In the second part of this series, we’ll explore how Shakespeare’s verse structure gives actors character choices and how students can use these tools to interpret a speech.
Shakespeare wrote verse in Iambic Pentameter. A line of iambic verse is made up of ten syllables (or beats):
I LOVE thee NOT thereFORE purSUE me NOT
De-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM
A regular verse line is one that fits neatly into this structure. However, Shakespeare often breaks this rule, adding or removing syllables, creating irregular lines. This is choice, not accident. It provides actors with information on their character’s mental and emotional state.
Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is an excellent example:
To be, or not to be: that is the question: (11 beats)
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer: (11 beats)
Over one third of the speech is made up of irregular lines, specifically feminine endings (where there is one extra unstressed syllable at the end of the line) An example is as follows:
To BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUES – tion
De-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM – de
What does this tell us about Hamlet? Let’s explore the verse physically:
-Stand with your feet apart
-Speak aloud, stamping your left foot on the unstressed beats and your right on the stresses
To BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUES tion
Left Right Left Right Left Right Left Right Left Right Left
Notice how you end up with one foot in the air, physically off balance.
Let’s do the same with a regular line:
If MUS ic BE the FOOD of LOVE play ON
Left Right Left Right Left Right Left Right Left Right
Both feet end up firmly on the floor. The regular line has balance, perhaps signifying stability within the character. They are not having an emotional ‘wobble’. With an irregular line, they are off balance, unable to fit their words neatly into one line. Consequently, we get the extra beat. In Hamlet’s case, this makes perfect sense. He is in deep pain, contemplating whether to live or die.
Where a character stops speaking in a verse speech, is very illuminating.
Do their sentences run over several lines, (enjambment)? Do they speak in succinct one line sentences? (End Stopped lines). What might this tell us?
The thought stretches over more than one line before ending with a finite punctuation mark (full stop, exclamation, question mark).
Hermione: Since what I am to say must be but that
Which contradicts my accusation and
The testimony on my part no other
But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me
To say ‘not guilty’.
Hermione takes four and a half lines to complete her thought. Why?
Enjambed lines speed things up, she’s not pausing to order her thoughts. Its all coming out at once, flowing from one line to the next. She is distressed, on trial, fighting for her honour. She’s literally just given birth, been dragged into the court room and is under a huge amount of physical and emotional stress.
End stopped lines:
The thought fits perfectly within the verse line:
Romeo: He jests at scars that never felt a wound.
But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
The whole speech is a contrast of enjambed and end stopped lines. The end stopped lines slow the pace, giving his thoughts order. Perhaps he is dumbstruck, breathless, overcome with the weight of his feelings?
Throwing enjambed lines into mix accelerates the pace. His heart is beating faster and so are his thoughts. He can no longer contain one thought neatly into a line. It rages and flows like his passion.
Fay has taught extensively within arts education for 15 years. She specialises in English and drama, with an emphasis on Shakespeare. Having trained as an actor at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, she worked for many years as a theatre actor, spending a lot of time performing Shakespeare’s plays. Alongside this she established a career as a freelance theatre practitioner working with primary, secondary and SEN schools on a varied program of drama projects. She has worked within the GCSE Drama and English curriculum as well as A level English and Theatre Studies. She has also developed programs of work utilising drama as a way of enlivening other curriculum subjects. Fay has spent several years working closely with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where she devised and delivered work to engage students with Shakespeare’s language in an active way. She is also a freelance content writer.