From Bad to Verse (Or: Ten Syllables Do Not Make a Foot)

Continuing my examination of writing "new Shakespearean plays" - i.e., new plays in blank verse, particularly iambic pentameter - I thought I'd take a moment to examine what exactly is meant by "iambic pentameter."

Now, this may seem a redundant exercise; after all, there are books and entire schools devoted to the subject.  However, with the occasional sonnet-enthusiast, most of these books and schools are dedicated to the performing of iambic pentameter (or at least the reading or appreciation of it), rather than the writing.  More, should one find a sonnet-enthusiast, their interest will not lie in how iambic pentameter may be used in dramatic playwriting.
NOTE: For this post, I will be critiquing a few modern iambic pentameter plays other than my own (unless duly noted).  I do not know any of these playwrights personally, and hold them no ill will.  Nor do I think their plays are the only blank verse plays currently being written.  They are merely the only ones to which I have some access to the script.

There is a different, a very important difference, between writing a stand alone sonnet and writing a play.  While a sonnet may seem like a little play, in point of fact, it doesn't have to be.  A play written in verse, however, must first be a play...and then written in verse.

So, presuming that you've got your plot, characters, thought (philosophy/worldview) and everything else necessary to a play in order, let's skip right ahead to how to write your play in blank verse, specifically in iambic pentameter.  There are basically two elements to this:
1) The beauty of the verse

2) The practicality of the verse

Although the two are intertwined, we're going to begin with the latter.  What I mean by the practicality of the verse is essentially:
1) Does the verse convey the character and the plot like any decent line of dialogue should?

2) Is the verse easy to say (does it fall "trippingly from the tongue")?


The first point will actually be covered somewhat when we look at the beauty of the verse, and has been covered admirably elsewhere by folk who write about dialogue for characters, but the main thing you want to watch out for when writing plays in verse is that you don't become so florid that you actually start maiming the rules of grammar.

Occasionally you can get away with "not poetic speech" - that is, language that goes beyond poetic contractions (o'er, e'er, yestere'en), anglo-saxon verb endings (basically, pronouncing the -ed in such things as "believ-ed"), metaphors that serve as impromptu verbs/adjectives/adverbs/nouns  ("when fallen dew-drop from the anguished sky")...but please, for the love of all that's holy, don't torture the grammar past all recognition.

For example, it is not beautiful, easy or even sensible to say: 
"How wonder, how marvelous this tale go."
First of all, the adjective is "wonderful" and secondly unless your character is supposed to have a dialect, a tale "goes" not "go" - even if it's easier to rhyme with the open vowel.

You can write "How wonderful, how marvelous this tale!" which is a good line of blank verse, and a perfect line of iambic pentameter!  "How WON-der-FUL, how MAR-vel-LOUS this TALE!"

Likewise, although it's very tempting to give into the fact that you are writing poetry, for Heaven's sake, let the actors wear the frilly shirt, not your verse.  By which I mean, if the line makes no bloody sense...kill it.  For example, I've just spent the past half hour seriously trying to understand:
"Vest the house folly of scenes jesters dance
Merriment givings helpful wonderful."
I really don't know.  "Vest" isn't a verb, traditionally.  "Folly of scenes" and "jesters dance" are fine phrases on their own, but need prepositions, antecedents, or verbs to make them mean anything.  And in the second line "givings" confuses me since it should be a verb, but is a plural non-noun, followed by two adjectives that want to be adverbs and end up modifying nothing.

Moreover, as a performer, I have no idea what idea I'm supposed to convey.  Now, I grant you - Shakespeare can seem to be just as oblique.  After all, this is the woman who played Feste the Jester in Twelfth Night, a role that required me to cross reference just about every other word...but that was because I was unfamiliar with the vocabulary, not confused by the grammar.

From my 2002 production of Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene 1
No...that's not me.  But it is Feste the Jester!
 I'll give you an example of a seemingly-bizarre line from our dear old Billy Shakes.

