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Living the Language: Iambic Pentameter and Scansion



Materials: Copies of The Grand Old Duke of York, and text from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet. The actors will need copies of the Romeo and Juliet text.
Grade: K-12
Goal(s): To introduce and explore poetic rhythm. To experience iambic pentameter through use of the whole body. To introduce Shakespeare's use of language, specifically his use of iambic pentameter, as a tool for discovering the physical, emotional, and psychological nature of the characters in his plays.

Shakespeare wrote his plays in a poetic style called iambic pentameter. Like other forms of poetry, iambic pentameter is a type of metered verse. By combining the two ACTivities The Grand Old Duke of York* and Stressing the Iambs*, Iambic Pentameter* can be introduced in a sequenced and physical way.


Grand Old Duke of York | Introducing Iambic Pentameter | Stressing the Iambs

ACTivity: The Grand Old Duke of York*




1. Have the actors sit in a circle. Teach the rhyme The Grand Old Duke of York. See below.
2. In unison, the actors recite the rhyme.
3. Once the actors are comfortable with the words, have them remove their right shoes.
4. Repeat the rhyme in unison while using the shoes to pound out the rhythm of the rhyme as they recite. For example, "The" would not be said with the pounding of a shoe but "Grand" would be. "The" does not receive emphasis while "Grand" does. The words emphasized in the rhyme are highlighted in bold.
5. Once the actors are comfortable with the rhythm, keep the established rhythm while passing the shoes (on the emphasized words) from actor to actor, around the circle. Actors should "pound" the shoe in front of the actor they are passing it to.

Text: The Grand Old Duke of York

The Grand Old Duke of York
He had ten thou sand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill And he marched them down a gain (beat beat)

(*) Note: the rhyme is followed by two "beats" (pounding of the shoe) before it is ended or repeated.

Because Shakespeare writes in iambic pentameter, a very specific rhythm results. This rhythm is composed of putting ten syllables in one line. Each syllable receives (or does not receive) emphasis. This emphasis is called stress. Shakespeare stresses the syllables he feels are the most important to understanding the speaking and meaning of a line of text.

Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter to help the actor make choices in speaking the lines of his text. Iambic pentameter should not be spoken in a singsong rhythm of stress-unstressed syllables. Like other metered verse, iambic pentameter must be spoken for sense and meaning. As a poet, Shakespeare wrote with rich imagery and wonderful combinations of words. As a playwright, Shakespeare knew the importance of making sure that his use of poetic language enhanced, not inhibited, the characters, plots, and performance of his plays.

Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter to direct actors on how to speak, when to pause, and even how to color words. Because Shakespeare was so careful in following - or not following - the rules of iambic pentameter, the emotional and psychological state of his characters are very clear in the words and rhythm of their speech. It is important for actors to understand how iambic pentameter works so that they follow Shakespeare's lead as to who their character is and why (and how) the character speaks.

Iambic pentameter follows the rhythm (or meter): unstressed-stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed-stressed. This means that syllables (or iambs) - not just whole words - become very important to how words and sentences are spoken. The rhythm of iambic pentameter and the rhythm of the human heartbeat are similar. This similarity awakens the natural flow of the words and, when that flow is altered or broken, alerts the actor to the necessity of making a change in how the words are spoken. This is called scansion. Scansion is the key that unlocks Shakespeare's text.


ACTivity: Introducing Iambic Pentameter*

1. Have the actors find a new place to sit in the circle. Their right shoes should remain off.
2. Teach the text from A Midsummer Night's Dream. See below.
3. Repeat the text in unison while using the shoes to pound out the rhythm of the text as they recite. For example, "And" would not be said with the pounding of a shoe but "I" would be. "And" does not receive emphasis while "I" does. The syllables emphasized are highlighted in bold.
4. Once the actors are comfortable with the rhythm, keep the established rhythm while passing the shoes (on the unstressed syllables) from actor to actor, around the circle.

Text: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act 3, Scene 1)

And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;

One thing you will notice about iambic pentameter is that the syllables that are stressed, when put together, will often give the general meaning of the whole line. This is helpful because an actor can ask him/herself, "Am I conveying what Shakespeare wants my character to convey?" and find the answer by reviewing the stressed syllables. Again, iambic pentameter should not be spoken in a singsong rhythm of stress-unstressed syllables. Like other metered verse, iambic pentameter must be spoken for sense and meaning.


ACTivity: Stressing the Iambs*

1. Have the actors put their shoes back on and break into small groups of 5 to 7. One group at a time will come up in front of the others.
2. Distribute a copy of the text from Romeo and Juliet (see below) to each member of the group.
3. Have the actors in each group stand shoulder to shoulder in a line. The actors should hold the text in hand.
4. Each actor reads a syllable, in order, out loud. If they have a stressed syllable they must rise on their toes, if their syllable is unstressed they must squat. For example, "Two" would be said while squatting. "House" would be said while rising up on one's toes. "Two" is a syllable with no stress. "House" is a syllable that is stressed. Text 2 has the stressed syllables in bold.
5. Once the actors are comfortable with the rhythm, keep the established rhythm while speaking as quickly as possible.

Romeo and Juliet (Act 1, Scene 1)

Text 1

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.
From Ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood, makes civil hands unclean.

Text 2

Two-house\ holds-both\ a-like\ in-dig\ ni-ty,
In-fair\ Ver-on\ a-where\ we-lay\ our-scene.
From An\ cient-grudge\ break-to\ new-mu\ ti-ny,
Where-civ\ il-blood\ makes-civ\ il-hands\ un-clean.

Shakespeare does not always have his characters speak in iambic pentameter. Characters who have little or no education speak in blank verse. Characters who are ethereal, highly emotional, and/or suffering madness may speak in blank verse, metered verse, or break the verse - following their own rhythm. A rule of thumb is that regardless of their education, characters who are in love speak in iambic pentameter. Shakespeare must have felt that love lifts us all into a realm of heightened language and poetic imagery.

Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter in the way many musical artists use jazz or rap. It is a language as much as it is a club. One cannot perform it (join) until they understand the flow (rules) of it. Shakespeare's characters make the choice to speak their words in different ways, following or breaking the flow of language's rhythm. Actors need to remember that Shakespeare's words and rhythm give all the clues and meanings necessary to speak and act the role. Like the jazz or rap musician, Shakespeare brings the sounds and meanings of language to life by using rhythm and words in new and interesting ways.


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Return to Stage 2
Return to Stage 3
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