níghts/will quíck/ly dréam/ awáy/ the tíme."

This verse is called unrhymed iambic pentameter--pentameter because the ten syllables in the line are divisible into five groups, or feet, as marked above; and iambic because each foot is an iamb, that is, a foot containing two syllables of which only the second is accented. Other names for this kind of metre are blank verse and heroic verse.


Since a succession of regular lines each containing five iambic feet would soon become tiresome, Shakespeare frequently substitutes another kind of foot for an iamb in order to give variety. Some of the feet that are thus substituted are: the trochee, which consists of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented; the pyrrhic, which consists of two un-accented syllables; and the spondee, which consists of two accented syllables. Thus I., i., 143:

"Making/it mo/menta/ry as/ a sound,"

we have a trochee in the first foot. An example of a pyrrhic in the first and third feet and of a spondee in the second foot may be seen in II., i., 99:

"And the/ quaint maz/es in/ the wan/ton green."

One whose ear is only ordinarily quick will find no difficulty in dividing into feet these lines that contain variations.


Another means of avoiding monotony which Shakespeare employs less frequently in _A Midsummer Night's Dream_ than in his later plays is the addition of an unaccented syllable at the end of a line. An example is seen in III., ii., 215:

"And will/you rent/ our an/cient love/ asun/der."

This extra weak syllable is called a feminine ending.


In A Midsummer Night's Dream there is usually a distinct pause at the end of a line. Occasionally, however, the sense runs over from one line into the next, as in--

"And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things un-known; the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothings
A local habitation and a name."

Such lines, which are called "run-on" in distinction from "end-stopped," are much more common in the later plays. They give freedom and variety to the verse.


Much of the verse spoken by the fairies is trochaic. The lines vary in length, but are always short. A good example is a speech in III., ii., 110 ff.:

"Cáptain/óf our/ fáiry/ bánd
Hélen/á is/ hére at/ hánd
Ánd the/ yóuth mis/tóok by/ mé
Pléading/ fór a/ lóver's/ fée."

When the final syllable of the last foot is cut off, as it is here, the verse is called catalectic. Trochaic metre is commonly used by Shakespeare for the speech of his supernatural beings. The light tripping measures seem especially appropriate to the fairies.


The interlude played by Bottom and his friends is composed of iambic lines of various lengths. The stiffness and awkwardness that Shakespeare gave it in comparison with the other verse of the play should be observed.


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