Writing in Iambic Pentameter

Previously, I asked the question: Where are the "new Shakespearean" plays.  There appear to be three qualities at which he particularly excelled:

1) The Beauty of Verse
2) Paradoxical Orthodoxy
3) Content Dictating Form

Today, I'd like to look at the first quality: POETIC VERSE.

  • To learn about the basics of Shakespeare's verse, please scroll down just underneath this text.
  • To see how to use Shakespeare's techniques in modern plays, please press "Read more" at the bottom of this post.

    What follows is a basic primer, but if you've the time, look up the masterclass with John Barton and Trevor Nunn.

    Now, one of the first things any student of Shakespeare learns is about something called "respecting the verse."  Essentially this means that, when performing, one should be aware of the following things: 

    1) Looking for, in general, five strong stresses. 

    In a perfect iambic line, it sounds like "ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM" such as "But SOFT! What LIGHT through YON-der WIN-dow BREAKS?"

    However, sometimes a line might have a feminine ending, which is basically a syllable that drops off at the end, such as "To BE or NOT to BE  that IS the QUES-tion."

    And often, Shakespeare varies the rhythm of a line altogether. "LET ME NOT to the MAR-riage OF true MINDS"  In this case, the first two words are part of a foot (series of stresses), called a "spondee."  You can read all about  the various types of metrical feet here.

    Basically, when we're in perfect iambs, the character is in full possession of his or her faculties and temper, and when it goes into varying stresses, the character is in possession of some strong humour.

    2) Be aware of metrical variations

    Occasionally, Shakespeare includes a line which sort of cuts off in the middle.  For example, Hamlet in II.2 cries in the middle of his "Rogue and peasant slave" speech, "For Hecuba!" giving us only two strong beats...and leaving us without three.

    This is a clue that the actor may want to take those extra beats before or after or some combination thereof to either allow for strong, non-verbal emotion, or to allow for movement.  The actor can also lengthen the sounds of the feet he has to make up the length of a single line...slow down the meter from quarter notes to half notes, as it were!  Actually, take a look at Hamlet's speech: it's punctuated by these short outbursts.  (Scroll to bottom of link.)

    Alternately, sometimes Shakespeare uses entirely different verse.  The witches in Macbeth IV.1 speak in iambic quatrameter, typically in rhyming couplets: 
    Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
    Similarly, the rude mechanicals from Midsummer Night's Dream, when they perform "Pyramus and Thisbe" in V.1 fall into two strong stresses with rhyming couplets all over the place:
    But stay, O spite!
    But mark, poor knight
    What dreadful dole was here?
    Eyes, do you see?
    How can it be?
    O dainty duck!  O dear!
    By changing the meter, Shakespeare tells us something about the character.  Both of the above forms are much more like our own nursery rhymes or common limericks, rather than the graceful swoop and fall of a line in iambic pentameter.

    However, reader beware: occasionally you can also tell that someone else stuck something in by checking the meter.  Hence, in Macbeth III.5 the character of Hecate shows up out of nowhere and berates the witches with:
    Have I not reason, beldams as you are,
    Saucy and overbold? How did you dare
    To trade and traffic with Macbeth
    In riddles and affairs of death;
    And I, the mistress of your charms,
    The close contriver of all harms,
    Was never call'd to bear my part,
    Or show the glory of our art?
    The first two lines are in iambic pentameter, and then falls into a meter we know well from "roses are red, violets are blue."  Moreover, the following lines all end very heavily and neatly (see below).  Frankly, the meter and the language are clunky; apprentice-level, which Shakespeare in the court of James I was assuredly not.

    One final note: obviously, it's also important to note when a character slips into prose, since this heralds something about the prosaic nature of the scenes.  So Benedick and Beatrice quarrel in prose, and make love in poetry.  Rosalind and Celia banter in prose, then slip into verse when the Duke enters with full formality.

    3) Catch your half-lines!

