What Is Dramatic Poetry?

Tara Barnett

Dramatic poetry, also known as dramatic verse or verse drama, is a written work that both tells a story and connects the reader to an audience through emotions or behavior. A form of narrative closely related to acting, it usually is performed physically and can be either spoken or sung. Normally, it uses a set rhyming or meter pattern, setting it apart from prose. It has evolved since its start in ancient Greece, but it still survives today, especially in opera librettos. A lack of strict guidelines makes it somewhat debatable what exactly counts as a dramatic poem, but in general, the four main accepted forms include soliloquy, dramatic monologue, character sketch and dialogue.

Dramatic poetry can be performed for a live audience.
Dramatic poetry can be performed for a live audience.


In ancient Greece, people went to the theater to see live plays for entertainment, much as individuals do today. Those who performed in the plays often needed to memorize their parts very quickly, so playwrights tried to help them out by putting the text into a meter or rhyme pattern that was easier to remember. Over time, writers, actors and the general public started to prefer a more free verse style, so by the Renaissance, plays often were made up of a combination of prose and rhyming or metered sections. Eventually, unrestricted speech became the standard, but dramatic poetry survived, mainly through opera librettos, as rhymes and a particular number of syllables per line paired well with musical phrases.

Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy is a form of dramatic poetry.
Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy is a form of dramatic poetry.

Key Features

This type of poetry uses the speech and actions of at least one person to depict a scene or plot. It is different than plain narrative because the focus is usually on how that individual emotionally or physically controls or responds to what is going on — that is, it is more than a simple explanation of fact. Often, it is from the character’s point of view, giving the audience an idea of his personality, morals, history and dreams.

Dramatic poetry can be performed as an opera libretto.
Dramatic poetry can be performed as an opera libretto.

In general, making a fictional person come alive is much easier when someone physically can show what that character is supposed to feel or do. This is the main way that dramatic poetry separates itself from other forms — unlike closet poetry that someone simply reads off a page, it requires action, such as making facial expressions, gesturing or interacting with other people or things in the room. Acting and this type of literature have a strong link for this reason, with some actors and actresses using it to practice.

Dramatic monologues are considered a type of poetry.
Dramatic monologues are considered a type of poetry.

Another key feature is that the text usually follows verse form or rhymes. As a result, it typically ends up feeling very rhythmic. Writers often think about this as they’re making up a new dramatic poem, because they want a person to be able to deliver the lines well, and because they want the audience to understand what’s happening. Getting this naturalness can be hard, however, simply because everyday speech typically is more like prose, so some writers hesitate to use this style.


Dramatic poetry can take one of several forms: soliloquy, dramatic monologue, character sketch and dialogue. Any of these forms can stand by itself, but when a person is writing a play, he might use more than one style, depending on how he wants to show development. The best actors and actresses are able to move seamlessly from one form to another, although some end up specializing.

In a soliloquy, a character speaks mainly to himself, not interacting with anyone else. It typically is a good way to quickly show what he thinks, wants or is going to do, because it gives insights into his mind. Perhaps the best example comes from William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Hamlet, in which Hamlet questions whether it is better to live or die.

A dramatic monologue is very similar to a soliloquy in that it reveals something about the speaking character. The main difference is that, here, the actor is talking to someone else in the play, not just himself. This second person doesn’t say anything, but their presence often makes the speech a little bit more believable. This type of dramatic poetry usually shows up during critical moments in the plot.

With a character sketch, a writer’s main goal is to make the audience feel something for the character, rather than to move the plot along. The feeling can be sympathy, hatred or anything in between, but the result is usually that a person watching the play becomes emotionally connected to what is going on, creating a more memorable theater experience. The individual delivering the lines serves the main role of observer.

Dialogue takes at least two people, who exchange lines to direct action, give information or tell something about themselves. The benefit of this form is that actors can play off each other, responding naturally to what the other person does so that the play doesn’t seem overly rehearsed. The challenge in using it in dramatic poetry, however, is that a writer has to maintain some similarity between the rhythm and meter of the text for both speakers, even as he tries to make each one seem to have a separate personality. Changing the meter or rhyme scheme dramatically as each person talks can make the overall flow of the scene seem too choppy or disconnected. An example in this group is The Shadowy Waters by William Butler Yeats.


There are no established guidelines for what exactly makes text poetic, and sometimes, the line between straight prose and structured writing is very thin. What technically can be called a dramatic poem, therefore, is somewhat up to interpretation. To make things even more complex, often, people adapt “regular” poems to the stage, so when trying to categorize different works, what a person does with the text is as important as what is in the writing itself.

W.B. Yeats's "The Shadowy Waters" is an example of a dramatic poem.
W.B. Yeats's "The Shadowy Waters" is an example of a dramatic poem.

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Discussion Comments


Dramatic poetry is often recited in the form of a monologue. These are lengthy pieces of prose that is meant to be spoken on a stage, as is a soliloquy.

The difference between a monologue and a soliloquy is that a monologue is like dialogue, just from one person. It is meant to be spoken aloud for someone, even if it’s just the audience, to hear.

A soliloquy, on the other hand, is meant to let the audience inside of the character’s mind. In other words, a soliloquy in its truest form is spoken aloud for the audience’s benefit, but is actually what the actor's character is thinking. As such, other character’s around the person delivering the soliloquy will not ‘hear’ it.


Many people do not realize that dramatic poetry actually should not sound like poetry at all.

A common misconception is that because poetry may be written in rhyme and/or meter is that it is meant to be spoken that way. However, when poetry (or any script for that matter) is spoken aloud for an audience it should flow naturally in speech.

The natural flow of the written word does not sound the same when spoken in a way that is cohesive out loud. One way to tell if someone is actually a quality actor or not is to listen to the flow of his words. Those who are just ‘reading off the page’ without the page there are showing some very poor quality work.


This seems like the kind of poetry that needs to be reinvented for the modern age. Poetry is just generally declining, even though there seem to be thousands of poets out there. No one reads it any more.

But, if you go on youtube, there are plenty of people who will watch it on there, if it is done in the right way.

This kind of poetry, which is more appealing as spoken word and easier for the general public to get hold of, could make poetry in general more popular if it was done in the right way.

And, in my opinion, youtube and similar sites, is the right way.


This kind of poetry is absolutely amazing to watch if you manage to see a really good performing poet.

Often it doesn't look all that amazing on paper, compared with the kind of poetry people are used to.

You can't make the kinds of subtle connections in poetry that's meant to be performed, because people won't have time to take it in. They need broader strokes.

But, a really good dramatic poem, in the hands of someone who knows how to work an audience is wonderful.

I would definitely recommend it to people, even if they don't think they like poetry.

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