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  • A Guide to the Poetry of Shakespeare's Drama

    Content and exercises are available in English only.

    Teachers and students: read and print this page and then complete the following accompanying exercises:
    1. Tap the Text
    2. Found Meter
    3. Unearth the Verse
    4. Minimal Scripts in Iambic Pentameter

    1. "That would be scanned": Meeting Shakespeare's Meter

    We don't often think about it, but every time we open our mouths and speak a sentence or two we are spontaneously creating rhythmical compositions in silence and sound. These rhythms in speech arise out of the variations in emphasis we give to particular syllables in words and to particular words in sentences, as well as to the pauses we naturally insert to separate words, phrases and sentences into meaningful units of sound.  

    Some literary forms are more dominated by fixed patterns than others. In written texts the degree of orderliness in the word patterns distinguishes poetry from prose. Meter (from the Greek metron , "measure") is created when the emphasis given to words is set in a fixed pattern that is meant to be repeated at regular intervals. Meter is the single most distinctive characteristic of poetry. Works written in meter are known as verse.

    Verse forms in English poetry are classified according to

    1. the type of fixed pattern of emphasis they impose and
    2. the number of times in a single line of poetry these patterns are repeated.

    Let's look more closely at this idea of emphasis first.

    The most common emphasis pattern in English poetry is the iamb, which calls for a weak (unstressed) first syllable followed by a strong (stressed) second syllable. Many two-syllable words in English are pronounced in a way that follows this weak STRONG stress pattern: ob/serve; to/night; des/troy; es/cape; con/cern. It's a bit misleading to describe the weaker syllable in an iamb as "unstressed"--in order to be heard at all every spoken syllable must be given at least a little stress--but English as it is normally spoken demands that we place more emphasis on some syllables and less on others: dic/tion/ar/y; a/gain; in/tell/i/gence; loon/y. [Did you notice the natural iamb in this list?]

    A fixed emphasis pattern, like the weak/STRONG pattern of the iamb, is called a foot. Repeating these basic units (feet) in a single line creates the particular type of meter. By far the most common metrical line in English is the pentameter --so called because it repeats its basic unit of emphasis five (penta) times. Here's a line from Alexander Pope written in iambic pentameter:

        A/bove, be/low, with/out, with/in, a/round
                ("The Temple of Fame," 458)

    Note how the closely the rhythm of the line above mirrors the iambic pentameter metrical pattern of

        weak STRONG/ weak STRONG/ weak STRONG/ weak STRONG/ weak STRONG/

    Most often this is not the case in Shakespeare's verse. The iambic pattern allows for a great deal of fluctuation in the intensity of the stresses from foot to foot. In the line

        But soft,/ what light/ through yon/ der win/dow breaks?*
    *This example appears in Timothy Steele's All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing

    the stressed syllables "soft", "light" and "breaks" call for a great deal more emphasis than do "yon" and "win". Try speaking the line as if the five stressed syllables are all equal and see what happens. Speaking an iambic pentameter line in a way that imposes a strictly equal stress pattern on all the stressed syllables makes it hard to understand the meaning of the words.

    Iambic pentameter became the meter of choice for English language verse for three reasons:

    1. the grammatical structure of English demands that we make use of many little words--to, of, in, from, by, his, her, on, the, a, an, you, etc.--which leads quite naturally to the weak STRONG stress pattern when they are used in combination with other words, e.g., he went/ to see/ a man/ about/ a car
    2. words of more than one syllable tend to be pronounced with alternating stress patterns, e.g., congregation; unbelievable
    3. we have an unconscious tendency to impose an alternating stress pattern on groups of three syllables when they are of approximately equal stress, e.g., in with  the old (we tend to accent "with" ever so slightly because it is flanked by two other light-stress words); come home soon (conversely, we tend to deemphasize "home" slightly because it is flanked by two other heavy-stress words)

    To scan a verse passage is to analyze it line by line, marking the feet and the recurring stress patterns as you go. Here's an example from the closet scene in Hamlet.

        Do you/ not come/ your tar/dy son/ to chide,
        That lapsed/ in time/ and pas/sion lets/ go by
        Th'im por/tant act/ing of/ your dread/ com mand?
                (Hamlet, III.4, 106-8)

    2. Never say "Ne/ver": Varying Meter to Highlight Meaning

    The highly-patterned and rhythmic qualities of blank verse dominated the early modern stage for several reasons. Compared with prose, verse is a powerful and effective method of oral communication because

    1. it gives playwrights another set of tools to work with to add emphasis to their words
    2. its formal elegance makes the dramatic experience larger than life
    3. it sets up a powerful rhythm that drives the action forward and draws the audience in
    4. its regularity makes it much easier for actors to memorize

    While the regular rhythms of iambic pentameter run beneath the lines in Shakespeare's plays like a heartbeat, variations on the standard metrical pattern abound. Here's an example from King Lear, where Lear laments over the untimely death of his beloved daughter, Cordelia:

        Why should/ a dog,/ a horse, /a rat/ have life,,
        And thou/ no breath/ at all?/ Tou'lt come/ no more,
        Nerver,/ never,/ never,/ never,/ never..**
                (King Lear, V.3, 307-9)

    ** This example is drawn from Sean McEvoy's Shakespeare: The Basics

    Shakespeare breaks the blank verse pattern twice here--in the foot that opens line 307 (Why should/ = STRONG weak/), and very dramatically in line 309 (Never/=STRONG weak/ repeated over the entire line). The sense of the words as dictated by the intensity of feeling in the situation completely interrupts the flow of the meter in a startling way that commands attention.

    As well, note in the example above how the conventional pronunciation of the word "never" overrules the requirements of the meter for a weak STRONG stress pattern. A wrenched accent occurs when we try to force a word into a stress pattern that disrupts the way it is normally accented. While certain forms, like folk ballads, sometimes call for wrenched accents ("fair ladie"; "far countree") they are not the norm in Shakespeare.

    Variations in meter often signal moments where a character's emotional and psychological state dictate a way of speaking that can't be contained in the conventional pattern. Paying close attention to meter helps us better understand, moment by moment, what's going on in the minds of Shakespearean characters.

    Bibliographical details on the books above may be found on the Resources page.