    Shakespeare loves to divide a single line between two or more character.  For example, Kate and Petruchio in their wooing scene of The Taming of the Shrew in II.1:
    Moved! in good time: let him that moved you hither
    Remove you hence: I knew you at the first
    You were a moveable.
                                      Why, what's a moveable?
    A join'd-stool.
                                      Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me.
    Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
    PETRUCHIO Women are made to bear, and so are you.
    Here we have not only half lines which are thrown to one another...and need to stay in the rhythm of a single line, but also lines that are compliments to one another, whose speed of one sort of knocks into the speed of the other.  By "throwing the line" to your partner (something you do whether you line is short or not), you keep the energy of the scene alive through the verse.

    4) And most important, love your line endings.

    What this means, is that the final word (or stress) of each line, should not be dropped.  You can lift your voice, or put an italic on the final word - I usually encourage my actors to "lean" on the word - while some say that taking a small breath after each line does the same thing.

    In Shakespeare's earlier plays, he tends to stop a line heavily, in a natural place.  For example, in The Comedy of Errors, II.1, Luciana not only speaks with heavy line endings, but she also speaks in rhyming couplets. (See below.)
    Why, headstrong liberty is lash'd with woe.
    There's nothing situate under heaven's eye
    But hath his bound, in earth, in sea, in sky:
    The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowls,
    Are their males' subjects and at their controls:
    Men, more divine, the masters of all these,
    Lords of the wide world and wild watery seas,
    Indued with intellectual sense and souls,
    Of more preeminence than fish and fowls,
    Are masters to their females, and their lords:
    Then let your will attend on their accords.
     However, in later plays, Shakespeare puts line endings in places that look like they should be enjambed (that is, the speaker just runs over the line-break, respecting more the punctuation than the line ending).  Even these lines, however, benefit from giving some weight to the final word of each line, such as in I.2 of A Winter's Tale, when Leontes says:
    Inch-thick, knee-deep, o'er head and ears a fork'd one!
    Go, play, boy, play: thy mother plays, and I
    Play too, but so disgraced a part, whose issue
    Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamour
    Will be my knell. Go, play, boy, play.  There have been,
    Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now....
     Listen to this video to hear the difference between enjambing the verse, or respecting the line endings.

    5) But don't neglect your rhyming couplet lines/Which tell us much about our poet's mind.

    Forgive my near-rhyme there, but you get the idea.  While rhyming couplets are found in many places in Shakespeare - more often in his early work than his later - whenever he deploys a rhyming couplet at the end of a scene or within it, it hits the ear with a stronger sound.  Hence, it works well as an almost musical "button" on a scene, or on the conclusion of an argument.  Rhyming couplets are there better deployed with care when writing blank verse, since they stand out so much!

    But how do we do use this knowledge to write "new" Shakespearean plays?

    Well, I can only write about how I used this knowledge to write verse, but in basic, I'll go through the above five points and you can judge for yourself how I did.

    1) Playing with stresses

    I found, while writing Cupid and Psyche that the various characters favoured different metrical feet.  For example, while the iamb (ba-DUM) was still the measure of normality, the gods - especially Aphrodite - favoured trochees (BA-dum), and the silly mortals always fell into anapest (ba-da-DUM).
    (III.1 Psyche's father, Thanos addresses the audience.)
    This is a quiet moment between Cupid going mad with lust for Psyche and thus transforming into the beast who kills one-half of all the lovers, and the eventual "Abduction of Psyche."  The insistent iambic pentameter (and alliteration) lull the audience into a little breathing space.
    THANOS.                      So still and silent hangs this ancient earth
                                        That no wise man now dares to stir abroad,
    Lest he disturb the slumber of the vengeful,
    Jealous gods.  A plague upon us have they cast,
    A subtle plague, to rid the world of men.
    Some say a god is angered, and others say
    The languid gods but play their careless games.
    But I believe a god does grieve.... 

