Blank verses, comprising iambic pentameter and unrhymed verses, entered the English literary arena way back in the 16th century and instantly became a hit when poets like Shakespeare and Milton wrote their masterpieces in blank verse. In fact, this writing of Shakespeare and Milton in blank verse replaced the significance of Latin, which was considered a superior language and was widely used for literary and theological purposes. Some of the best poetic outputs of William Shakespeare in blank verse are as follows in order of merits based on their theme, metrical pattern, language, and tone.
O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst (self-slaughter!) O God, God.
Although “to be or not to be” has always topped the list and has become too trite to be cited in every other article, some other black verse lines from Hamlet also have equal merit to be called the best. For example, these lines from the first act and second scene of Hamlet show not only the thematic strand packed in them but also true pentameter metrical pattern with the appropriateness of language and excellence of tone. The rhetorical use of “too,” coupled with the theological undertone of suicide through the metaphorical presentation of life and death have made these lines top our list of ranking.
Romeo and Juliet
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.
Spoken by Romeo, these lines about the morning start with a rhetorical question and the metaphorical presentation of Juliet as the Sun. This metaphor is extended through the same blank verse in iambic pentameter to prove that she is perhaps the best and the most beautiful lady on this earth. The main theme behind this idea presented through metaphor in iambic pentameter has made these lines the best lines in poetic blank verse written by Shakespeare, but they stand second in order of ranking after lines from Hamlet.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
These verses from Julius Caesar demonstrate typical Shakespearean rhetoric in blank verse with iambic pentameter at best. Mark Antony delivers these verses on the death of Caesar with latent irony to inform the public of the gruesome murder and the blunder committed by Caesar for which he was killed. He highlights the abstract idea of ambition which became his mistake of Caesar. Although he wants to point out the killers, he still calls them noble. This beautiful theme woven in this metrical pattern has brought this extract third in our order of ranking as shown by some of the verses given here.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Despite not being among the top tragedies of Shakespeare, Macbeth displays some of the best lines written in iambic pentameter. Macbeth speaks these lines when he comes to know about the death of his wife, who has gone insane. The words, the phrases, the repetitions, and above all, the idea have made this speech one of the best speeches delivered in blank verse. Also, the idea of life as a tale of some idiot shows the excellence of Shakespeare in his art of putting words in metrical rhythm. That is why the passage has been placed fourth in our order of ranking, as some lines from it show here.
If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again! It had a dying fall.
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor! Enough; no more.
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, naught enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
Orsino, who is not only lovesick but also distraught with unrequited love, speaks these lines to the musicians to play music until he is fully satiated. The beauty of the language lies in iambic pentameter couched in the references to imagination and love. Without the rhyming of these lines, the verses beautifully merge with each other to cohere the thematic strand of love, its satiation through music, and the metaphorical representation of this emotion. Also, its comparison and contrast with the music and sea have made these lines stand at fifth in our order of ranking.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
Richard III, who is still the Duke of Gloucester, speaks these lines when he finds royalty slipping away from his hands due to palatial infightings between the members of the royal family. He is referring to the discontent prevalent in the country, comparing it to the winter season, using metaphors of seasonal changes and daily appearing heavenly bodies. Yet, the material pattern of iambic pentameter has not lost its luster. It is also due to the use of different literary devices and the grandeur of language. That is why this passage from Richard III has come sixth in our order of ranking.
Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland
In such an honor named. What’s more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time,
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny,
Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen
(Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands,
Took off her life)—this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of grace,
We will perform in measure, time, and place.
So thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone.
Malcolm speaks these lines when he becomes the king after the murder of Duncan. He speaks these lines to coax his allies and comrades to come back after the defeat of Macbeth. The lines show the skill of Shakespeare in using iambic pentameter in blank verse with appropriate diction and grandeur of language. The lines show that Malcolm uses the vocabulary of hunting, killing, and adjectives related to evil to describe his enemies and call his friends to come back to stand by him. That is why these lines have been placed seventh in our order of ranking.
