Verse and scansion – how to read Shakespeare

Shakespeare wrote a large part of his plays using a tradition that defined how many syllables were contained in a normal line, known as iambic pentameter. This allowed him, by breaking rules and making small changes to rhythm, to deliver secret messages to the actors playing each role, similar to the process of reading music.

Shakespeare’s language is beautiful but it was never meant to be read as books. Much of the beauty (and vulgarity) of Shakespeare is bound up in being able to read the music of the syllables.

iambus: A metrical foot consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable.

By stress, we’re talking about which part of the word or sentence is most clearly heard.

You’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired.

Each catchphrase is an iambus – one light syllable, followed by a word with more emphasis: You’re fired.

I love you bitch.

Here, the entire first sentence consists of two iambuses. He loses his meter in the second line for some reason.

You might ask, but couldn’t I say, “You’re fired”, with the stress on the first syllable? Yes, you could if you were trying to clarify who exactly had been fired. Was it me, you, Jerry? No, it was you. You’re fired. It might work in this case, but generally these are special circumstances. If Shakespeare wanted you to say it that way, the meter would support it. But he didn’t, so don’t. Bad American actors are particularly guilty of this – they love to overstress pronouns and the word not, for some reason.

pentameter: A line of verse consisting of five metrical feet, or (in Greek and Latin verse) of two halves each of two feet and a long syllable.

So iambic pentameter is just five iambuses, each with the pattern of weak stress, strong stress.

I’ve had the hiccups for an hour straight.

Five feet of two syllables = one full line in iambic pentameter.

That’s the basics. Once you understand the baseline of the meter, you can begin to analyze where Shakespeare is telling you something by changing the meter and why he’s doing it.

For an example, see the Scanned section for monologues with scansion done.