Dear Actor

Having had the privilege of learning how to scan iambic pentameter from someone whose theatrical ‘line’ traced back to Shakespeare and the Globe Theater, I feel compelled to share this information with you just in case you ever need it.

Before describing the structure of iambic pentameter, I should tell you that there are several complex and inconsistent theories about its structure. The confusion surrounding scanning is exacerbated when no distinction is made between poetry and poetic dialogue spoken by characters in a play wherein iambic pentameter is the major and extensive alternative to its prose passages. (The author is free to switch from poetry to prose depending on a series of factors, e.g., ‘class’ of the character, King or Grave Digger, polite or vulgar, reading a letter written in prose, and so on.) On occasion, an author inserts a poetic passage that departs from iambic pentameter. Playing Puck, I remember switching from iambic pentameter to other forms of poetry that underlined Puck’s mercurial movements.

To these exceptions to the rule, we might add that there are other reasons for text that does not exactly conform to the preponderance of iambic pentameter as the poetic form in Shakespeare’s plays. These exceptions include, a) an editor’s error, b) an editor’s decision to make a change to accommodate contemporary English, and c) an author’s oversight.

Many scholars who explain the form of iambic pentameter mislead the reader because they attempt to scan iambic pentameter with the same ruler used for scanning other forms of poetry. That’s like trying to fit a large square object into a smaller circular one.

Ironically, scanning Shakespeare’s text is simple. The following is all you need to know.

Iambic pentameter is based on the general rhythm of the English language. The rhythm is formalized by specific patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Each of those patterns ‘measures’ one ‘foot’ in a sequence of five feet, almost always giving us a single line of dialogue spoken by one character. But sometimes, the sequence is formed by more than one character (see example below, Horatio and Bernardo)

At the moment, think of the following in terms of one line spoken by one character.

  • One foot = One, two, or three syllables
  • Five feet = One line

A) A line must contain at least THREE iambic feet.

B) A line must end ONLY with an IAMBIC foot, but…

C) A line may have an UNACCENTED syllable following the final iambic foot. This provides an author with an option when needed. That final unaccented syllable is known as a ‘feminine ending’ or ‘weak ending.’ (Elizabethans were sexist notwithstanding the formidable Queen Elizabeth.)

  • There are FOUR major types of metric feet:

1) IAMB: an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable:

insist           to run = 1 foot

2) TROCHEE: an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable:

running       stop it = 1 foot

3) ANAPEST: two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable:

indirect        to the top = 1 foot

4) DACTYL: an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables:

terrible        There he was = 1 foot

Occasionally, a foot will consist of two equally stressed syllables. That pattern is called a SPONDEE. It rarely occurs in dialogue.

As mentioned above, feet are formed by one, two, or three syllables:

To BE / or NOT / to BE: / THAT is / the QUES // tion

    1            2             3            4                5             (f)

WHETH er/ ’tis NO/ bler/ IN/ the MIND/ to SUFF//er

      1                 2             3              4                5      (f)

The SLINGS/ and AR/ rows OF/ out RA/ geous/ FOR//tune

            1             2              3           4                      5      (f)

OR to/ take ARMS/ a GAINST/ a SIEGE/ of TROU// bles

     1                2                  3                4              5

[Please note that SIEGE is correct. An original error in copy has been perpetuated through the years, both in text and on stage. A little-known oral tradition confirms SIEGE as the correct word. We are stuck with a mixed metaphor. A siege is associated with ‘slings and arrows’, not a ‘sea.’]

Now, back to scanning. It is often better to begin scanning at the end of a line so that you can determine whether or not it has a feminine ending (f above). Remember that a feminine ending provides the author with an unaccented syllable when necessary. Of course it is often immediately apparent that a feminine ending is not involved, but to scan easily it is preferable to start from the end of any line, perhaps spot a feminine ending, and then work out the rest of the line. Remember, the final foot of every line must be IAMBIC, with or without a feminine ending following it. 

When you read dialogue that seems arbitrarily indented from line to line, you will find that although different characters speak each line, the lines ‘scan’ as though a single line were being spoken.

For example, in the first scene of Hamlet, the dialogue between Horatio and Bernardo reads:

Horatio: Do, if / it will / not stand.

Bernardo:                                    ‘Tis here!

Horatio:                                                      ‘Tis gone!

Note that Horatio’s first two words give us a trochaic foot. All succeeding words in this passage give us 4 iambic feet, one more than is required in a line of iambic pentameter. The actors speak their lines individually, but the entire sequence is equivalent to a single line of iambic pentameter. This is not just Shakespeare’s adherence to poetic form. The rapid tempo and dramatic effect this passage demands is enhanced by the configuration of its syllables.