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Spoken by Cassius, these lines present Julius Caesar in grandiose terms in the context of Rome. Brutus, the main rebel, also joins this discourse. However, the way Cassius speaks in iambic pentameter and blank verse shows the standing of Caesar in his country. The comparison of Caesar with wonders of the ancient world, his status as given in these words, and the final words about fate show that only blank verses and that too by Shakespeare have been able to do this. Therefore, these lines have been placed eighth in our ranking of the blank verse poetic output of Shakespeare.
From As You Like It
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Despite the popularity of this speech of Jaques in the play, As You Like It, it has been placed ninth in our order of ranking as it has not the intensity of feelings and emotions as in the speeches of the rest of the characters in Hamlet or Julius Caesar or Macbeth. However, its calmness, tranquility, and slow pace in using iambic pentameter to show the seven stages of man’s life have made it move to the top of the list. The beauty of the blank verses lies in musicality as well as precision and concision in diction and phrases.
The Merchant of Venice
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
Spoken by Portia as a lawyer in The Merchant of Venice, these lines present another excellent example of the use of blank verse in the play. She has presented the case of Antonio who is to pay a pound of flesh to Shylock in return for his debt. The interesting thing about these verses is that she has compared mercy to rain and water to prove her point. The luster of the metrical pattern as shown through iambic pentameter has not lost its color. That is why these lines have been placed tenth in our order of ranking of the best blank verse poetic output from Shakespeare.
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Macbeth sees hallucinations in these lines about the dagger that is going to kill his king, King Duncan. However, the way he presented his imaginations in metaphorical language, rhetorical questions, and repetitions in iambic pentameter in blank verse shows dexterity of Shakespeare. Only Shakespeare could use an imaginary dagger to make Macbeth question its very existence. In fact, he has beautifully presented the thoughts of the confused and hallucinated Macbeth. These qualities have put these lines at eleventh in our order of ranking of the best blank verse examples from Shakespeare.
Romeo and Juliet
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
Romeo speaks these words, using a rhetorical question after he looks at Juliet standing in her window. He again reverts to using heavenly bodies to compare her with natural elements to show that she is, for him, a fresh gale of the air who has brought comfort and love into his life. However, the poet has not stopped using iambic pentameter in black verse. Specifically, when it comes to using parallelism, these lines show the language that is grand, having elevated pitch. These elements have brought these lines 12th in our ranking of the best blank verse poetry.
Methinks I am a prophet new inspir’d,
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
John of Gaunt, known as Richard II, speaks these lines when he is reaching his death. He laments that his country, England, has lost its previous glorious position in the world. Now it is witnessing changes. Comparing himself to a dying sage and the country to a dying place, he is of the opinion that now storms are confronting his country. The beautiful use of metaphors, the grandeur of diction, concision of phrases, and above all the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter have brought these lines to 13th position in our order of ranking.
Measure for Measure
O Hero! What a Hero hadst thou been
If half thy outward graces had been placed
About thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart!
But fare thee well, most foul, most fair, farewell
Thou pure impiety and impious purity.
For thee I’ll lock up all the gates of love,
And on my eyelids shall conjecture hang
To turn all beauty into thoughts of harm,
And never shall it more be gracious.
Claudio speaks these words in the first scene of the fourth act. He calls Hero and tells him that his thoughts should have been on his face like the grace of his face. He says goodbye in such a language that it creates rhythm and melody. The grandeur of the diction relies on the use of different literary devices especially when it comes to the life of Hero that Claudio has presented in ironic terms. He is of the view that his foulness lies under the superficial beauty of Hero. All of these features have brought these lines to 14th position in our order of ranking.
There be some sports are painful, and their labour
Delight in them sets off. Some kinds of baseness
Are nobly undergone, and most poor matters
Point to rich ends. This my mean task
Would be as heavy to me as odious, but
The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead
And makes my labours pleasures.
These lines occur in the play, Tempest. In these lines, Ferdinand speaks to Miranda to show that he is ready to take the risk of doing what Prospero has asked him. However, it is only for her sake and not for the sake of anybody else. The lines show the nature of the work he calls sport. Note the use of different words and their connotations and denotations which make Shakespeare climb on the ladder of using diction. Even the metrical pattern has not lost its grace, grandeur, and lustre due to being the lines in blank verse. Therefore, this extract has been placed 15th in our order of ranking.