This is Feste to Viola (disguised as Cesario), in III.1 of Twelfth Night.  I grant you the following is in prose, not verse. 
"No, indeed, sir; the Lady Olivia has no folly: she will keep no fool, sir, till she be married; and fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to herrings; the husband's the bigger: I am indeed not her fool, but her corrupter of words."
 Now, you'll notice one or two words that you probably have to look up right away.  But replace any of those words with another noun you know and the grammar is still good.  More to the point, once you pull apart his meaning, look up the words you are a little shaky on, and take the time to follow his thought process, you find that it's a sad and lovely speech.

"No, indeed, sir; the Lady Olivia [whom I played Feste had a crush on thanks to this speech] has no folly; she will keep no fool, sir, till she be married; and fools are as like husbands as [a small fish] are to herrings; the husband's the bigger [fool]: I am indeed not her fool [husband], but her corrupter of words."
Moreover, the speech is terrifically easy to say.  Quite a bit of it is in iambic anyway, since most of English naturally falls into iambic meter without trying very hard at all!  In fact, although there's also plenty of metrical variety, the trickiest bit is almost entirely in iambic:
"...and FOOLS| are AS| like HUS|-bands as PIL|-chards ARE| to HER-rings..."
If I were to attempt to make sense of the "vest the house" line from above, I'd first have to look at the grammar, and then at the meter.  I suppose, my best stab at it (not being able to sort out what the author meant): 
"Bedeck the house, then, with tapestried scenes:
Pick out in gold thread both fools and their folly;
Merriment gives us th'most wonderous sight."

Besides remembering that blank verse is not carte blanche to destroy the rules of proper English, the other thing one should be aware of is the music of a line of iambic pentameter.  Shakespeare performers often talk about something called "riding the verse."  What this means is that just as the driving force of a can-can (which is what, say, Lady Gaga employs almost always) will set your toe tapping, so the insistent beat of iambic pentameter likewise becomes the invisible thrum of any good verse drama.


The first silliness that sees to crop up by those writing in iambic pentameter is the belief that a "foot of verse' means "two syllables" and that therefore, mathematically, "pentameter" equals "ten syllables."  It's a reasonable assumption...if we were writing a haiku.  Which is based (at least in part) on number of syllables more than number of metrical feet.  So, let's go back and refresh.

Scansion: The art of "riding the verse," hitting the stresses and unstresses, both as a performer and as a playwright.  This is the inherent music of the verse.

Metrical foot: A collection of syllables (usually about two to four) that often have an interior beat Read all about them here.  You'll notice that every type of metrical foot has at least one stress (downbeat), except for pyrrhus, tribrach, and tetrabrach.  (I won't go into people contesting that those metrical feet don't exist.  Edgar Allen Poe is their major detractor and you can read his reasonings on your own.)

Pentameter: Five of those collection of syllables.  So, a line can range anywhere from ten-ish to twenty syllables (if you do all tetrasyllables...which is almost never done...although you can do it if you want).

Stress/Unstress: The stress if the STRESSED or emphasized syllable, while the unstressed is clearly the syllable not stressed.  Such as the "un" in "un-STRESSED."  (Which is beautifully appropriate.)

Iamb: A metrical foot of two syallables where the first syllable is unstressed, and the second one is stressed.  Most of standard English tends to fall primarily into iambs, such as "hel-LO!" and "good NIGHT" and "f*(% YOU."

Feminine Endings: Basically, this means that there's a left-over syallable that everyone politely doesn't point out.  An iambic phrase with a feminine ending is: "i LOVE you."  You can also argue that this is an amphibrach, but that's just being snooty.  However, if you emphasized the last syllable ("i love YOU") then you've done a foot of anapest.  You can continue to go nuts looking at metrical feet here.

Iambic Pentameter: This means that most of the metrical feet will probably be iambs, and that...and this is the most important thing...there will be five [metrical] stresses.

