• This article explores the change in dynamics between matter and style in Shakespeare’s way of depicting distress on the early modern stage. During his early years as a dramatist, Shakespeare wrote plays filled with violence and death, but language did not lose its composure at the sight of blood and destruction; it kept on marching to the beat of the iambic drum. As his career progressed, however, the language of characters undergoing an overwhelming experience appears to become more permeable to their emotions, and in many cases sentiment takes over and interferes with the character’s ability to speak properly. That is, Shakespeare progressively imbued his depictions of distress with a degree of linguistic iconicity previously unheard of in Elizabethan commercial drama. By focusing on the linguistic properties of three passages of iconic distress – Hamlet’s first soliloquy, Othello’s jealous rant, and King Lear’s dying words – this article analyses the rhetorical adjustments Shakespeare undertook in his effort to raise the level of verisimilitude of emotional speech in his plays.