Blank verse, the basic pattern of language in Shakespeare's plays, is (in its regular form) a verse line of ten syllables with five stresses and no rhyme (hence "blank"). It was first used in England by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey* in his translation of the Æneid (c.1554).

Surrey is best known for his sonnets, smoother and more elegant than those of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Surrey's sonnets for the first time used the rhyme scheme Shakespeare later used.

Surrey probably got the idea of blank verse from another Italian verse form, versi sciolti, which is also unrhymed.

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Most early drama was written in rhyming verse, often in "fourteeners"--lines of fourteen syllables, also known as "poulters' measure" because it sounds like hens clucking. (Click here to go to an example.)

But Norton and Sackville chose blank verse for their tragedy, Gorboduc, praised by Sir Philip Sidney for its rhetoric, and by the time Marlowe brought real brilliance to the language of the stage, blank verse had become the metre of choice.

Shakespeare's blank verse

In general, Shakespeare's blank verse, and the verse of his peers, evolved over the years from regular ten-syllable, regular, end-stopped lines:

(Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.1)

to become increasingly flexible, often including one or two extra syllables, and varying the regular iambic rhythm. Hamlet's most famous soliloquy begins relatively regularly, but the following lines each have an extra syllable:

Footnotes

  1. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

    Surrey is best known for his sonnets, smoother and more elegant than those of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Surrey's sonnets for the first time used the rhyme scheme Shakespeare later used.

    Surrey probably got the idea of blank verse from another Italian verse form, versi sciolti, which is also unrhymed.