SHAKESPEARE SHOWS OFF: The Scansion of Sonnets and Speeches

This is important.  This is perhaps the most important point.  We're looking for five metrical stresses - that is, five metrical downbeats.  Let's take a look at two Shakespearean sonnets:

Sonnet 18
Very early Shakespeare; strict iambic pentameter
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

shall I | com-PARE | thee TO | a SUM- | -mer's DAY?
thou ART | more LOVE- | ly AND | more TEM- | per-ATE:
rough WINDS | do SHAKE | the DAR- | -ling BUDS | of MAY,
and SUM- | -mer's LEASE | hath ALL | too SHORT | a DATE:

As opposed to:

Sonnet 116
Mid-career Shakespeare; playing with metrical feet
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.  Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
LET ME | NOT to | the MAR- | -riage OF | true MINDS
ad-MIT | im-PED- | -i-MENTS.| LOVE is | NOT LOVE
which AL- | -ters WHEN | it AL- | -ter-A- | -tion FINDS,
or BENDS | with THE | re-MOV-| -er TO | re-MOVE:

As you can see in the latter example, Shakespeare plays with the metrical verse, beginning his first line with a spondee, and ending his second line with the same, while in the third and fourth line he returns to the iamb.  Let's take a look at one more than doesn't also have ten syllables.  This is from I.2 of Macbeth, and if you count them out, you'll see that not all the lines come out to ten:
Doubtful it stood; (finishing the previous line, to make 9 syllables)
As two spent swimmers, that do cling together (11)
And choke their art. The merciless Macdonalwald-- (12)
Worthy to be a rebel, for to that (10)
The multiplying villanies of nature (11)
Do swarm upon him--from the western isles (10)
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied; (10)
And fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling, (10)
Show'd like a rebel's whore: but all's too weak: (10)
For brave Macbeth--well he deserves that name-- (10)
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel, (10)
Which smoked with bloody execution, (9 - unless you pronounce it ex-e-CU-ti-ON)
Like valour's minion carved out his passage (10)
Till he faced the slave; (5)
Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him, (10)
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps, (11)
And fix'd his head upon our battlements. (10)

Taking a look at the irregular lines, we still see five metric feet (pentameter):
as TWO | spent SWIM- | -mers, THAT | do CLING | to-GETH-er (feminine ending)
and CHOKE | their ART. | The MERC-i-less (secundus paeon) | mac-DON- | -al-WALD

You get the idea.  A good trick I learnt was to count out each downbeat stress on your fingers.  Five fingers, five down-beat stresses.  It's better than counting out ten syllables, more accurate, too, and it allows you to play with meter more easily.  Go ahead and try it on some Shakespeare.  You'll see what I mean.

MODERN METERS: Critiquing Two New Plays

So, let's take a look some of these modern iambic plays.  For each, I've taken a random sample from somewhere in the middle of whatever they have to offer.  I'll put my critique (in parenthetical blue) on that selection for what it's worth.

Stuart Spencer
Go to Ground
by Stuart Spencer
Page 81

EVELYN. We set a date.  January Tenth.  
(For the metrical beats: JAN-u-AR-y TENTH.  9 syllables, but he uses the trochee form of a feminine ending, which stints a typical pentameter line of that last syllable.  Totally kewl.)
And you're invited.

OLIVER. You expect me to - ... ?

EVELYN. I didn't say 'expect'.  I said invited.

OLIVER. Evvie, this is crazy and you know
[sic] It.

(This is my only major complaint on this page.  I have no idea why he put "it" on its own line, even though he picks up the remaining syllables with Evelyn's line following. I grant you that:

"EV-vie | THIS is | CRA-zy | AND you | KNOW"  

feels like five lines of spondee - that is, a foot of STRESS-unstressed - but he cuts off the last syllable and pastes it into the following line, perhaps in an attempt to make that iambic?  When it's clearly another spondee line.  There's no good reason to put "it" at the top of the metrical line.  Look at the rhythm without "it."

