In school, students are often taught about iambic pentameter via Shakespearian examples. These, however, were based on the Received Pronunciation (RP) reading of Shakespeare's works. In reality, Shakespeare used an entirely different pronunciation, replete with differences which removed syllables relative to Received Pronunciation.

Take the first stanza of Romeo and Juliet:

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.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;

Compare with the OP of the stanza in David Crystal's video How did Romeo and Juliet sound to Shakespeare’s contemporaries?

How can iambic pentameter possibly work when the syllables that are meant to be stressed aren't even present?

  • 4
    Do you have an example of a passage of text that doesn't have the same number of syllables in RP and OP? The video you've linked has exactly the same syllabic structure as the passage when read in RP. I'm skeptical of the claim that OP removes stressed syllables that by iamb should be there.
    – user80
    Feb 8, 2017 at 5:24
  • @Emrakul There's more OP stuff to be seen. Quite a bit, actually. The readings tend to swallow triphthongs among other distinctions that, I believe, should be an impediment. Feb 8, 2017 at 18:21
  • Actually, most often OP scans better than modern pronunciation. Take sonnet X, which contains the line "For thou art so possessed with murderous hate." There's an extra syllable in murderous, which Shakespeare didn't pronounce (he spelled it murdrous).
    – Peter Shor
    May 3, 2019 at 21:04

1 Answer 1


I think the disconnect may derive from regarding Shakespeare's plays as being written literature. The publication of the text versions of his play, whether in the the First Folios, the quartos, or any later form, were subsequent to the performance of the work. Although Shakespeare is potentially more widely read than any other poet, this method of engaging in is work is always secondary.

The poetry of Shakespeare's plays is meant to be spoken. Thus, the metric problems you refer to would have been non-issues:

  • If, in rehearsal, a line doesn't scan, the line can be altered.

It is also notable that the exact text which was performed while Shakespeare was at the Globe may never be known. Text was altered by intent or by accident, and there were both authorized and unauthorized publications during that period.

Modern text of Shakespeare, whether for reading or performance, represent amalgamations of different versions. Even today, the exact text you will see performed may very likely been altered by a dramaturge drawing from alternate versions.

Nearly all modern adaptations have the intent of making the Bard's work more accessible to modern audiences and readers, which may include syllabic alteration.

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