Speech Patterns in Shakespeare

Speech Patterns in Shakespeare

Shakespeare's deliberate shift of speech patterns in a Midsummer Night's Dream

Language develops, increases, and changes with age. Shakespeare displays four distinct speech patterns in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each showing a different point in life. Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius as the young lovers undergo speech development as they begin the play in rhyming, buoyant, youthful even immature iambic pentameter and progress to mature, sophisticated, rational, blank verse. Bottom, Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug, and Starveling as the amateur actors begin the play in lofty, blundering, comical prose and regress to bumbling, childish, disorderly couplets when they are performing Pyramus and Thisbe. Perhaps Shakespeare employs these contrasting speech patterns to suggest that age can cause speech to both progress and regress, depending on the circumstances surrounding the speaker(s).

The young lovers’ irrationality at the beginning of the play parallels their circumstances similar to how the amateur actors’ perceived loftiness parallels their situation. Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius are caught in a web as Hermia and Lysander are in love, Demetrius loves and intends to marry Hermia, and Helena loves Demetrius. Egeus decrees that Demetrius and Hermia must marry, which angers Helena. In attempt to satiate Helena by disclosing her plan of flight with Lysander, Hermia says “Take comfort: he no more shall see my face./Lysander and myself will fly this place./Before the time I did Lysander see/Seemed Athens as a paradise to me./O, then, what graces in my love do dwell/That he hath turned a heaven unto hell” (Shakespeare 1.1.207-212). Here, Hermia speaks in rhymed verse and exaggerates that Athens has become hell to her because the laws restrict her from marrying Lysander. Shakespeare sets up Hermia’s speech pattern in this instance to reflect what fools people are in love. In a similar fashion, Helena has the first soliloquy of the play and develops her plan by saying “I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight./Then to the wood will he tomorrow night./Pursue her. And, for this intelligence…/To have his sight thither and back again” (1.1.253-258). Helena’s plan is so irrational that it is comical since she plans to tell Demetrius, who loves Hermia, where Hermia is, which would encourage him to go get her. The plan itself is ludicrous and the rhyming pattern that Shakespeare employs emphasizes the childish irrationality. Similarly, the amateur actors feature a character who tries to employ lofty, advanced, eloquent speech, but ends up blundering many words: Bottom. Bottom fills his speech with misuses of words, poorly constructed periodic diction, and speaks in prose. Shakespeare may have had Bottom speak in prose to show his lower socioeconomic status, which is emphasized by his blundering speech. Dialogue between Quince and Bottom quickly reveals how Bottom pretends to know more than he does, which is reflected in Bottom’s speech patterns. Quince says “Marry, our play is “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”, which reveals Quince’s own ignorance (1.2.11-13). To this declaration, Bottom replies “A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry”, despite the fact that Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragedy (1.2.14-15). Later in the same scene, Bottom asks who Pyramus is, showing that he did not really read the play, so essentially he is talking out of his bottom. At the beginning of the play, Bottom reveals himself to be a trope of the person who tries to advance social classes. Shakespeare shows the circumstances of the young lovers and amateur actors through their diction.

About to emerging or emerging from the woods, the young lovers’ speech patterns mature and become more refined, rational, and precise, showing how much they have aged in a metaphorical sense. Theseus, the symbol of Athenian law, and Egeus finds the young lovers sleeping on the ground. Demetrius best exemplifies the shift to maturity that all of the young lovers have when he says “My lord, fair Helen told me of their stealth,/Of this their purpose hither to this wood,/And I in fury hither followed them,/Fair Helena in fancy following me” (4.1.167-170). Gone is the rhyme scheme that added a level of childishness to the verse, now Demetrius speaks calmly and rationally, lacking the agitation that he had previously. Shakespeare here suggests that part of aging is having piece of mind, which is reflected in their speech patterns. Before the young lovers were entangled with each other and not simply paired off, which caused irrationality, anger, and jealousy. Now that the young lovers are together in couples, the jealously melts away and what is left is a mature type of love that today would be identified with marriage. Shakespeare shows that as the situation requires it, the young lovers became more mature as they tried to convince Theseus to let them marry who they want to marry. By showing how people can learn to adapt their speech to situations, Shakespeare perhaps may be arguing that age can correlate to higher rationality in speech.

When the amateur actors begin their production, their speech patterns regress to a child-like and even ridiculous state. Even though the amateur actors act out a play that someone wrote down and are not speaking from their composition of words, the version of the play they are using is anything, but the original story. Shakespeare intentionally parodies Pyramus and Thisbe to underline the ridiculousness of the amateur actors. The actors speak in couplets, which creates a childish effect. Furthermore, a character besides Bottom blunders and says “This is old Ninny’s tomb” (5.1.277). Here, Flute was referring to Ninus, but instead calls him Ninny, which invokes a childlike manner. Later in the scene, Bottom as Pyramus dies an overdramatic death in which he proclaims “Now am I dead” yet proceeds to talk for a few more lines (5.1.316). The continuation of speech at this point emphasizes the overdramatic scene and the comical nature it brings. The amateur actors fancy themselves real actors that are going to put on a serious production, but the end result is laughable. It is as if they are children playing adults. Shakespeare shows this regression for two reasons. The first reason is to make fun of non-professional theatre companies. The second reason is to show that when placed in certain situations, people’s speech can regress to the irrational. The amateur players’ shift from prose to couplets shows how while the young lovers grew up, the amateur players became younger.

Shakespeare uses shifts from rhyme to unrhymed and prose to poetry to show different types of aging. While people generally perceive aging as getting older, Shakespeare shows that it is possible to age backwards or become younger. The amateur players and young lovers serve as the contrasting examples of this as they simultaneously age, but in different directions. Shakespeare suggests that irrationality and rationality are signs of age and shows that through his use of shifting speech patterns.

Cover Image Credit: Mendelssohn

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