Rebecca Ripperton

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Reading Shakespeare in Meter

by Rebecca Ripperton
May 20, 2019

After writing two other posts on Shakespeare, we realized that we simply needed to dedicate an entire post to a discussion of reading Shakespeare in meter. There was just too much we wanted to say! (If you missed them earlier, be sure to catch up on Part I and Part II of introducing new readers to Shakespeare.)

Our primary aim in this post is to give you a sense of how reading Shakespeare in meter can enrich your experience of his plays. We’re also hoping to give you some ideas as to how you can easily begin doing your own scansion (metrical analysis). Even just a little bit of meter work will further your understanding of the entire text and make you a better, more engaged reader overall!

Why read in meter?

For most people, reading and/or teaching Shakespeare is daunting enough without discussion of meter. And as with English grammar or organic chemistry, a lot of people would probably prefer to go their entire lives without ever learning about it or encountering it “in the wild.” However, I personally am a strong advocate of the idea that being familiar with meter makes reading Shakespeare much more accessible. When Shakespeare’s text is spoken in proper meter, it flows beautifully and the speaker sounds far more fluent, even if nothing else in their relationship to the text has changed. Ultimately, we hope you’ll find that it’s actually much easier to read verse in meter than not to do so.

What exactly do you mean by ‘meter’ and how is learning about it helpful?

All of Shakespeare’s sonnets and many of his plays are written in what’s called “iambic pentameter,” meaning that these texts are written in rhythmic lines with ten syllables of text in each line (typically, anyway). Each line of ten syllables has five metrical “feet,” and each “foot” has two syllables. When a reader goes through and identifies the stressed and unstressed syllables, they are “scanning” the text or participating in the process of “scansion.”

Interestingly, iambic pentameter has a fixed pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, and these natural stresses of the meter actually do a lot of the heavy lifting of interpretation for the reader. What I mean by that is when the correct syllables are accented, the meaning of an expression shines through organically. Even the correct pronunciation of words becomes clearer! As a reader, you can also feel much more confident in your understanding and interpretation of the text after you've scanned it; scansion removes much, though not all, of guesswork from the process of interpretation. At the very least you’ll end up with a lot of great clues and interesting questions!

Of course, not all of Shakespeare’s work is written in meter, and much of his metered text contains irregularities, but the irregularities themselves are also instructive. More on that in just a few paragraphs!

How to scan a text

There are so many wonderful resources about the nuts and bolts of scansion on the internet already that we’ll keep this section relatively brief. 

We believe that the easiest way to learn about meter is by “scanning” a doubled-spaced scene, monologue, or sonnet with a pencil yourself. (You can also do the same exercise with other poets, although their meter may be different; Frost, for example, is great for looking at verse!) Whoever is scanning the text should read a single line of verse to himself or herself either in exaggerated pentameter, either silently or out-loud. The rhythm in which they read should follow the pattern of a heartbeat, or dun DUN dun DUN dun DUN dun DUN dun DUN. If the meter of the line is regular, it will have 5 iambic feet, with 10 syllables in total. If the line is irregular, there may be fewer or more syllables. (Usually if there aren’t exactly 10 syllables, there are 11, sometimes 12; it’s rare to find fewer than 10 syllables in a line of pentameter.) 

For Shakespeare, the pattern typically is: unstressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed

Or, in notation: ˘ ʹ ˘ ʹ ˘ ʹ ˘ ʹ ˘ ʹ

An example from “Twelfth Night”

A great example of almost perfect or “regular” iambic pentameter comes from Duke Orsino's famous lines at the opening of Twelfth Night:

“If music be the food of love, play on;

 Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

 The appetite may sicken, and so die.

 That strain again! it had a dying fall:

 O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,

 That breathes upon a bank of violets,

 Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:

‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”

Two notes: first, in the second line, if a reader is speaking in pentameter, the odds that they correctly pronounce the word “surfeiting” will be much higher than when they are speaking in prose. Shakespeare has so kindly placed the word so that the first and last syllable coincide with stressed syllables, making it much harder for a person encountering the word for the first time to mispronounce. (Of course Shakespeare didn’t write in meter so that we would have an easier time pronouncing difficult words, but it is a pleasant, if unintended, consequence for us, and one small way in which reading in meter actually makes Shakespeare easier to understand.)

