Shakespeare and Couplets
It would be impossible to discuss couplets without delving into Shakespeare's work because of his notable use of this literary device in both his poetry and dramatic plays. Shakespeare ended his sonnets with rhyming couplets, and he often used couplets at the ends of acts in his plays. Couplets provide a punch, as the end rhymes make the audience take notice. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the “turn,” or the final summary or relief from tension, in Shakespearean sonnets occurs in those final two lines, and the matching rhyme gives the couplet more emphasis. The same dramatic effect is true at the end of scenes in Shakespeare’s plays. According to the California State Polytechnic University, Shakespeare also used couplets in songs, plays within plays and supernatural characters to set them apart from the blank verse that makes up the rest of the play.
Shakespeare and other English poets favored the heroic couplet, or two lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, typically with a pause, or caesura, in the middle of each line. This type of couplet was most notably introduced in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” which rhymes AA BB CC, and so forth. While this long poem is comprised entirely of couplets, most poets use couplets as parts of a larger form. Similar to Shakespeare, poets like John Dryden and Alexander Pope used heroic couplets to add dramatic impact to a poem.
Poet John Gower preferred octosyllabic couplets, comprised of two lines of eight syllables each, according to the University of Cambridge. This type of couplet was also used by Samuel Butler for comedic effect in his satirical poem, “Hudibras.” The octosyllabic form can also form a “square” couplet, or a stanza of eight lines, each with eight syllables.
While English writers favored iambic pentameter and heroic couplets, French poets employed the alexandrine, or lines of 12 syllables; this preference also spread to German and Dutch authors, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. These writers formed a couplet from two rhyming alexandrine lines. As with any type of couplet, the rhymes could be end-stopped, or one line could flow into the next, creating enjambment. Also in accordance with the heroic couplet, alexandrines include a caesura in the middle of the line. The alexandrine can be found in the works of Pierre de Ronsard, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine.