Summary: the Use of Poetry in Shakespeare’s Works

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Poetry can serve to simultaneously be the simplest form of expression on the surface, yet encapsulate a much more complex meaning. Unlike prose, it does not have to adhere to the limiting rules of writing and is free to adopt forms, words, and structures that best convey the poet’s intentions. Poems can also be interpreted as certain excerpts from plays, wherein they appear as verses, with a lyrical and imaginative discourse that mere prose may struggle to convey.

Shakespeare’s works, for example, have been extensively studied for their ability to create poetry in action, one that constantly serves to show a wide array of developing human emotions that regular prose may struggle to do due to his mastery and manipulation of poetry. In Shakespeare’s works, particularly his renown works of Hamlet and Macbeth, his distinct yet changing style and presentation often present the struggles his characters face within themselves while making the inner conflict relatable, making readers and the audience ponder on what is the self and what makes us human.

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Shakespeare was known for his mastery and extensive employment of the blank verse, which very much resembled prose but had the form of iambic pentameter interspersed with other common poetic devices. In his plays and poems, poems did not usually rhyme as he usually intended his speakers to speak in “natural speech”, making it more relatable yet highly poetic. This unrhymed verse coupled with the iambic pentameter was characterised by containing ten syllables in a line, and being spoken with a stress on every second syllable. This became a style that Shakespeare was renowned for. His mastery was evident in the way that he manipulated it by interrupting and changing its flow, and he soon became a poet who was revered in his flexibility and ability to portray not only a wide array of human emotions but to portray great intensities of them. In the following paragraphs, I will closely examine the techniques he employed and how he employed them to portray the turmoil within his characters.

Firstly, Shakespeare’s poetry in his plays serves to present great inner turmoil in his characters, presenting their inner conflict where they weigh their motivations and ambitions against their own moral conscience. In Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy is one of Shakespeare’s most extensively examined excerpts and is often studied on its own as a poem. The above was set in the context of Hamlet having been greatly wronged by his uncle, Claudius, who poisoned Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, to take the throne. Hamlet, at the beginning of the play, was visited by the Ghost of King Hamlet (his father) who asked Hamlet to avenge him. Shortly after, in this soliloquy, a private and solitary speech made to audiences, Hamlet reveals the inner turmoil he feels between his need to avenge his father as a filial son and his sense of morality that hinders his carrying out of the deed. Shakespeare well introduces this great conflict in the first line with the shuffling between “To be, or not to be? // That is the question – // Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer” His presentation of Hamlet’s weighing of two extremes – to live or not to live coupled with the sing-song lyrical presentation presents a swaying Hamlet, one who contemplates deeply on whether “tis nobler to in the mind to suffer” against the torment of “outrageous fortune” or to stand against “a sea of troubles”. The empowering imagery of war and the might of the ocean reveals the torment that Hamlet feels, as he despairs between his conscience to end his life or to proceed with the revenge his father sought.

One prime example where Shakespeare uses poetry to express and highlight human emotions would be the case of Hamlet. The poetry present in Hamlet expresses the private discourse of Hamlet’s emotions to the audience to reveal the innermost human emotions of despair and frustration arising from the conflict of self and external motivations. Shakespeare frames Hamlet’s speech to shuffle back and forth, to think deeply about his actions, leading to inaction and further frustration, with the ultimate effect of highlighting the conflict between his duty as a filial son and his morality which “thus conscience does make cowards of us all”. This back and forth motion accentuated by the clever manipulation of the iambic pentameter which he breaks in the very first line, showing the dishevelled mind of Hamlet who cannot follow regular conventions of speech of the iambic pentameter, very neatly sets up the inner conflict felt by Hamlet.

Next, Shakespeare’s employment of blank verse and soliloquies also makes his work highly relatable for his readers and audiences, gaining their sympathy for the dire conflicts as they can then relate with the displays of human emotion, even as he elegantly presents his characters’ inner turmoil. The private speeches and soliloquies littered throughout the development of his plays provide timely insights into the human emotions felt by the characters despite their horrifying actions. The play of Macbeth is a tragedy that follows Macbeth’s ambition that eventually causes him to commit not only the murder of King Duncan but more murders in pursuit of the throne to fulfil the witches’ prophecy. In Macbeth, after the murder of Duncan, he says “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood // Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather // The multitudinous seas incarnadine”. His sense of guilt is overwhelming and so overbearing that he believes the might of the oceans cannot wash his sin away. The imagery, while exaggerated in blank verse, is relatable and his revelation of guilt makes the audience sympathize with Macbeth displays a human side despite being having just committed the carnal sin of murder. This is further paralleled by Claudius, who reveals his guilt in his confession of “O, my offense is rank; it smells to Heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, A brother’s Murder”. The vivid comparison to the murder of Abel by Cain, which is a very widely understood and recognized biblical reference, makes the revelation of his guilt relatable by the audience as they can draw parallels. The revelation of guilt by these two characters in their private interactions reflect the conflict in their self, between their ambition and their moral conscience and the human emotions that entail, are made tangible and felt by the audience, who can sympathise with them and reflect for themselves that despite crude ambition, they are essentially humans who have a conscience and human emotions.

Lastly, Shakespeare’s poetry while appearing to be straightforward on first glance, presents a deep poetic vagueness that allows readers and audiences to contemplate for themselves the true motivations behind the self as his characters come to understand the self through the development of his plays. In Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, the very breaking of the iambic pentameter reflects that despite coming to an understanding that his ambition has gotten him nowhere as his ambition cannot fill the void that the death of his Lady Macbeth had caused. Shakespeare uses the repetition in “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”  to reflect Macbeth’s growing madness as it resembles the ramblings of a mad man. The tone of indifference towards the death of his wife solidifies his understanding that the easy life he expected was actually an illusion as his life no appears meaningless, and his understanding of himself and what could grant his life meaning was truly wrong. This revelation leads the audience to then reflect that despite his evil nature and the numerous murders he had committed, this understanding that it is all “signifying nothing”  makes him even more human and that the blind pursuit of ambition does not result in fulfilment.

This complexity can also be observed in Hamlet. Despite the numerous soliloquies that provided insight into Hamlet’s thoughts, and the presentation of Hamlet, the reader is challenged to complete the sense and reflect for themselves. There is much that is not presented about Hamlet and the constant portrayal of conflict serves to create a troubling sense that Hamlet struggled significantly with his morality and his duty as a filial son. While the soliloquies make Hamlet’s struggles relatable, the audience cannot truly understand Hamlet, suggesting that the core of human nature is unknowable and for the audience to decipher for themselves. Shakespeare beautifully presents the inner conflict between human emotions, the sense of self and motivations through the characters in his plays and poems through poetry in motion, one that is never stagnant and constantly evolving. His understanding and employment of the techniques he has mastered serve to further present the conflicts in ways that are highly poetic yet relatable by the readers and audience.

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