Saturday, October 27, 2012

On Blank Verse: a Question for Ros Barber

Q:  Ros, one of the popular criticisms made against anti-Stratfordians is that we are snobs by not accepting that a virtually uneducated man like Shakespeare could have written the greatest plays of the western world.  One line of reasoning, however, that doesn't get enough attention, in my opinion, is that the 37 plays attributed to Shakespeare were written in blank verse - something that most people don't really understand, to be perfectly candid. Now, Ros, you are an accomplished poet and your wonderful novel The Marlowe Papers is in blank verse.  You are also highly educated.  So tell me, how difficult would it be to write a whole play in blank verse?

RB:  Blank verse, which is often confused with free verse, is a metrical form: essentially, unrhymed iambic pentameter.  It is a far subtler and more complex creature than most people realize.

Many people who know a little about it assume that it’s simply a matter of counting syllables (ten) or counting stressed syllables (five), and alternating the stress.  But a line of blank verse might have as many as thirteen syllables, and between four and seven stressed syllables, and still be iambic pentameter.  Conversely, it is possible to write an unrhymed ten-syllable line with five stresses that isn’t blank verse.

I’m wary of getting too far into the technicalities, but to give you some idea of what’s really involved in writing good blank verse, let me explain a little more.

Blank verse consists of lines of five metrical "feet" of which three out of five are iambs (having the stress pattern weak-STRONG) but the other two feet in the line can have different patterns of either two or three syllables:

anapest: weak-weak-STRONG   (e.g. in a TREE)
trochee: STRONG-weak               (e.g. UNder)
dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak      (e.g. CERTainly)
pyrrhic: weak-weak                      (e.g.  in a)
spondee: STRONG-STRONG      (e.g. BIG BANG)

However, these can’t be substituted into two of the five positions randomly: there are combinations that work, and combinations that don’t. And to make it more complex, you can also have a single unstressed syllable tacked onto the end of the line (called "hypermetrical" as it is "outside" the metre), giving what is called a "feminine" line ending.   One must also bear in mind that the stress pattern of an individual word can change in context.

Writing one line of passable blank verse isn’t difficult, but Shakespeare’s plays range from 1,800 to 4,000 lines in length and are, I think we can agree, more than passable.  Another aspect of blank verse mastery not yet mentioned is enjambment (the running of a line into the next); something that Shakespeare handled well from the outset and used with increasing frequency as he matured – but which Ben Jonson never seemed to master.

We have no evidence that William Shakespeare attended school at all, but assuming he attended Stratford grammar (a not unreasonable assumption), most scholars believe he left by the time he was thirteen or fourteen as the result of his father’s waning fortunes.  An Elizabethan grammar school education was certainly a very good education, but is it a sufficient foundation to create a master of blank verse?  Ben Jonson was educated at Westminster grammar school, and did not proceed to university.  His blank verse is exceedingly clunky, and very often not blank verse at all, as in this extract from Volpone:

Now, room for fresh gamesters, who do will you to know,
They do bring you neither play, nor university show;
And therefore do entreat you, that whatsoever they rehearse,  
May not fare a whit the worse, for the false pace of the verse.1

For all that Jonson was a brilliant satirist, his metrical skills were limited, and his lack of ability in this area is probably part of the reason why his work is rarely performed today.

The reason why most scholars insist genius-level blank verse plays can be written by a relatively uneducated man is simple: if you begin with the belief that Stratford Will wrote the plays, the plays are the evidence of his capabilities. Their firm belief (which they consider "fact") creates the proof.  As with many authorship arguments, the logic is entirely circular.

Marlowe, though not the first person to write blank verse drama,2 was the first to write it so successfully that others were moved to emulate him.  He managed to make it lively rather than ponderous, and his first effort, Dido Queen of Carthage,3 is usually considered to have been penned while he was a student at Cambridge.  There are numerous clues throughout Shakespeare’s works that the author had a university education, from the Cambridge-specific vocabulary identified by Boas in the 1920s4 to a reference to a notorious Cambridge don and plays performed only at that university5; in my view, the author’s complete mastery of blank verse is another of them.