To scan any line, begin at the end of it. If the line ends with a feminine ending, ignore that unstressed syllable. Since the last foot must be an iamb (with or without a feminine ending), you immediately know there are just four feet left to scan, two of which must be iambs to match the quota of at least three iambic feet. At that point you’ll be able to spot a trochee, dactyl, anapest, or even a rare spondee foot easily because you’ll almost virtually always have enough information to resolve any questions regarding which words to stress according to Shakespeare.

It is interesting to note one of several allusions Shakespeare makes to scanning dramatic verse:

Strange things I have in head that will to hand

Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d

The audience of Shakespeare’s day and through the 19th century knew exactly what Macbeth meant. They knew that Macbeth was in a position of urgency that didn’t allow him time to plan his next murder.

Note that the past tense of a verb is written in two different ways, e.g., /scann’d/ in the passage above and /interred/ in the passage below.

The good / is oft / interr / ed with / their bones

Had the entire word /interred/ been mistakenly scanned as an iambic foot, the rhythm of the whole line would have been broken. It is very unlikely that you will ever be cast in a production of a Shakespeare play in which the director and actors are skilled in the underlying meter of the text. However, it is good to know the structure of iambic pentameter for two reasons:

  • Its rhythm is hypnotic.
  • It assists an actor when there is a question about which word to stress within one foot.

If an actor is skilled at speaking in iambic pentameter, there is an extremely subtle way for him to stay within the pattern of iambic pentameter without drawing attention to the now archaic pronunciation of the verb’s suffix, ed. When enunciating ed, begin with a schwa and end with a clipped d.

One more tip. When Hamlet says,

Yet I,

   1              (2)           (3)           (4)         (5)           [line one]

A dull / and mud / dy mett / led ras / cal peak      [line two],

    1          2              3                4           5

the actor might remain silent after /Yet I/ for the duration of four ‘silent feet’ (my term) so that he might simultaneously maintain the overall rhythm of iambic pentameter and project the intensity of his anger while he ‘conjures’ his self-deprecating line 2. Of course, in our time, that kind of fidelity to poetic rhythm is virtually unknown and is rarely—if ever—practiced. Audiences once expected that kind of skill from actors.

Most contemporary actors either don’t know or deliberately ignore the structure of iambic pentameter because they fear that scanning the text deprives them of freedom to create believable characters. From direct experience, I know that is not true. Some of us can sublimate scanning to the demands of genuine characterization, feelings, and everything else demanded of an actor. Some of us can combine technique with passion, others cannot.

When I played a great deal of Shakespeare, I privately scanned the lines whenever needed as I studied them..During rehearsals and performances, I never thought about the scanning I had done at home. Scanning is like the wood structures into which concrete is poured and then peeled away when the concrete is dry.

Rather than diminish the impact of a classic play, poetry subtly enhances it. That’s why Shakespeare largely wrote in iambic pentameter. There is something about iambic pentameter combined with passion that reaches the depths of the subconscious. It’s subtle, yet powerful. But it is a lost art. I miss it.

So, dear actor, although poetry and acting have been ‘cleft in twain,’ at least you will be among the very few who know how to scan Shakespeare!

A footnote:

In 1964, I saw a Broadway production of Hamlet directed by Sir John Gielgud. The star-studded cast included Richard Burton in the title role. As is always the case when a movie superstar is in a Broadway show, the crowds gathering on the sidewalk matched those of the full-house audience inside the theater. It was a feeding frenzy for star worshipers. After a performance, they could get a glimpse of Richard Burton and (sometimes) Elizabeth Taylor, whom he had just married during previews of the show in Toronto. The crowd also included demonstrators who protested the Burton-Taylor union as immoral. I was part of a tiny minority in the audience that went to the theater just to see the performance.

When I saw one of those performances, the incongruity of acting styles was painfully evident to me. Sir Gielgud chose to pour a classic play into a contemporary mold. In case you think I’m a misguided ‘purist,’ let me add that Sir Gielgud himself stated that the unwieldy production process overwhelmed him. A major cause of his disappointment (and mine) was of his own making. Contemporary dress, props, ‘natural’ mannerisms and speech patterns go against the Elizabethan grain of poetry. Sir Gielgud, of all actors, must have known that. But, he delivered his lines in the poetic style to which he was accustomed.

Contrary to popular belief, classics are wide open for the inclusion of major creativity in characterization, movement, lighting, sets, costumes, and so on. They are amply fertile for major potential variations. Everyday speech for Shakespeare is not one of them. 

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