    (I.1 Aphrodite speaks to Psyche)
    Here we're at the beginning of the play, where Aphrodite does not so much cajole as command.  Hence, many of her lines begin with a stress...and a few even end with a stress.
    APHRODITE.                   I will curse you, Psyche.  Speak!  But one word,
                                        One delicate phrase, one damning verb, one
                                        Sound – a laugh, a cry, a curse, a plea – Speak!
                                        Tell me why men love you, why they follow you
                                        With blushing breath; these finger-fumbled men.
                                        Why do they sigh and pine and suspire, when you
                                        Have not touched them, not spoken, nor yet glanced,
                                        Not wounded one with a single, careless shot
                                        Stolen from the blind-boy’s bow.  Speak!
                                        What is your power?  Mortal or divine?
                                        Speak, Psyche.  As I am a goddess – Speak.
    Similarly, when Aphrodite is in control, her trochee-speak infects Cupid's verse.  When he gains power, her language changes into iambic.  From IV.6:
    CUPID. Mother!  Appear!  I heard thee.  Show thyself.

    APHRODITE. Rudesome boy.  The light is very dim.

    CUPID. The blackness of my soul, dear mother.
    I thought to test a stint into despair.
    But see, it suits me well.  Where hast thou been?

    APRHODITE. To Hades’ shore, there to find Adonis.

    CUPID. ‘Tis dark there, too.  Good mother, hast thou died?

    APHRODITE. No Charon came to claim me, though I wore these rags.

    CUPID. The more the shame.  Didst thou Adonis find?

    APHRODITE. Didst thou Adonis kill?

    CUPID. I did.

    APHRODITE. Oh.  I did not think thou wouldst confess it.

    (II.1 Chrysos, Psyche's brother-in-law, is infected with Cupid's touch)

    The "four lovers" or mortals who provide both a mirror to Cupid's hidden emotions, as well as comic relief, tended to fall into anapest almost all the time (when they weren't speaking prose).  Since it's a bouncy rhythm, it allows for some fun scenes!  I'll embed the workshop production of this scene below.  It's been revised since, but you'll get the gist.
    PSYCHE. Are you well?

    (Chrysos who has been leaning or climbing on Cupid is cast off by the god of Love, and reels.)
    CHRYSOS. A sudden heartburn.  ‘Twill pass.

    PSYCHE. Here, let me attend you.  Let’s go within.
    Give me your hand, brother.  Rest on my arm.

    CHRYSOS. On your arm?  In thy bosom!  Heaving and warm!
    Sweet Psyche!  Dear sister!  O, Beauty divine!  
    Thou art sweeter than flowers and richer than wine!
    One kiss, I beg thee.  I am a man parched
    For thy lips, for thy breasts, for thy…other parts.
    Come sweet, let me have thee!

    PSYCHE.                              Chrysos!  Forbear!

    CHRYSOS. Forbear, love?  Wherefore?  Let’s call to the air
    Our amorous passion!

    PSYCHE.                     Once more, sir, forbear!
    You are not yourself – Sir, think of your wife!

    CHRYSOS. And none the dearer!  The love of my life!
    But nothing to thee, sweet Psyche, dear saint!
    She’s but a statue – cold marble and paint.
    Whilst thou hast a heart that cares not for gold
    But for mine arms to enfondle and hold.

    PSYCHE. Dear brother, desist!  Indeed, I shall scream.

    CHRYSOS. Then I will join thee!  And loudly declaim
    The sweet name of Psyche whom I love and adore
    More than goddess or god!  And shall love evermore!
    O Psyche!

    PSYCHE. O God.

    2) Metrical variations

    I'm hoping eventually to conquer Molieresque rhyming couplets, but I haven't yet.  However, in Cupid and Psyche, I realized that Cupid when wooing Psyche, needed to change his tempo entirely.  I referred to his poem as "his aria" since it followed more a lyrical than a spoken verse rhythm.  I think, as well, by changing the meter so significantly, it made the section feel like a spoken song.  You can judge for yourself.

