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.

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Starting from Scratch: How To Establish a Read Aloud Family

by Lisa Ripperton
​May 16, 2019

Maybe some of you, like me, did not grow up in a "Read Aloud family", and are wondering what steps you can take to establish a culture of reading aloud in your home when you did not experience one yourself, and what you might do to get started. So, in this post I share my experience of reading as I was growing up and the first steps I took to prepare for reading with my children.

Family culture growing up

I was fortunate to grow up in a family where both my parents read regularly, even though they never read to us. They both had books going all the time, with my mother reading mostly fiction and my father reading more broadly. And, for the most part, they did their reading in the family room, so we caught the habit from them. Rather than reading together, we watched our favorite TV shows as a family several evenings a week.

School textbooks

I learned to read before entering first grade from a Dick and Jane primer lying around the house. When I got to school, years of more Dick and Jane readers stretched out before me. I remember one of the reading textbooks was called Just Imagine! though there was nothing imaginative in it at all. With dull stories, followed by pages of workbook exercises, I am amazed that my love for reading was not extinguished!

School library

I have no memory of any of my elementary school teachers ever reading aloud to my class, but I do remember visits to the school library. It was housed in a space about the size of a deep janitor's closet, with bookshelves along three sides and barely enough room for three children to browse at a time. Here I discovered Curious George, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and a generous collection of Hardy Boys books.

Classroom libraries

The first grade I remember having a classroom library was the 4th grade with three built-in shelves holding dozens of elementary biographies in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. I read them all! The next year in the 5th grade there were a dozen or so books on government displayed on the windowsill that we were required to read by the end of the year.

Public library

I have no memory of being taken to the public library as a child. I do recall going there by myself when I was in middle school and being overwhelmed by so many choices that I left empty-handed.

Home library

At home we had a small bookshelf in the upstairs hall that contained some children's books that I am guessing had been my father's, among them Lang's Red Fairy Book and Blue Fairy Book and The Christmas Reindeer by Thornton W. Burgess.

Gifts from relatives

But my best source of books were gifts bought by my Granny and Uncle Ralph at the Wide Awake Bookshop in Wilkes-Barre, PA. (Isn't that a wonderful name for a book store?) My favorites were Rumer Godden's The Fairy Doll and Holly and Ivy, d'Aulaire's Benjamin Franklin, Marguerite de Angeli's Skippack School, as well as Stories That Never Grow Old and Scrambled Eggs Super! I read these volumes over and over again, lingering over the text and poring over the illustrations.

First opportunity to read aloud

When I was almost nine, my younger sister Meg arrived on the scene just days before Christmas. She soon became a ready audience for my first read aloud attempts. We made our way through Pat the Bunny, Chicken Soup with Rice, Little Bear, and If I Ran the Circus. But when she could decipher the text herself, our read aloud sessions stopped. Fast forward a couple of years and she entered my room while I was immersed in Andersen's "Great Claus and Little Claus." I started reading aloud and we were soon howling with laughter, giving me a glimpse of what family read aloud time might look like.

A suggestion from my older sister

A couple of months before my first son was due to arrive, my sister Judy paid me a weekend visit. Among the advice she gave me was to not expect our mother to gush over this new baby of mine. She would not be any more affectionate with him than she had been with us, Judy warned. But she did say that I could become the kind of mother that I wished I had had, and in that there was healing. That idea sent my hopes soaring!

​First book about books

One of my first purchases after Nathan was born was Nancy Larrick's A Parent's Guide to Children's Reading. I was ready to begin reading to my little bundle of joy. But Larrick's guide overwhelmed me with page after page that listed titles, with minimal description of the contents. I needed someone to hold my hand and take me step by step through the process.​

​The Read Aloud Handbook

With one story after another about why to read aloud, how to read aloud, and what to read aloud, Jim Trelease's first edition of The Read Aloud Handbook was the guide I sought. It was so helpful to me that I still recommend his handbook today as the first title to read about reading aloud. All editions of The Read Aloud Handbook are worth reading. Trelease estimates that he changed about 40% of the text in each new edition, changing the stories, and updating the research, as well as revising the book selections to include only those currently in print. The 7th edition, recently released, is the final one, according to Trelease.

Commitment to learning about children's books

With Trelease's recommendations limited to books in print, I felt the need to educate myself about worthy books from the past. Two books by May Hill Arbuthnot I found especially useful: Children's Reading in the Home (1969) and Children's Books Too Good To Miss (1971). ​

Children's Books Too Good To Miss lists fewer books, but as the title implies, the ones they do list are exceptional, as seen in the page spread below. ​

Children's Reading in the Home is comprehensive in scope, with lengthy entries describing books in a variety of genres. Sample page spreads below feature selections from Biography, Animal Stories, and ​Historical Fiction. Many of the descriptions were so memorable that I remembered them years after I first encountered them. The name of Reginald Ottley, for example, author of Boy Alone included in the last page spread, immediately leaped to mind when I spotted a sequel of this title in a bookshop a couple of months ago.

More books about children's books

There are dozens of other books about books that I can heartily recommend, but, not wanting to overwhelm you, I will share those little by little.

Start with humor

​Finally, start reading! Here are three titles, sure to spark laughter, that are enjoyed by all ages:

​I read Mr. Popper's Penguins and My Father's Dragon to the great delight of all my children. But somehow Daniel missed out on Owls in the Family, so I read it to him recently at the ripe old age of 27. We both had a hard time containing our laughter and hated to have the book come to an end!

The Takeaway

Start where you are! If you were not steeped in books as a child, don't bemoan your lack of advantage, but commit to providing a different sort of environment for your family. For inspiration read any edition of Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook. Then, ​gradually become familiar with the best of children's books by doing a little reading every day in one of the books about books that we recommend. Make that easy by keeping a copy in the bathroom or on your nightstand and make the reading of it a regular habit. You will be surprised how quickly your knowledge of children's books will grow, making it easier to zero in on worthy titles whenever you find yourself at the library or the ​book shop.

What resources can we provide?

​What sorts of information would be most helpful to you as you are building a culture of reading in your home and beyond? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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