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The Complete Shakespeare Comedy and Dramatic Monologues for Women

Metrical Scansion for Actors

Geoffrey G. Forward
Copyright © 1998 Geoffrey G. Forward all rights reserved

(Exerpted and slightly revised from the Introduction of The Complete 
Shakespeare Comedy and Dramatic Monologues for Women.)

Many actors feel that there is a mystery surrounding the analysis of the meter, or rhythm, in Shakespeare's verse. But there is no mystery to it. It is not even difficult. This little essay gives you a simple four step method that clears up the mystery and makes the analysis easy.

First, some general satements about verse rhythm.

Stress, Accent, Emphasis

All verse has a rhythm, or meter. It is made up of units of rhythm repeated over and over. It can be da da dum, da da dum, or dum da da , dum da da, or 
da dum, da dum, or dum da, dum da, or any other repeated combination. In speech this rhythm is created by a repeated pattern of stressed and nonstressed syllables.

Over the years, different markings have been used to identify the stressed and non-stressed syllables. In printed texts, either an X or a curved line is placed over the soft, or non-stressed syllable. An accent mark or, in some older texts, a straight horizontal line, is placed over the stressed, or emphasized, syllable. But, in this  web document, we will make the stressed syllable bold.

It is easy to feel the verse rhythm when you speak the words out loud. For example, say the following rhythm out loud, putting extra stress, or emphasis, on the bold syllable:

da dum, da dum, da dum, da dum, da dum

All English words of two or more syllables have one syllable stressed (accented, emphasized) more than the other(s): 

pret/ty, hand/some, ac/tor, de/sire, be/lieve, o/kay.

A word of three or more syllables also has a secondary syllable stress. (We will underline the secondary stress syllable): 

ad/ver/tise, sur/pris/ing/ly.

In addition, words that are important to the logic and emotion of the thought are emphasized more than others. As in the following line:

Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.

(Hamlet, 2.2.550)
Iambic Pentameter

Shakespeare’s verse dialogue is written in a rhythm, or meter, called iambic pentameter. Analyzing the rhythm is called scanning  the verse. When you scan the verse you are actually looking for the variations in the rhythm. It is easy to learn how to scan the verse for the rhythm. First, let’s look at some definitions.

Iambic means: a recurring two-beat rhythm, with the first beat light and the second beat strong, da dum. These beats may also be called “soft” stress and “hard” stress, “unstressed” and “stressed,” or “unaccented” and “accented.” 

Pentameter is composed of two words: Penta, meaning five, and meter, meaning measure, or rhythm. The syllable is the basic unit of rhythm, each syllable corresponding to one beat. The printed line is the unit of measurement.

In a regular iambic pentameter line there are five basic rhythm units (iambs) and ten syllables..

da dum, da dum, da dum, da dum, da dum

A line of verse may be in regular rhythm or it may have a variation from the regular rhythm. We will review the variations in the section on Variations.

Scanning Shakespeare's Verse

There are four simple steps to scanning Shakespeare’s verse. Let’s scan the following regular iambic pentameter line of Shakespeare’s verse.

When forty winters shall besiege they brow

(Sonnet 2.1)
1. Count the syllables and mark off every two syllables. 

There are ten syllables in the above line. Ten is the basic number of syllables per line in iambic pentameter. If we divide the syllables into units of two syllables each, we have five (penta) units. These two-syllable units are called “feet.”  (Here’s an interesting note. The Elizabethans called them “feet” because, they said, some rhythms are dancing, some are plodding, some are galloping, etc.. We dance, plod, gallop with our feet.)  Iambic Pentameter has five feet per line. The feet may be numbered 1 through 5, for easy reference.

When for / ty win / ters shall / besiege / thy brow

First foot -- When for / ; second foot -- ty win / ; third foot -- ters shall / ; fourth foot -- besiege / ; fifth foot --  thy brow

2. Mark the normal spoken syllable stress of words of two or more syllables. 

For example, in for/ty and win/ters the first syllable is normally stressed. In besiege, the second syllable is normally stressed.

When for/ty win/ters shall/ besiege/ thy brow

3. Mark the other syllable in the foot. 

In the foot  where one syllable is already marked, decide if the other syllable in the foot should be marked as stressed or non-stressed. (We will show you how to decide if the syllable should be stressed or non-stressed in the next section, Variations.) For example, in the first foot for is already marked as stressed, so you mark when as non-stressed. In the third foot ters is already marked non-stressed, so you mark shall as stressed. 

