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Performing Shakespeare's Verse

Many people are taught that Shakespeare’s verse is written in iambic pentameter. In fact it is written in irregular verse with a predominant iambic pulse, which is something rather different.

The key to understanding formal verse structures is the foot. The foot is a unit of rhythm usually containing a stressed syllable and one or possibly two unstressed syllables.

The word going is stressed on the go and not stressed on the ing. Try stressing the ing and people will look at you strangely. Tomorrow has three syllables. Unstressed to, stressed mo, and an unstressed row. Again, putting the stresses in the wrong place will get you funny looks.

Stresses are obvious enough in the pronunciation of words, but we also stress some words and not others, depending on our meaning.

In a sentence such as I am going to the shops, it would be normal to stress the go in going and shops. To put the stresses on these words would suggest that a person is informing a friend or partner that they’re just nipping down to the Spar for some milk. To stress any of the other words would imbue the sentence with other slightly less ordinary meanings.

I am going to the shops (you are not)

I AM going to the shops. (Don’t try to stop me)

I am going TO the shops. (Not away from them)

I am going to THE shops. (The only important shops around)

Sometimes, as a parting shot in an argument for instance, we might stress alot of syllables.


So the stress we place on words in sentences has a vast impact on their meaning and nuances. Get the emphasis wrong and it could impact an the entire scene. Shakespeare’s work is so subtextually rich that misunderstanding stresses can lead to disastrous results for both actors and the audience.

Generally we don’t place stresses in sentences on the little joining up words. The the’s and the ands and the to’s. But then again, just occasionally, it is vital to do so get our meaning across. Is that THE Mick Jagger?

So in theatrical renditions of Shakespeare, how do we know what words to stress and what not to stress? This brings us back to feet and the iambic pentameter.

Formal verse is made up of lines with a certain number of feet.

Tetrameter has four feet in a verse

Pentameter has five feet in a verse

Heaxameter has six feet and so on.

A verse written in pentameter will therefore have five units (five feet) of rhythm. Each of the five feet will have a stressed syllable, and one or two unstressed syllables. And here I must become a verse chiropodist for a few moments.

In Shakespearean verse, there are, for the most part, four different types of foot. These are known by quite tiresome and offputting names, easy to skip and, to the brain, a chore to assimilate. But they are worth the effort. You probably know the first already. So that’s only three to take in.

Iambic – a two syllable foot which goes di-dum and forms an unstressed word or syllable and a stressed syllable. Ie Disgust. Remorse.

Trochee – which goes dum-di. A stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Ie Rotten. Ballcock.

Anapest – a three syllable foot, which goes di-di-dum. Ie Decongest

Dactyl - a three syllable foot,which goes dum-di-di - Ie Interplay. Selfishly.

Just occasionally, to keep us on our toes, a poet might also throw in a monosyllabic foot – ie a foot of one stressed beat, such as the word Two at the beginning of the Romeo and Juliet prologue. Two Households, both alike in dignity.

Shakespearean verse uses all these different kinds of feet, mixing them up to get varied and interesting rhythms. As Shakespeare was attempting to hold the mirror up to nature, he wanted to mimic normal speech patterns as far as possible within the constraints of formal verse. Whilst, as I have said, there may be a predominant iambic pulse, he did not slavishly stick to iambic beats. That would produce an unnatural and robotic sound that is neither poetic to the ear, nor anything like real speech. So Shakespeare regularly threw trochees, anapests and dactyls into the mix. This is easy to check. A strictly iambic line would have only ten syllables in it. So, what of Theseus’ lines in Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I must confess, that I have heard so much,

And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof:

The first line has ten syllables and so could be iambic, (though it isn’t). The second line has eleven syllables, so it cannot be iambic. Even allowing for the four syllables of Demetrius to be compacted into three syllables, there is still an extra unstressed syllable somewhere

And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof:

Spoken as strict iambic pentameter this last line would come out:

And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof:

This is rhythmically ugly and stressing the ‘have’ is nonsensical from the point of view of meaning. Also we would not normally stress the ‘there’ in ‘thereof’.

Treated as irregular verse it might run:

And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof:

All I have done here, is put the five stresses I know to be there, where a speaker would normally place them, given the context of the play. Simply, there is an anapest on the fourth foot ie ‘to have spoke’

The first line is also interesting. Ten syllables, but spoken as iambic pentameter, I must confess, that I have heard so much, comes out as:

I must confess, that I have heard so much,

From Theseus' point of view there is no sense in stressing the second ‘I’. The sentence makes more sense spoken with the stresses thus:

I must confess, that I have heard so much,

This makes the third stress an anapest - di-di-dum - that I have, followed by a monosyllabic beat - heard.

So in interpreting Shakespeare's meaning, it is probably not productive to read the lines as strict iambic pentameter. You will be getting your trochees in a tangle if you do. Not to mention your dactyls and anapests. You might sometimes, find interesting interpretations by stressing iambs, since Shakespearean verse does have alot of them. But you will make more discoveries by paying attention to the likely stresses of the feet in the context of the play and local meaning of the lines.

There’s a little bit of diverting detective work in this. Take a line from a little further down Theseus’ speech:

I have some private schooling for you both.

There are ten syllables with five stresses in all likelihood. The ‘ing in schooling cannot possibly be stressed. So that narrows down the five stresses to nine possible candidates. An iambic reading of this line would be:

I have some private schooling for you both.

If I were to say this line naturalistically (ie not in verse), and without any of the context of the scene, I would stress the line:

I have some private schooling for you both.

