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Richard III and the Sonnet

“Now is the winter of our discontent” is nearly as familiar as Hamlet's, “To be, or not to be” and Mark Antony's, “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Not one of these three passages is a dramatic dialogue. Mark Antony addresses a large Roman crowd in an extended speech. Hamlet muses to himself in a soliloquy while we the audience listen in. Richard, however, speaks directly to us, like a Greek chorus but more personally, as if confiding in us. And, true to his character, with his first word he tricks us. He executes this trick through one of Shakespeare's most common lexical devices—deftly juggling word order.

Word Order

These unexpected rearrangements of words and phrases often confuse readers. Sometimes Shakespeare reverses parts of speech from their expected order (“Plots have I laid” rather than “I have laid plots Hyperbaton; “inductions dangerous” rather than “dangerous inductions” Anastrophe.) Sometimes he interrupts phrases with extended parenthetical remarks, without the parentheses since they hadn't been invented yet (“But I . . . have no delight to pass the time away,” is interrupted between “I” and “have” by fourteen lines of self-description, Parentheses.) Often Shakespeare juggles words and phrases to maintain the metrical patterns, e.g. iambic pentameter * , that give his lines the musical quality we love. Sometimes he deliberately alters the metrical pattern in order to emphasize a word, a phrase or an idea. Such is the case in Richard's opening sentence.

By opening with, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” the audience might be misled. Some could assume the play opens now, in winter. Shakespeare achieves this misdirection by making “Now is”  the first metrical foot in the sentence. Because it is a trochee rather than an iamb, the emphasis is on “Now.” He also uses the passive voice “is made” and then inserts the subject of the sentence, “the winter of our discontent,” into the middle of that verb “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer.” In the active voice with normal order, the sentence might read, “This son of York has now made a glorious summer / Out of the winter of our discontent.” But that's not Shakespeare.

The last word of the first sentence is also interesting. Like the first word “Now,” the last word “buried” is also moved to an unusual position. In addition, it is preceded by two prepositional phrases “In the deep bosom of the ocean,” and it is missing its linking verb “are.” Instead of, “And all the clouds that loured upon our house  / Are buried in the deep bosom of the ocean,” Shakespeare wrote, “And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” (The missing “are” is a rhetorical Ellipsis.) Finally, the last line of this first sentence has eleven syllables, unlike the first three lines that each have ten syllables. The eleventh syllable is feminine, unstressed. This is the musical equivalent of switching from a major to a minor key and ending on a blue note, which is fitting for “buried.” The word is emphasised but the final syllable dies away.

Sonnet Forms

Shakespeare employs yet another structural device by opening the play with a sonnet, actually, three consecutive sonnets, which like Richard are a bit deformed. Shakespearean or English sonnets are usually fourteen lines long. There are three rhyming stanzas, four lines each, concluding with a couplet. Each stanza is usually a complete sentence and expresses a coherent idea. Richard's sonnets are all unrhymed. The first eight lines are comprised of two complete-sentence stanzas, but the third stanza is five lines long, with no concluding couplet, a bit like Richard with a hump on his back yet “scarce half made up.” Instead of concluding that stanza with a couplet, Richard transitions into a fourteen line-long single sentence in which, with great self-pity, he descants on his deformity. Finally, this speech ends with another fourteen line, three stanza sonnet announcing his plans to kill his brother. But this sonnet, like the first, ends twisted. The third stanza is again five lines long. And the fourteenth line is comprised of two short sentences, like a couplet, that move us into the action of the play.

Why Structure?

So, why all this structure? Apart from the craft and aesthetic qualities of building a coherent and entertaining play, this kind of structure helps both actors and audiences. Structure can help actors memorize long passages like this, and structure can also help audiences follow the story, even if they're not fully conscious of all the parts and how they relate. Shakespeare would have learned this both from his grammar school study of Roman plays in Latin and from his experience staging his own plays and observing the audiences. Finally, structure helps the author by establishing a framework within which to create. Two centuries later William Wordsworth expressed this idea in his Italian form sonnet, Nuns Fret Not.

Romeo and Juliet also opens with a standard English sonnet and then incorporates additional sonnets in which Shakespeare plays on the structure for poetic effect. The seduction sonnet in Act I is especially fun. The closing truncated sonnet of Act V is particularly powerful.


  • Iambic Pentameter is a form of accenting a line of poetry by dividing the line into five two-syllable meters. Each iambic metrical foot combines an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable ( / ), e.g. as-sent. The opposite of an iamb is a trochee, in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable ( / ), e.g. ac-cent. Shakespeare's sonnets are usually written in iambic pentameter, e.g.That time | of year | thou mayst | in me | behold“. (Return )
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Now is the winter of our discontent

Read the Sonnet

Two households, both alike in dignity

Read the Sonnet