When for/ty win/ters shall/ besiege/ thy brow

4. Mark the important words in the remaining unmarked feet. 

For any unmarked foot remaining, such as foot 5, decide which is the more important word in the foot, that is, the word likely to receive more emphasis when you speak the line, and mark it.

When for/ty win/ters shall/ besiege/ thy brow

Note: Normally the second syllable of the fifth foot is a stressed syllable, except in the case of the weak ending, discussed in the next section.

Say the scanned line out loud, giving extra emphasis to the syllables marked as stressed.

When for/ty win/ters shall/ besiege/ thy brow

There is a kind of metronomic woodenness when you say the lines with a strict iambic pentameter rhythm. You can give the rhythm a little variety and make it sound more like normal speech by simply speaking the lines more like normal speech, but a whole speech spoken in an unvarying iambic pentameter soon becomes boring. Shakespeare knew that was not good, so he helped the actor by varying the rhythm in four ways.


Elizabethan iambic pentameter commonly allowed three variations of the iambic rhythm and one variation in the number of syllables per line.

1. Trochee, trochaic, dum da

The first syllable in the foot is given strong stress, the second syllable light stress, as in feet 1 and 4 below:

We are/ amazed,/ and thus/ long have/ we stood

(Richard III, 3.3.72)

2. Pyrrhic, da da

Both syllables in the foot receive light stress, as in foot 3 below:

Deny/ thy fa/ther and /refuse/ thy name:

(Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.34)

3. Spondee, spondaic, dum dum

Both syllables in the foot receive strong stress, as in feet 1 and 3 below:

Vaunt-cour/iers of /oak-cleav/ing thun/derbolts

(King Lear, 3.2.5)

Note: The decision to make a foot a trochee, a pyrrhic, or a spondee is  based on the actor’s judgment of whether or not a word should be emphasized in normal speech.

4. Extra eleventh syllable. 

Another allowable variation is the eleven syllable line. In the eleven syllable line the extra syllable must be unstressed. It may be at the end of the line, sometimes called a “feminine ending”:

To be,/ or not/ to be,/ that is /the ques/tion:

Hamlet, 3.1.55

Or it may be before a strong pause (caesura) within the line, as  the syllable  ic between the 2nd and 3rd feet below:

Some Heav’n/ly mus/ic (which e/ven now/ I do)

(Tempest, 5.1.52)

Other Variations

At times, to make the metrical rhythm work, a syllable may be dropped (elided, elision) from a word or a syllable may be added to a word. For example, in the above line heavenly was changed from a three-syllable word, Hea/ven/ly, to a two-syllable word, heav’n/ly. The mark, ( ’ ), is placed where the syllable is dropped.

In the following line, vo/ca/tion is changed from a three-syllable word to a four-syllable word by making tion two syllables ( and will’d is elided):

Will’d me/ to leave /my base/ voca/tion

(1 Henry VI, 1.2.80)

The line below contains a syllable addition and a syllable deletion:

He ne’er/ lift up/ his hand/ but con/quered.

(1 Henry VI, 1.1.16)

Whether or not you pronounce the ed ending depends on the meter.

Our bruis/ed arms/ hung up/ for mon/uments,

(Richard III, 1.1.6)

Grim-vis/ag’d War /hath smooth’d /his wrink/led front;

(Richard III, 1.1.9)

Normally, the second syllable of the fifth foot in the line is stressed. Occasionally in Shakespeare’s later plays a line will not end with a strong spoken stress on the second syllable of the fifth foot. This is called a “weak ending.”

(As I /foretold/ you) were/ all spi/rits, and

(Tempest, 4.1.149)

Scanning the verse helps you, as an actor, in a number of ways. Sometimes it helps you find the right word to emphasize. It may help you find the sense of the lines by making you answer questions, such as, what is the most important word or image here. It also gives you the confidence that you know what you are doing. Another benefit is that finding the rhythm and the variations in the rhythm helps you memorize the lines. With that said, it is possible to be a good Shakespearean actor without knowing how to analyze the meter. But you’ll be a better Shakespearean actor if you can do metrical scansion.

The difference between verse and prose

Verse is written in iambic pentameter, that is ten syllables per line, with a predominantly iambic rhythm. Prose has a varying number of syllables per line and its rhythm varies.

To find out if a speech is in verse or prose, count the number of syllables in the lines. If they are consistently ten or eleven, the speech is verse. If the lines have no consistent number of syllables, it is prose. It’s that simple

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