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Reading the Renaissance

Updated Monday, 10th September 2007

A guide to reading Renaissance poetic drama involving iambic pentametre and blank verse in relation to Christopher Marlowe and Dr Faustus

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Dr Faustus Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Bascon via Wikimedia

If you have never read a Renaissance play before, and even if you have, you may well find Doctor Faustus a challenging read. This is chiefly because, like the plays of Shakespeare, Doctor Faustus was written during the historical period known as the Renaissance (or the early modern period), when the vocabulary was significantly different from 21st-century English. It is also written largely in blank verse, a term which requires a few words of explanation. Look for a moment at the four opening lines of Doctor Faustus

Not marching now in fields of Trasimene
Where Mars did mate the Carthaginians,
Nor sporting in the dalliance of love
In courts of kings where state is overturned …. (1-4)

If you count the syllables in these lines, you will find that each one contains 10 syllables. If you read the lines aloud, you will hear that for the most part every other syllable carries a particularly marked accent

Not march/ing now/ in fields/ of Tra/simene/
Where Mars/ did mate/ the Car/thagi/nians/,
Nor sport/ing in/ the dal/liance/ of love/
In courts/ of kings/ where state/ is o/verturned /…

The second line doesn’t fit all that comfortably into the overall pattern because it feels a bit awkward giving a strong stress to the last syllable of ‘Carthaginians’. But we can still say that, roughly speaking, each line of verse has five stressed and five unstressed syllables, and that these are arranged in a fairly regular pattern of unstressed/stressed.

In poetry, this pattern, or metre, is called iambic pentameter, which is generally thought to be the poetic metre that most closely reproduces the cadence of English speech. This is also blank verse because, in addition to being written in iambic pentameter, the lines are unrhymed. Marlowe was known and admired by his contemporaries for the skill with which he used blank verse in his plays; one of his contemporaries referred to ‘Marlowe’s mighty line’

This discussion of metre may be new to you, but its purpose is just to make you aware that the play’s verse has an underlying rhythm. This rhythm is mainly determined by the metre which, as we have just seen, is more regular at some points than others, but it is also affected by punctuation, which can slow the verse down (if there are a lot of stops and pauses) or speed it up (if there are few of these).

Adapted from the chapter on Marlowe's Doctor Faustus for the new Open University course 'Arts Past and Present (AA100) -- due to start Autumn. 2008.

 

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