Why Rhyme? Part II: The Answers

Shakespearean use of rhyme within verse serves a number of different purposes:

  • When rhyme schemes more complex than simple couplets appear, it can signify an entire body or block of content singled out and seaparated from the rest of the scene (think Romeo and Juliet’s dialogue in sonnet form upon their meeting).  [We’ll address the use of this kind of rhyming in The Comedy of Errors in a minute…]
  • This concept of singling out content for emphasis can also apply to couplets, particularly at the end of speeches.  For example, when Egeon tells his tale of woe to the Duke at the beginning of the play, it is mostly blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) until he comes to a stop:

    And by the benefit of his wished light,
    The seas wax'd calm, and we discovered
    Two ships from far making amain to us,
    Of Corinth that, of Epidaurus this:
    But ere they came,--O, let me say no more!
    Gather the sequel by that went before.

    — I.i.90-95

    This signifies a hard stop to the speech and ends it with a sense of resolution (though the Duke demands Egeon continue).

  • An entire section with rhyme can also bee seen as content from outside the play itself–poems, songs, even entire plays that are performed within the context of the scene.  Though none of this kind of usage appears in this play, examples throughout the Canon abound (Feste’s song in Twelfth Night and “The Mousetrap” from Hamlet are examples that pop to mind immediately).
  • Sometimes these rhymed sections take on a more ritualized dramatic purpose.  Again, no example to speak of in this play, but think: the Prologue from Romeo and Juliet, or the Chorus from Henry V.
  • And sometimes these rhymed speeches are used to portray other worldly-entities.  Once again, no such example in this play, but think: witches in Macbeth, fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Ariel on The Tempest.  However, this does NOT appliy, interestingly, to ghosts: neither the Ghosts of old Hamlet nor Julius Caesar nor any of Richard III‘s victims speak in rhyme (heck, Banquo in Macbeth doesn’t speak at all).

But what of speeches made entirely of rhyming couplets (or even more complex rhyming schemes)?  What do they signify?  Is this akin to our discussion of prose a few days back, that the job of an actor/director/dramaturge in not necessarily to find an one-size-fits-all rationale, but to find the reason it happens in THIS scene (and by deduction why it doesn’t happen in others)?  In The Comedy of Errors, this is particularly interesting in Act Three, Scene Two, in which Luciana attempts to tutor Antipholus of Syracuse in the fine art of husbandry (even going so far to say that if he’s going to stray, he should at least do so in “stealth” [III.ii.7] and spare the feelings of his wife, her sister).  Her opening speech and his as well conform to series of abab rhymed quatrains, until they break off their long speeches in line 53.  Then the dialogue moves into one line speeches, with each completing the other’s rhyming couplet.  Is this use of quatrains (vs. couplets) and “answering rhymes” an analog to Romeo and Juliet’s sonnet of dialogues, showing us their suitability for each other and that they — with apologies to Cameron Crowe in Jerry Maguire — “complete” one another?  I’d vote yes, at least in this case.

And there is one more answer to our answer… but that answer comes tomorrow (but for a sneak peek/spoiler, check out Act Two, Scene One)…

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