Second, when speaking those lines aloud in exaggerated pentameter, readers will notice that the heart-beat pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables is perfectly accurate throughout the excerpt with one exception. The meter is regular until the 5th line (“stealing and giving odour...”), where there are 11 syllables instead of 10. Furthermore, the line itself begins with a stressed syllable -- “steal,” followed by an unstressed “-ing.” This type of metrical foot is known as a trochee.

“...and giving odour!” is again in regular iambic pentameter, but “Enough;”  could be read as having stresses on both syllables, making it a spondee. To finish the line, “no more:” also scans as an iamb. Usually a sentence with 11 syllables would have a “weak” or “feminine” ending, but in this case, I believe that there’s actually a caesura, or pause, after “enough;” so this line would technically be composed of 12 syllables, with 11 spoken and 1 taken as a pause.

You can see how these irregularities quickly complicate a seemingly straightforward process (and you can also see how much room there is for debate in this sort of work.)

Metrical irregularities and detective work

These sorts of metrical variations or irregularities occur frequently within the text. Often sentences will begin with a trochee, or a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Richard III’s famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” is one such example. This sort of opening is forceful and often sets the tone for the remainder of the speech, which is certainly true in Gloucester’s case.

In any event, to scan the text, the reader should go through line by line and note the stressed and unstressed syllables with a pencil. Technically, they don’t need to identify what type of foot each syllabic pair is, so long as they can correctly identify what should be stressed and what shouldn’t be. Often there are difficult lines and when I encounter these, I do my best and put an asterisk next to them, indicating that I would like to talk through them with someone else later on. If you really get stuck, we’ve listed two places where you can access (free!) previously scanned plays online for reference purposes.

To me, the exercise of scanning is analogous to tapping out the rhythm of notes, although there is generally more detective work involved and there isn’t always a “correct answer.” But, like learning to read music or to understand the rhythm of musical notation, it does get easier with time and practice. Eventually when you read verse out loud, you shouldn’t have to think much or at all about the meter; you should simply be able to read it in a smooth and flowing manner.

Scansion as a tool, not a strict requirement for reading

It’s also worth noting here that most readers don’t need to scan an entire play or every play they read. I personally have found that studying meter has been helpful in learning to read Shakespeare “fluently,” and then also in more involved writing projects. For instance, if you’re writing about a particular character or scene, it is often quite helpful to look at the meter. Alternatively, if you’re an actor, you’ll certainly want to look at the meter. But for most of us, it’s not a critical activity for each time we encounter Shakespeare. But it does really, really help to do for a while until you get a feel for it.

What meter can teach us about a play

As noted above, metrical irregularities are often instructive.

A well-known and oft-cited example is “to be or not to be that is the question.” The sentence contains 11 syllables – 1 too many – but the meter is regular all the way until the last syllable where it ends with an unaccented “-tion.” When you look exclusively at the accented syllables they read “be not be is quest” which succinctly reveals the thrust of the sentence. The extra syllable then trails off, indicating Hamlet’s indecisiveness. The beginning of the sentence is strong, but it isn’t a decisive sentence because of the additional syllable. To me, this speaks to the heart of Hamlet’s character and dilemma.

Readers may also be interested to note where and when characters who speak in meter do so and where they leave it behind. Hamlet and Lear both speak in meter until they go “mad” when both lapse into prose. In As You Like It, characters such as Rosalind, Celia, and Jacques speak to one another in prose but respond to the Duke in meter. While this may not seem inherently interesting to some, it does give the reader clues about characters' relationships with one another and about the tone of the scene as a whole. The cousins Rosalind and Celia are relaxed and playful when alone; a fact which is evinced both in the content of their speech and by its form.

Again, I completely understand that scansion isn’t something that everyone gets excited about, but just as organic chemistry makes general chemistry much easier to understand, so does metrical analysis illuminate Shakespeare. It requires more work on the part of the reader, but is well worth while in the end.

How understanding meter helps us to become better readers and writers

Last but not least, when we read and study verse of any kind we learn to read more closely. Poets in particular make such careful and incisive word choices that they teach us to gain a better appreciation for the nuances of any text. This appreciation often translates into precision in our own writing, as well.

When we scan a text, we look at it as though we’re looking at a specimen under a microscope. After we do this enough, we start looking more closely at everything we read, regardless of whether or not we’re scanning or formally studying it. And reading more carefully is always something to be encouraged!

Other resources

PlayShakespeare and Purdue Online Writing Lab both have helpful descriptions of the different metrical feet that readers are likely to encounter, as well as their proper notation. I would especially recommend the Purdue site to beginners as it also discusses other elements of scansion, and contains a treasure trove of information for writers and readers alike. 