 © The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, October 2012

Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers has been hailed by Martin Newell of the Sunday Express as "the best read, so far, this year."  The novel will be released in the U.S. by St.Martin's in January. Dr. Barber holds a PhD in English Literature, is joint winner of the Hoffman Prize for a distinguished work on Christopher Marlowe, and is a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society.

1This extract is not blank verse, not only because it rhymes, but because it is not (anywhere near) iambic pentameter. "False pace of the verse" is right:  the lines scan very badly, and three of them have seven, rather than five, metrical feet.  Though these four lines might be seen as a self-referential joke, Volpone drifts into and out of iambic pentameter throughout. The meter is, in fact, extraordinarily ragged except for the very regular metrical sections where the content is correspondingly lifeless.  Jonson, for all that he had educated himself to a high level after grammar school and had an extensive library, never mastered blank verse.  See the text of Volpone at
2Gorboduc (1561), by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, was the first.  See the text at
3See the text of Dido Queen of Carthage at
4Boas, Frederick S. (1923). Shakespeare & the Universities, and Other Studies in Elizabethan Drama.  Basil Blackwell: Oxford, pp. vii. 272.
5See "Shake-Speare a Cambridge University Man" in N. B. Cockburn's (1998) The Bacon Shakespeare Question: The Baconian Theory Made Sane. Limpsfield Chart: N.B. Cockburn.

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Maureen Duff said...

Ros, I think you make a convincing argument that a Cambridge man wrote the "Shakespearean" blank verse. I have been trying to get hold of a copy of "Boas, Frederick S. (1923). Shakespeare & the Universities, and Other Studies in Elizabethan Drama". As it is not easily avaialble in hard copy, do you know of an accessible on-line source for this? I am interested in the "Cambridge specific" vocabulary used in the plays. Are you able to give an example of this?

Peter Farey said...

Hi Maureen,

Try the Baconian book The Shakespeare Enigma: Unraveling The Story Of Two Poets by Peter Dawkins (pp.121-127) at


Maureen Duff said...

Thanks, Peter!

Sonja Foxe said...

actually, i think the epilogue to faustus was written by edward oxenford about marlowe and later segued into the bowdlerized version

kit was leaking state secrets on stage ... no way could he have written the first folio ... kind of characters/outlier psychology marlowe featured entirely different from the shakespearean royalist

Dan Sayers said...

As a Shakespeare scholar college friend of mine (who contributed to the "60 Minutes With Shakespeare" thing) said when I mentioned I was interested in Marlowe as an authorship candidate - "oh well at least you're not an Oxfordian - they're just a bunch of snobs. At least Marlowe came from humble beginnings like Shakespeare."

Though I'm not sure I entirely agree with the sentiment, I can see where he was coming from. To call Shakespeare a royalist is surely to miss rather a lot of nuance. Shakespeare in most of the history plays is about as royalist as ... well, as Marlowe is with Edward II.

What state secrets was Marlowe leaking?

Unknown said...

Very interesting article. And your blog is quite appropriate reading for the week, given that Marlow's birthday was Tuesday. I'm glad to have found this blog. I must admit I can see no more reasonable explanation than that Marlowe is the author.

About Blank Verse, something I know a bit about having written a sonnet every day for a year in 2005, many of which are blank verse. Hence my book is titled 365 Days Of Verse. I appreciate Ros breakdown of blank verse, and look forward to reading her book.

One think I'll add is a quote from an excellent page on the subject which may be found here:

'Of course, how a person scans a single line or an entire poem depends on the reader's natural rhythms and inclinations, and, while there may be better ways to scan a poem, there is not always a single correct scan. In the first line of "Mending Wall", for instance, the first iamb could be read as a trochee, with the stress falling on "there" instead of "is."'

The author is discussing Frost's The Mending Wall, for those interested. This is an important thing to keep in mind, as one could really split a verse into too many pieces while forgetting the fact that the author was indeed trying to tell you something, albeit in a particular form. If Marlowe occasionally strayed from writing someone's concept of "blank verse", it is no matter. His genius shines through regardless.

Unknown said...

I feel I should write this follow-up to my comment and apologize for the typos. Haste makes waste.

Also, to put a bit finer point on what I was saying about how one can drastically over-think what constitutes blank verse, consider this line:

My father is deceas'd. Come, Gaveston,

How would you mark it?