Shakespeare – Module 3: Terminology and techniques – 4 of 4

Objective: To explore Shakespeare’s use of rhyming couplets.

I said last time that we’d be looking at Sonnets today and one of the noteworthy conventions of a sonnet is that they will use at least one rhyming couplet. But “what is a rhyming couplet?” I hear you roar. It’s pretty straightforward when you break it down. Rhyming = two words that sound the same. Couplet = two (or ‘a couple’). Therefore, a rhyming couplet is when the ends of two lines in poetry or verse (writing in Shakespeare which is laid out more like poetry. It usually has a regular rhythm – usually iambic pentameter) rhyme together.

Task 1: Decide whether the lines below contain rhyming couplets or not.

Lots of people are scared of Shakespeare,
But, I’m telling you there’s nothing to fear!

Rhyming couplet – Shakespeare and fear rhyme together.

Shakespeare’s plays are really alright,
Especially when there’s an on stage confrontation.

Not a rhyming couplet. No rhyme at all in fact.

Shakespeare was born in 1564,
Wrote his first play in 1591,
Experienced being rich and poor,
By 1616, his life was done!

No rhyming couplets here..but there is a rhyme scheme. 1564 and poor rhyme and 1591 and done rhyme – this is known as an alternate rhyme and we might also explain it by saying it is an ABAB rhyme scheme (this means that line 1 and 3 rhyme and line 2 and 4 rhyme).

Hamlet sees his father’s ghost,
Tries to find his killer,
The thing he wants the most,
It’s quite the thriller!
Eventually, he plays a trick,
And catches the lunatic.

Yes, there is a rhyming couplet here. The last two lines rhyme trick and lunatic. If the last sentences used a ABAB rhyme scheme, what could you say the rhyme scheme was for this bit of verse? It’s an ABABCC rhyme scheme as lines 1+3, lines 2+4 and lines 5+6 rhyme together.

Great work. This stuff is pretty technical (and can be a bit confusing!) so make sure you return to some of the answers above, to help you, if you get confused about rhyming couplets or rhyme schemes! We’re now going to look at some of Shakespeare’s famous rhyming couplets!

Task 2: Watch the video, below, and write down how you are made to feel. What atmosphere is created? What kind of characters are in the video? Are there any words or phrases that stand out when you listen? Why do you think they stand out?

These three witches come from Macbeth. When they speak, using rhyming couplets, it makes their words sound almost like a spell. They are made to seem creepy and otherworldly through the contrast between their strange actions and their (almost) childish chanting (there have been Macbeth performances where the witches are dressed as school children). As a bonus piece, of very advanced, subject knowledge, they also speak in trochaic tetrameter – trochaic feet (DUM-de) are the opposite of iambic feet (de-DUM) – which suggests they rebel against human nature…

Act 1 Scene 1 of Macbeth - 1971 2006 and 2010 - YouTube

You’ve just seen how Shakespeare used rhyming couplets to make the witches sound creepy but this is not the only reason why they are used. They are also used in Shakespeare’s sonnets (remember this? a sonnet is usually a love poem that is 14 lines long); a rhyming couplet is used at the end of a Shakespearean sonnet to sum up the main idea or message of the poem.

Task 3: Read the Shakespearean sonnet below and do the following: work out the rhyme scheme (which lines rhyme with which lines?), translate a couple of the lines that stand out to you (what is the message of the poem? why might Shakespeare have written it?), write down the last two lines (the rhyming couplet) and write a short summary of what they suggest.

Challenge: Identify three techniques used by Shakespeare (metaphor, simile, personification, repetition, imagery, etc) and explain the effect, of each, on the reader.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest,
Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

What is the rhyme scheme of the poem?


What technique is used in the first line “shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?” What is the effect of it?

Rhetorical Question – grabs the attention of the reader at the beginning.

Look at the rhyming couplet “so long as men can breather or eyes can see,/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” What does it mean? What is the effect of it?

Shakespeare says the person he is talking about in the poem will live forever through his poem. It also suggests that love is forever and is not ended with death.

Now you know that rhyming couplets were used by Shakespeare for a few different reasons. If you notice them in his work, it’s worth asking yourself why he has done it and what the effect is on the reader or the audience; it won’t have been done by accident!

And just because I know you’re wondering…this is what this sonnet sounds like when it’s rapped over a grime beat!