"NO, that's | IT. it's | REAL-ly | NOT. it's | NOR-mal"

Perfect spondee!  As is Oliver's previous line.  This is why it's important to understand that although five stresses are important, it's just as important not to get bogged down in the iambic part of it.  Five metrical feet.  That's what we want.  Yup yup yup!

EVELYN. No, that's it.  It's really not.  It's normal,
Though I don't expect that word to be
 In your vocabulary. 

(Two small quibbles here.  First: Changing "Though" to "Although" would give the line the natural iambic spring it wants: "al-THOUGH | i DON'T | ex-PECT | that WORD | to BE."

Second: You have to pronounce all the potential syllables of "vo-CAB-u-LAR-y" in order to get the iambic, which may be plausible since the characters are terribly upper class.  My tendency is to put in the customary schwas, to make it: "in YOUR | vo-CAB- | -lur-y."  Again, it's totally legit to end with a pyrrhus...but if she's angry, this is a mumbly and dangerously rhyming end.  She's been so strong with her verse, I'd love a stronger retort from her.)

OLIVER. See?  The anger.
What's up with the anger if you don't
Have any feelings?

(I actually personally admire the author for using such modern language in modern verse, but "What's up" throws off the meter, because the inclination is to stay in pure iambic, which throws these terribly upper crust fox hunters into 1970's sitcom territory: 

"what's UP | with THE | an-GER | if YOU | don't"

However, I believe he meant it to be another spondee line, since anger is typically pronounced ANG-er.  This would read a little better, with five stresses rather than the above four, as so:

"WHAT'S up | WITH the | AN-ger | IF you | DON'T"  

Either way, though, we really feel that dangling syllable.  I can respect that the author may have wanted the actor to really hit the word "DON'T" but the fact that I've just spent a good amount of time trying to figure out the first two syllables may encourage the author to tweak the line slightly.  Maybe:

"Why bother with the anger if you don't" which would read as:

"why BOTH- | -er WITH | the ANG- | -er IF | you DON'T"

This has the added benefit of not only not tripping up the actor while he's riding the verse, but it also allows the author to naturally hit the "if" which is a wonderfully loaded word.  Of course, this is also available in the spondee line, but you have to work at it.  And this is too much work for this line which is really just a lead in to Evelyn's  speech:)

EVELYN. I have feelings Oliver.
Who's [sic] says I don't have feelings?  But
It's over, Ollie. [Name of the Lord.] Seven years!
It's over!  Sure I had a few good cries
I wrote some letters but thank God I never
Sent them.  Then I - well, I guess I just
Moved on. I fin'lly stopped and said enough.
You obviously had forgotten me -
Is it so shocking I should do the same?

(I like the way he's divided up the speech here.  The second line needs another foot - count it out yourself - but it doesn't disrupt the flow.  I like that he put the cut on "But" so that the actor naturally leans on that very loaded word.  Same thing with "never" and "just."  There are just enough metrical variations and feminine line endings to keep the meter interesting, while still having the underlying thrum of the iamb.  I like this speech!  I could perform this speech!  Nicely done!) 

OLIVER. Okay.  Okay.  Okay.  In other words
The nightmare isn't over.  I'm still in it.

(I have a feeling this scene-ending line is more dramatic in the context of the full play.  The triple "okays" feel a little cheap to me.  Perhaps he's nodding to Hamlet's "Words words words" or "well well well," which I appreciate, but otherwise I personally feel that the "okays" lessen the power of the line.  Consider if you took them out:

"In other words, the nightmare isn't over;
I'm still in it."

"in OTH- | -er WORDS | the NIGHT- | -mare IS- | -n't OV-er;

Personally, I think that's more powerful.  However, it may have been a deliberate character choice.  Or maybe the author felt that ending on a half-line was a cheat.  Regardless, I've liked what I've seen of this play.  The verse is solid, the diction very modern which is exciting, all in all very good!)

Daniel Guyton
The Mother of God Visits Hell
by Daniel Guyton
Page 8

GOD. I must forbid it, mother.  'Tis rash.