But that would leave only four beats. This does sometimes happen in Shakespearean pentameter, but not often and usually only for a strong reason. Yet the fourth stress spoken as an iamb is unconvincing. Why stress ‘for’? Spoken naturalistically it seems clumsy. So I would look at some other contenders for that missing stress. Both ‘I’ and ‘have’ could possibly be made to work as stresses. It would then perhaps mean Theseus had just come up with a bright idea that he wanted to impart to Egeus and Demetrius. But the most likely stress is on the ‘you,’ so the line would run:

I have some private schooling for you both.

Which would give the sense of an impending paternalistic lecture.

This detective work is absorbing and the actor will find Shakespeare’s lines, when explored as irregular verse, more revelatory than casting about for meaning in an iambic rhythm that isn't actually there. Take Lysander’s line, half a page on after Theseus’ exit.

Or else misgraffed, in respect of years.

It is a nine-syllable line which suggests a lurking monosyllabic foot. The second half of the line cannot be read as iambic without falling over itself.

Or else mis/graffed, in respect of years.

There appear to be only four obvious stresses that work.

Or else mis/graffed, in respect of years.

But the fifth stress is the mis in misgraffed, The monosyllabic foot, putting two stresses in misgraffed, then suggests that Lysander is extremely impassioned in his speech.

Or else mis/graffed, in respect of years.

Take Orlando’s lines from As You Like It – Act I scene II,.

‘I am more proud to be Sir Rowland’s son,

His youngest son, and would not change that calling

To be adopted heir to Frederick.’

The final line is ten syllables only if you pronounce Frederick, Fred-er-rick as opposed to Fred-rick. An iambic reading leaves a stress thus:

To be adopted heir to Frederick.’

The last stress will end on rick. Nobody stresses the rick. It must then be the case that the stresses fall elsewhere. Not the To at the beginning. That would make even less sense. But the to in the middle would give an angry feel to the rhythm.

To be adopted heir to Frederick.’

A further drawback with treating Shakespearean verse as strictly iambic is that it will make the actor sound like a robot or a terrible bore. Or a rock drummer playing in swing time. Stylishly monotonous. Shakespeare’s verse is more like jazz drumming which can miss beats and put in odd fills whilst still keeping time overall. This is also of course, what real speech sounds like. My advice to an actor interested in delivering Shakespeare’s verse would be to get used to speaking in feet rather than iambs, and even better, in five beat lines. But, despite all of the above, I would also say to an actor, that it's not actually essential to understand the mechanics of verse, so long as you are in character, comprehend the context of the scene and mean what you say. Shakespeares verse, if you play the play as it was intended, will actually look after itself. Let me bring in Humpty Dumpty.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the kings men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

It’s a great bit of verse. The trochaic beat on Humpty and Dumpty giving a strong sense of how heavy Humpty is. Helped by associations with Dumplings and humps. The third line is written in galloping dactyls suggestive of hooves. I always think it was made up by a medieval mum bouncing her chubby baby on the bed. It’s inspired. Now, let us dramatise the verse. Imagine you are a friend of Humpty Dumpty who has just seen his demise, and that you meet a friend or friends of Humpty and have to recount to them Humpty’s misfortune.

Humpty Dumpty sat ...(Pause, whilst you struggle to articulate to the friends the foolhardy nature of Humpty in sitting on a wall – they obviously know how fragile Humpty was.) ...on a wall.

Humpty Dumpty ...(It’s almost too distressing to tell them about the next bit.) ...Had a great fall.

All the King’s horses and ...(Pause whilst you sadly shake your head) ...All the King’s men,

Couldn’t (Sob) Put Humpty (Sob) together (sniffle) Again.

Despite the natural pauses one might put in this recounting of Humpty’s accident, the verse remains perfectly in rhythm. It’s so clearly written and robust it’s hard to break the meaning. For who would stress the ‘on’ of the first line? It would mean that Humpty sat on the wall as opposed to off it. And besides would strike the ear with a great ugliness. Who would stress the ‘a’ before great fall? There would be no reason to. If you are clear about the meaning of Humpty it’s fairly difficult to step out of the verse. To do so merely destroys what it is saying. So the notion that you cannot stop or pause in the middle of a verse line is nonsense. It might be extremely important to do so to put over the meaning of of the writing as it was intended. If a verse is well written, and I think we’re all agreed that Shakespeare does write good verse, then the rhythm of the verse is pretty indestructible if you say it in character, in context and meaning what you say. The verse can probably only be destroyed if it is not properly understood. Actors and directors have got hold of a notion that verse is written in a sort 19th century romantic cadence. A kind of verbal knitting, in which one purls off at the end of a line with never a dropped stitch (or aitch) A soothing la-di-da sing-song, which totally destroys the vitality of the language and the meaning of the words. Take Gielgud’s prologue from Romeo and Juliet.

The stresses are pretty much in order, but you can hear this deadening approach to verse in his voice, stripping the blood and thunder of the words, which are vivid and telling, to something that wouldn’t stir porridge. I’m not being iconoclastic here. I know it was the 70’s, and I believe Gielgud was a great actor in his way. But the misconception that verse is ‘beautiful thing’ that must be said ‘beautifully’ and in perfect time that must be kept preciously unbroken, like waves lapping on a shore, or it isn’t verse, is not true. Moreover it leads actors to kill what the verse is about. If you are in character, and you say your lines truthfully, as the person in that situation would, you will not be very far, in terms of stresses and beats, from the way that Shakespeare intended the words to be spoken. And you will therefore be perfectly inside the verse, however much you stretch it about.

copyright 2014 Ian Wild.

View Mrs Shakespeare. A One Woman Play by Ian Wild

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