If you’re looking for examples of scansion at work in the plays, both PrescannedShakespeare and ShakespeareScanned have posted Shakespeare’s Complete Works with their own scansion notated above each line of verse. I wouldn’t recommend using these resources as a replacement for your own scansion, but they could certainly be helpful to use when you’re just getting started or when you’d like a second opinion on a difficult line.

Share your experience

Have you ever looked at meter when reading or studying Shakespeare? What about for other poets? Are you the kind of person who loves this sort of exercise, or is it not exactly your “cup of tea”? Lastly, do you know of other free Shakespeare resources online that you think our readers would appreciate?

Let us know in a comment below! And please also let us know what other questions you have that we didn’t answer here or in either of our previous two Shakespeare posts.


The All-of-a-Kind Family Series

by Rebecca Ripperton
May 13, 2019

If you haven’t yet read Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, you are in for a treat.

This series of five chapter books recounts the lives of five Jewish sisters who live in Manhattan in the early 1900s with their Mama and Papa. Papa and Mama both immigrated to America from the “old country” and they now live on the Lower East Side where Papa runs a junk shop for local peddlers. (Mama has her hands full at home taking care of so many children!) 

At the beginning of the series, the oldest daughter Ella is twelve, and Gertie, the very youngest, is four. All five girls are spaced exactly two years apart, so they are a “steps-and-stairs,” or “all-of-a-kind” family, with Henny, Sarah, and Charlotte falling in the middle between Ella and Gertie. At the very end of the first book, a sweet baby boy named Charlie is added to the family! And at the end of the entire series, Ella has graduated from high school and is exploring a career as a professional singer.

All-of-a-Kind Family

Meet the All-of-a-Kind  Family — Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie — who live with their parents in New York City at the turn of the century. Together they share adventures that find them searching for hidden buttons while dusting Mama’s front parlor and visiting with the peddlers in Papa’s shop on rainy days. The girls enjoy doing everything together, especially when it involves holidays and surprises. But no one could have prepared them for the biggest surprise of all!
Ages 5-12

The sisters are all very different from one another, making them a lively gang. Yet, on the whole, the family is incredibly tight-knit and protective of one another.

The stories recounted in the series are simply about occurrences in the daily lives of the sisters. They include vignettes about mishaps that occur both at school and at home, the girls’ countless debates over deciding how to spend their daily pennies, preparations to throw a May Day party and countless other celebrations, despair over a lost and very precious library book, welcoming various friends from the community into their family, a Scarlet fever epidemic, one of the girls running for a high school class office as the very first female candidate, two very exciting engagements, and much, much more.

Family and Sisterhood

Growing up, being part of a family with five daughters would have been the fulfillment of my greatest childhood wish. I wanted as many sisters as I could possibly get, and consequently loved reading books about sisters! All-of-a-Kind Family was the gold standard in this regard, since there were a grand total of five girls with just one baby brother as a bonus. (Even though I preferred sisters, 5:1 was definitely an acceptable ratio.)

The sisters all slept together in one room and seemed to do just about everything, if not all together, then at least in pairs. Whenever one girl got into any kind of trouble, all the others were there to help. For example, in the very beginning of the first book, Sarah lends her weekly library book to a friend who loses it, but Sarah herself must pay the library for the cost of the book. Her sisters all agree to help her by each bringing a penny a week until the book is paid for in full.

All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown

Stand-alone chapters make this a perfect read-aloud, as the story follows the five sisters who are very busy, especially now that baby Charlie is growing so quickly. Ella gets a big role in the Purim play, Henny gets into trouble at school and runs away, Sarah gets her ears pierced, Charlotte has a scary kitchen accident, and Gertie finally is old enough to have a book of her own. This title, although written later, picks up right where the first, All-of-a-Kind Family, ended.
Ages 7-12

They are raised to look out for one another, and to share their joys and sorrows with each other. Family is clearly of the greatest importance to Mama, Papa, and each of the daughters; we see each character encounter situations where they must consider what is in the best interest of the entire family and make sacrifices for the whole family’s sake.

The girls also have aunts, uncles, and cousins aplenty who make appearances throughout the series, but it really is the relationship between all of the daughters that shines through most brightly in these books.

Love of Literature and Reading

The family isn’t able to afford books of their own, so the daughters have made a ritual of going to the library every Friday after school. Each girl is able to check out one book to read for the week, and they all look forward to this weekly event with great excitement. The younger daughters also anticipate the day when they are old enough to check out books of their very own, and feel that having a library membership is a great honor.