MARY. 'Tis rash to salve the wounds that we inflict?

(The first line stumbles a little bit, missing an entire foot.  Although, perhaps the intent was that the previous foot was said off-stage, as the two rush on?  Regardless, since this is the very top of the show, I would suggest having a full line to set the stage, such as:

"i MUST | for-BID | it, MOTH-er. | the SCHEME | is RASH."

This also gets away from using " 'tis " which is a lovely contraction and I've overused it my own fair share, but it seems like trying too hard for a first and second line.  That said, I think the second line is beautiful.  Try saying it outloud and be hyper-aware of your tongue.  The consonants get harsher and more gutteral as the line progresses, without ever losing their eloquence.  A good line!  It actually gets better from here:)

GOD. No, 'tis rash to salvage wounds which worms inflict.
What weight have we we with worms?  With water bugs?
With moping yellow maggots and decay?
Nay, I say we stay up here in Heaven,
Whilst they betray the flesh of sinful men.
Thou and I and Seraphim shall play th'harps
Divine, while vermin, scum and scavengers
Beneath the earth shall dine.  I say again...

(I'll go into this more, but I'm vastly amused and rather do enjoy the poetical wilderness into which the speaker wanders.  It's also fun to deal with all that alliteration in the second line.  Howsomever, this is a critique, so a few points:

I'd probably waffle about putting "No" on its own line, since it throws off the meter of the first line.  Also, a statement such as "No" can have a lot of silence around it.  Performers may thank you for giving them white space around the line - time to get really frustrated at Mary, and then regroup for a terribly civil, iambic reply.  Of course, the author seems to want the performer to take no time before he rushes into " 'tis rash to salvage wounds...."  It's not a big deal either way.

"Whilst they betray the flesh of sinful men" gives me a little pause purely for understanding.  Who are "they?"  If the line were immediately after "yellow maggots and decay" then I'd presume he's talking about how we'll all die and become food for bugs...but the last antecedent as it's written now either says "we" (God and Mary) will say up in Heaven and betray the flesh of sinful man...or Heaven itself will betray the flesh of sinful man.  This is why the rules of grammar supersede verse.  It would make more sense to have written:

"With moping yellow maggots and decay?
Let them betray the flesh of sinful men,
Whilst thou and I in Heaven sinless stay."

Of course, this would require a tweak in the next line that begins with "thou and I."  But that line requires a tweak anyway, so let's look at it.  As written, it has too many feet - despite the author attempting to combine th'harps...which would require a Cockney God, who normally pronounced "harps" without the "h."  Not impossible, but not most performers first instinct.  

Worse, the line breaks on "harps" - which isn't itself so bad, except that it continues with "divine" on the following line.  What this means for me as a performer is that I have to justify saying: "harps" with some sort of emphasis, when the real emphasis is on the more potent word: "divine."  An easy fix would be:

"The Seraphim shall play the harps divine" 

Which allows the actor to hit the best word in the sentence, as well as to speak in perfect iambic which seems appropriate for the serene description of Heaven.  Now, of course, we're short a foot.  We could let the line go ragged, as so:

"while VER- | -min SCUM | and SCAV- | -en-GERS"

Or we could add in a foot

"while VER- | -min FILTH | -y SCUM | and SCAV- | -en-GERS"

Either one's fine, really.  A non-iambic foot would be even better, just to rough up the line, but that'll do.  And the rest is fine, and a feeder for:) 

Mary. No need.  I heard thee fine the other time.

(A nice rejoinder!  And perfect iambic to boot.  See?  You don't have to try so hard.)


Yes, writing in verse takes a lot of thought.  I'll do another post to guide a beginner through writing the first few pages of a poetical play, but next I'll be turning my attention towards the poetry of the plays.  In the nonce, make sure to check out this entire series on Writing Iambic Pentameter.


  1. This is great feedback - thank you. I've had some Shakespearean scholars give me general feedback - but none so specific as this. It is much appreciated.
    Daniel Guyton


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