    I.1 Cupid meets and woos Psyche for the first time.
    CUPID and PSYCHE.  Forgive me.  I –

    PSYCHE. Pray, speak.

    CUPID. I am not accustomed –
    That is, I’m very sorry, I seem –
    How do they do it?  In books and in verse –
    If I profane with my unworthiest hand,
    This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:

    PSYCHE.                                             What?

    CUPID. These blushing lips, two blushing pilgrims –

    PSYCHE.                                                          Please, stop.

    CUPID. Why?  This is how lovers speak, is it not?

    PSYCHE. I am not your lover.  Nor am like to be.

    CUPID. Then do not be yourself.  Put on your mind
    A mask of some lover with tender heart
    And look thou with another’s eyes, that see
    Beyond the mask of me.

    PSYCHE.                     You wear no mask.

    CUPID. I do indeed.

    PSYCHE.                 I see it not.

    CUPID.                                        You do not see.
    You look, you glance, but seeing?  No.  But –

    If thou couldst see with eyes like mine
    If I could be thy glass;
    If thou wouldst wander through my mind
    And know my present past;
    If thou couldst open up thine eyes
    With new eyes not thine own,
    Then thou wouldst see the truth of me
    And look on me alone.

    If thou couldst see, as I do see,
    Thy beauty in compare
    With ev’ry distant, dancing star
    That bows before the grace thou art
    Thou shouldst never call them fair.
    And I would pluck them from the sky –
    Yes, every one that shone –
    That no eye in Heaven, but mine eye,
    Should look on thee alone.

    If thou couldst see, if thou wouldst look,
    If more myself thou knew beyond;
    If from my lips thine own lips took
    The name of he whose name is fond –
    Then wouldst thou quiver?  Wouldst thou quake?
    Or hide thee in the dark alone –
    Or wouldst thou with the dawn awake
    And look, and love me as thine own.

    (They kiss.)

    3) Half lines (shared between two characters)

    Half lines also shown above, but I'll also show the first part of the first scene of To the Dark Tower Came, based on the "Childe Rowland" stories.  This was written for the Thornton Wilder Playlet Competition.  My play, which I grant was written overnight on the day of the deadline, managed to make the final three.  It has yet to be performed.

    Admittedly, I lurve half-lines.  They electrify the verse.  One of the things that works here - these are the very first words spoken - is that it gives that sense of urgency and suspicion on a battlefield.

    ROWLAND. Hail!  Who goes there?

    DARK WOMAN.                             A friend.

    ROWLAND.                                                             Show yourself, friend.
                            There are many here: uncles, and other spies,
                            Who would take the name of “friend,” then stab
                            His friend within his side.  You wear a hood.

    DARK WOMAN.                                                                 I do.

    ROWLAND. Show yourself.

    DARK WOMAN.                 I have.

    ROWLAND.                                     Are you ugly, friend?

    DARK WOMAN. There are those who do not find my features…nice.

    ROWLAND. Not I. Ugliness enthralls me.  Show yourself.
                            Nay, come.  A glimpse. I promise not to scream.

    4) Loving line endings!

    I had line endings drilled into me while I studied Shakespeare in England, and I've found their importance invaluable.  I try to learn from Shakespeare and put line endings not only in heavy obvious places (e.g., at the end of a phrase or sentence), but also mid-sentence, as an indicator that there should be some pause or weight given to that part of the sentence.

    The crucial thing - and this is where I take exception with the modern blank verse playwrights whom I've perused - is that a line of blank verse is approximately five STRESSES, not just ten syllables.  Now, I have my Emerson Shakespeare Ensemble to thank for clarifying this, and if you watch the masterclass linked above you'll learn about it yourself, but essentially, it's the difference between putting a line ending like so:


    (From Turn to Flesh, another short play about the death of Medusa.  It's had a reading in Boston, but not yet been produced.  First written with a line ending ON the tenth syllable.)