Two especial highlights of the series come when Papa receives a delivery of books at his junk shop and lets the girls pick out titles to keep for their very own, and later when one of the daughters wins a beautiful dictionary illustrated in color as an academic prize. The All-of-a-Kind Family girls truly cherish the books they are able to read, and as readers, we get to share in their excitement.

More All-of-a-Kind Family

​In the third book of Sydney Taylor’s classic children’s series, Ella finds a boyfriend and Henny disagrees with Papa over her curfew. Thus continues the tale of a Jewish family of five sisters-Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie-living at the turn of the century in New York’s Lower East Side. Entertaining and educational, this book brings to life the joys and fears of that time and place.
Ages 7-12

Today books are so readily available to us and are also much more affordable than they were in the past. It’s all too easy, as a result, to take their presence in our lives for granted, but All-of-a-Kind Family reminds us just how precious books truly are and just how much magic and joy they can bring into our lives.

The Jewish Faith

Throughout all of her books, Sydney Taylor does a wonderful job of introducing the reader to the Jewish faith, as well as many of its rituals and holy days. In her writing, Taylor manages to integrate the retelling of a biblical story, her description of its contemporary celebration, and the involvement of the All-of-a-Kind Family members. Their family’s faith truly is a living one, and Taylor portrays it beautifully.

Preparations for the Sabbath are woven into the fabric of the family’s week, with frequent references made to faith, the Torah, and Hebrew tradition. The family also prepares their food in accordance with kosher law, and observes annual holy days, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukah, and Passover. Sydney Taylor also provides the reader with an in-depth introduction to lesser-known holidays, such as Sukkot, Purim, Simchat Torah, and even Pidyon Haben – a celebration honoring the birth of a first-born son.

All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown

​After moving uptown to the Bronx, the charming All-of-a-Kind Family have a new home, new neighbors and new friends. There’s always something exciting going on. Ella misses Jules who has joined the Army, Henny spills tea on a dress she borrowed without asking, Sarah works to win a prize at school, Charlotte takes the elevated train without paying her fare, Gertie makes a pancake, and Charlie is terrified when he meets Santa Claus! And things are are especially busy as Mother has gone into the hospital, and everyone must help out to make the house run smoothly.
Ages 8-13

Papa and Mama encourage their girls to ask questions about their religious beliefs and practices as they are growing up, and provide thoughtful answers, so the reader is given the chance to learn alongside of the daughters. (And the age differences between all the children make for a great variety of questions!)

Growing up in the Christian church, my brother and I were familiar with the stories from The Old Testament that Taylor retells, but not the traditions and celebrations associated with them. We loved listening to our Mom read the All-of-a-Kind Family books aloud to us, and we also learned a remarkable amount about the Jewish faith without ever realizing it at the time!

The “All-of-a-Kind Family” Books and the “Betsy-Tacy” Series

As I was re-reading this series in preparation for this post, I was struck by the many similarities between the All-of-a-Kind Family books and the Betsy-Tacy series. Both series feature families of (mainly) sisters of approximately the same age. Both series are set in the early 20th century and note the effects of World War I on their families and communities. Books, theatre, and music feature prominently in both series. Rich family lives are also at the center of both series, with faith as an ever-present backdrop. Education is strongly emphasized by both sets of parents, as is moral character and decision-making. And both series struck a beautiful balance of light-hearted play with more serious subjects.

Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family

World War I has ended, and Ella, the oldest of the five sisters, who dreams of singing and dancing in the theater, is discovered by a Broadway talent scout. It seems that she will have her chance at a theatrical career after all, starting in vaudeville. But her thoughts are also on Jules, just returned from the War, and marriage. Once again a loving family provides the support needed to make the right decision.
Ages 9-15

I was most struck, however, by the similarities between the later books in each series, in particular Betsy and the Great World and Ella of All of a Kind Family. These two books feel like outliers from the rest of their respective series, since both take one character and more or less isolate her in the early stages of her adulthood. Ultimately I think these two books merit their own post since they’re almost in a genre of their own. But more on this coming soon!

Share your experience!

Have you ever read the All-of-a-Kind Family books, or any other titles by Sydney Taylor? If so, we'd love to hear what you thought about reading them! If you haven't read them yet, do they sound like the kind of books that you or your children would enjoy?

Please let us know in a comment below! We love sharing our favorite books with you, and hearing your thoughts on them, as well!

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