Something Rotten: A Lesson in Alliteration

Something Rotten!: A Lesson in Alliteration

Writing instruction, Writing Something Rotten!: A Lesson in Alliteration Drema DrudgeApril 1, 2019

First of all, welcome, new readers! So glad to have you aboard our writing raft.

When is something rotten anything but? When it’s the musical, of course! Barry and I went to see the musical Something Rotten! recently.He bought me the cd three years ago, and I have listened to it on many a walk since. Once the show left Broadway, though, we thought we’d lost our chance to see it. But Barry surprised me with tickets to a touring version nearby, and last Thursday (after waiting for months!) we finally got to see it.

My affection for Shakespeare goes back to high school English class. More specifically, to my classes with “Mean Jean” Farrell. (She was anything but mean.) Though I can’t swear to it, I’m pretty sure her class was where I first heard the term alliteration. If it’s been a minute since you were in high school, alliteration is when the same letter or sound appears in adjacent or nearby words. You probably said this as a child: “She sells seashells by the seashore.” Children’s books and rhymes are rife with such repetition.

Egghead (but fun) fact alert: though old Teutonic poetry contained alliteration, the term wasn’t used until, it’s believed, the poet Pontanus began throwing it around in the 15th century.

Despite alliteration having been on the scene for a long time before him, Shakespeare is one name you will predominately hear associated with it. (And Chaucer, and Pope.) So if Shakespeare used it (who, let’s face it, hasn’t been alive for a minute), what’s the point in learning about it now?

Because, dear writers, the brain hears words even as it reads them. While too many instances of alliteration in a work can annoy, just enough pleases; repetition reinforces. Our brains are beasts of pattern. Hearing something more than once puts us on notice. So by all means, feel free to alliterate.

Here’s an alliterative passage from Romeo and Juliet, found in the prologue to Act 1:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth, with their death, bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Let’s look at that one line again…

“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes; A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”

Shakespeare boxes us in and makes us hear this up front. We can’t move past those words without slowing down and wondering about the alliteration. Hey, he says, fair warning — they’re going to die. If we glide past those signing syllables, we are shocked and surprised and it’s our fault for not paying attention. (Notice any alliteration in that last sentence?)

Something Rotten! is full of alliteration, as you can imagine, seeing as how it features (skewers?) Shakespeare. (The musical’s title comes from the play Hamlet: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Ironically, Hamlet is a tragedy, while Something Rotten! is certainly a comedy.)

The musical even talks openly about alliteration, in the song I Love the Way between the newly-in-love Portia and Nigel.

Oh, I love a lilting line of lyrical alliteration.

Who doesn’t love alliteration?

And then I’m like well, when the phrases come together like a consummation

It’s sweet elation

I have an idea. Why don’t we watch a video of the song so you can hear it for yourself?

While I will avoid rhapsodizing about the show and its particulars here (It was so fun!), I will share one of my favorite songs from the show and call it a writing exercise for you.  

Lesson practice:

Here is the first verse of Hard to be the Bard. Any alliteration? What purpose does alliteration serve here?

My days are so busy it’s making me dizzy
There’s so much I gotta do
There’s lunches and meetings and poetry readings
and endless interviews
Gotta pose for a portrait
and how I deplore sitting there for eternity
Then it’s off to the inn
Where my innkeeper friend
Wants to name a drink after me
Then it’s back to my room, where I resume
My attempt to write a hit
Just me and my beer and the terrible fear
That I might be losing it

If you get an opportunity to see the show, I recommend it. I also recommend trying alliteration. We’d love to see what you come up with, even if it’s just a fun rhyme, so please share your efforts in our comments.

By the way, we’ll be announcing the winner of the awesome collection of George Saunders’ stories soon.

Writing all the things,


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