    MEDUSA.     No.  No.  You’ve turned my heart to flesh.  It beats
    Like a cagèd bird against my breast, and
                            'Minds me what I am. O turn me back to
    Stone, avert your eyes!  Look not on me, god-
    Ling.  Look not so loving on me!  You kill
    Me with your look.  Be not so kind. [dangling foot]

    This yields some interesting stresses.  "beats" and "kill" are good...but "and," "to," and "god-" hang there purposely.  Hence, I've broken up the line this way:
    MEDUSA.     No.  No.  You’ve turned my heart to flesh.
    It beats like a cagèd bird against my breast,
                            And ‘minds me what I am.
    O turn me back to stone, avert your eyes!
    Look not on me, godling.  Look not so loving on me!
    You kill me with your look.  Be not so kind.

    Everything ends heavily, but hopefully that forces the actor to chop up all the sentences, as though gasping for breath while Medusa is in Perseus' hold.  Likewise, you'll notice metric inconsistencies.  In the first, I intended that the "No. No." would actually read as two separate feet - a spoken stress, an unspoken breath.  So it would sound like:
    NO. (rest)  NO.  (rest) You've TURNED my HEART to FLESH.
    I've also purposely left three empty feet after "And 'MINDS me WHAT i AM" so that the actress has a moment to look at herself in Perseus' shield and then burst out into the rest of the speech.


    Conversely, you can see a bit of To the Dark Tower Came with irregular or inter-sentence line endings.  I put an emphasis on "Childe" although it's not strictly necessary if one knows what to do with line endings.  But on the off-chance someone tends to enjamb no matter what, I put italics on it!

    (ROWLAND, perhaps satisfied that the DARK LADY means him no harm, or else caught up with the vision of his lost sister, laughs and hands the DARK LADY a bandage which she wraps gently about his waist.)

    ROWLAND. Would you believe I once was known as Childe
                            Rowland?  No child I, now, who have seen
                            Too many deaths, who have been the cause
                            Of far too many deaths, who have walked
                            Each day with my pretty neighbor Death.
                            I’ve courted her, each day upon the battlefield,
                            But she’ll have none of me!  Death avoids me, Lady,
                            As I’ve avoided you.  I’ve brought her twelve bouquets
                            Of severed limbs, wrapped with the guts of Saracens –
                            But still she will not take me to her bed!  The tease.
                            Not so tight.

    5) Rhyming couplets
    As I said, I'm not so great at these.  What I'd really LOVE to learn is how Moliere's verse trips along so merrily!  The best I've got right now is something like this from To the Dark Tower Came, when Childe Rowland wanders into a bunch of fawning social peacocks.

    MATRON.     My very dear Rowland, how can you endure
                            The fawning caresses of someone like her?
                            What you want is wisdom, one who knows why
                            All of those terrible Spanish must die.
                            You’ll find my politics are impeccably liberal
                            For those petty crimes some find unforgiveable.
                            To me, the first question must be and should:
                            “Is the dreadful thing done for the greater good?”
                            Or barring a general good should come of it,
                            I’m in favor of crimes that help turn a profit.
                            I think you’ll discover that we quickly agree
                           That true good requires flexibility!

    Not perfect, but you get the idea.

    Next up, I'll talk about metaphors and why Shakespeare would run on with purple poesy!


    1. I wrote a short story once where a character used a sonnet to propose. The sonnet was also an acrostic--did you know there are 14 letters in "Will you marry me?" Convenient, no?

      But dashed hard to write! I think I spent more time on the sonnet than on the rest of the story together. Of course, adding the restriction of the acrostic form didn't make it any easier.

      All that is to say, I'm in awe of anyone who can consistently write in verse. Kudos to you, Emily!

    2. Bravo! Well spoken!

      Perhaps you can offer some advice on my iambic pentameter play I am soon to publish. Most of it can be read on this website provided:



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