Students will identify poetic meter in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and explain how and to what effect Shakespeare uses poetic meter to create contrast between social classes and to create meaning in the text. This lesson can be completed as students read the text or once they have finished reading.
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A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare
1. Students will analyze the purpose and function of language forms in texts.
2. Students will identify poetic meter and prose in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and understand how they are used to create contrast among social classes.
3. Students will scan lines to identify variations in meter and examine how they are used to create meaning.
1. Convey the purpose of poetic meter.
In reading works of literature, it is essential to understand not only the form a work is written in but also how that form is used to create meaning in the text. Put simply, writers shape meaning through not only what they are saying in the text but also how they express it. Shakespeare, in particular, is known for using meter to express what might not be immediately apparent about a character or a situation, particularly through his variation in meter. Variation in meter, in essence, is the hallmark of poetic meaning.
2. Define poetic meter and iambic pentameter.
- Poetic meter is rhythmic pattern in language, a key component of verse, or poetry.
- Rhythmic patterns in language (for the most part) are created by patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables called feet.
There are dozens of poetic meters in literature, each defined by their own particular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, examine the following lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night.
Four nights will quickly dream away the time.
(No Fear: 1.1.7–8)
In these lines, there are five pairs of syllables, or feet, that follow an unstressed-stressed pattern (the stressed syllables appear in bold):
Four days/ will qui/ ckly steep/ them selves/ in night.
Four nights/ will qui/ ckly dream/ a way/ the time.
This rhythmic pattern is called iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter has five (penta = five) pairs of iambic feet, or iambs (a pair of unstressed-stressed syllables) for a total of ten syllables per line. Iambic pentameter is the meter that Shakespeare most used to write his plays.
Practice reading the lines aloud with students, emphasizing the stressed syllables. Have students clap for stresses or stomp their feet to better “feel” the rhythm of the verse.
3. Discuss how to identify verse versus prose.
All verse is written with meter and is poetic in nature and content. Prose, in contrast, is language that is not written with any special meter.
Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as well as other plays) in a mix of verse and prose. It is important for students to be able to distinguish when Shakespeare is using verse and when he is using prose in his plays.
Whereas verse can be divided by rhythmic units of stressed and unstressed syllables, prose is usually only divided by grammatical units. Verse can either rhyme or not rhyme, but if the language follows a metrical pattern, it’s verse.
One of the easiest ways for students to identify verse and prose in Shakespeare’s plays is to examine how the text is laid out on the page. Verse will begin each line with a capital letter, even when sentences carry over onto the next line. Prose will not (unless the sentences happen to line up that way). Prose appears as a paragraph; the sentences flow across the page. Shakespeare’s prose might not have the tight meter and patterning that his verse does, but it is still rich in tone and figurative language.
4. Identify verse and prose selections.
Have each student identify a verse passage and a prose passage from the text. The passages should be no fewer than four lines each. Students may have to scan more than one act to find examples of each.
Before having students scan, to support their understanding, copy these passages on the board for practice with the class. Have students turn to the passages in their texts as well.
So I will grow, so live, so die, my lord,
Ere I will yield my virgin patent up
Unto his Lordship, whose unwished yoke
My soul consents not to give sovereignty.
(No Fear: 1.1.79–82)
I grant you, friends, if you should fright the ladies out of their wits, they would have no more discretion but to hang us. But I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove.
(No Fear: 1.2.33–34)
Have students analyze how each passage is laid out. Have a volunteer come to the board and underline or circle where the lines are capitalized.
Students should determine that the first passage is verse, since each line begins with a capital letter, and the second is prose, since each line is not capitalized and complete sentences extend across the page.
5. Note the effects.
As a class, discuss the effects of each use of language. Discuss who is speaking each of these lines. For example, the first set of lines is spoken by Hermia, who is nobility, and the second set of lines is spoken by Bottom, who is a commoner. Discuss the effects of using these different types of language for each character and what Shakespeare might have been trying to express or signal to the audience by using verse for Hermia and prose for Bottom.
6. Scan any verse to identify poetic meter.
Return to the verse passage copied on the board. Scan the lines with students to identify the stressed and unstressed syllables. Read the lines slowly out loud for students. Show students how to mark the passage. Above stressed syllables use a (′) symbol. Above unstressed syllables use a (u) symbol. Use the (/) symbol to indicate the boundaries between feet.
Have students mark the passage in their books along with you. Count the total number of feet in each line and write the number beside the end of each line. Note: There are five feet in each line. Guide students to see that the lines are written in five pairs of unstressed-stressed syllables. Remind students that these pairs of syllables are called iambs, and since there are five of them, the meter is iambic pentameter.
Be aware that other poetic meters exist in the play, and students might come across these as they analyze the lines for meter. For example, Shakespeare uses trochaic tetrameter at the end of the play when Robin/Puck addresses the audience (No Fear: 5.1.406–411).
Trochaic tetrameter is a type of meter in poetry in which each line contains four trochaic feet, each made of one stressed syllable, followed by an unstressed syllable.
7. Notice variations in poetic meter and their effects.
Note with students when they are encountering a simple variation in poetic meter or another poetic meter altogether. One way to help identify the difference is noticing whether a variation in pattern persists in a passage—this usually signals that another meter is being used. For example, if the lines consistently contain eight syllables rather than ten, then the meter is likely not iambic pentameter. If only a few lines are shorter, then a variation might be intentional and being used to express something about the situation or character. For example, in Act 3, scene 2, one of Hermia’s lines is only five syllables long instead of ten. This shortened line is used to express Hermia’s rage at Helena, who she believes is making fun of her. Have students find this line, and then other variations in rhythm and stresses in the passages.
8. Complete the worksheet.
Pass out the Poetic Meter and Social Class Worksheet. Have students complete the worksheet. If necessary, review the sample answers as a class.
Choose two passages from the text that all students will work with to complete the chart. As a class, identify the character, social class, and type of language used in each passage. Have students work in pairs to analyze the effect Shakespeare creates by using this type of language for this character. Review students’ answers as a class and extend the discussion to cover the purpose of each type of language.
Have students find and add a passage that uses trochaic tetrameter to the chart. As a class, discuss why Shakespeare might have used this type of meter for this character (e.g., “Trochaic tetrameter has a more sing-song feel, which is why it might have been used for the fairies, who are magical and joyous”).