Reading Shakespeare in Meter
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!
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.