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Most of Shakespeare's plays are written in iambic pentameter,‎ which is part of what makes the verse so powerful.‎ However,‎ due to differences between different manuscripts of the text, and words that have a different number of syllables in Shakespeare's English than ours,‎ it is often hard for a layperson to determine how a given line breaks up into the appropriate meter.‎

For example,‎ this line of Richard II where John of Gaunt addresses his son Henry Bolingbroke:‎

Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honour
And not the king exiled thee; or suppose
Devouring pestilence hangs in our air
And thou art flying to a fresher clime

It is hard for me to see how you could fit the first line into ten syllables.‎

I'm wondering if there is some scholarly work that has broken the lines up,‎ or someone who comments on these things,‎ or merely if anyone has tips for a novice trying to find the meter for verses in Shakespeare when it seems ambiguous.‎

  • 1
    (1) Iambic pentameter isn't just ten syllables in line. "I once met a young man from Jamaica" has ten syllables and would make a good first line of a limerick (anapestic trimeter), but isn't remotely iambic pentameter. (2) If the last syllable in a line is not stressed, it isn't counted in the ten syllables needed for iambic pentameter. – Peter Shor Oct 23 at 13:20
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Reading comes first

Shakespeare’s plays are written to be spoken by actors on stage, to convey meaning, nuance, and emotion to an audience. This dramatic purpose comes first, before considerations of metre. So the way to scan Shakespeare’s verse drama is to start by reading it aloud, and figuring out where the stress needs to go to best convey the sense, without worrying (at this stage) where the foot boundaries go, or how to fit the stresses into the metre.

Here’s how I read this passage (stressed syllables in bold):

Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honour
And not the king exiled† thee; or suppose
Devouring pestilence hangs in our air
And thou art flying to a fresher clime

† See the “Language change” section below for “exiled”.

In the first line, I’ve put stress on “I” rather than “sent” because Gaunt is saying that it would be expedient to pretend that he has sent Bolingbroke away, not the king. Thus the “I” in the first line contrasts with the “king” in the second, and both words should be stressed to bring out this contrast. For the same reason I have stressed “our” in the third line. In the second line, I’ve put a stress on “or” to bring out that Gaunt is casting about for alternative ways to console his son.

But if you have a different interpretation of the passage, you might prefer to put the stress on other words! If you disagree with me about the point being to contrast “I” and “king”, then you might prefer to stress “sent” in the first line and leave “our” unstressed in the third. Similarly, you might prefer to stress “thee” rather than “or” in the second line. There are many ways to deliver Shakespeare.

Once you have a line-reading that you like, then you can figure out how to scan it as iambic metre.

Exceptions in iambic metre

Shakespeare was writing in iambic pentameter. But if every line were to scan perfectly, the result would be terribly monotonous. Some flexibility in metre is necessary to allow the poet to break the monotony, employ a wider and more natural choice of expressions, and throw stress on significant parts of the line. So within the English poetic tradition, iambic metre came to allow certain kinds of exception.

Strictly speaking, each of the five feet should be iambic. But that proved hard to manage in any spirited and spontaneous kind of language. Custom quickly came to license the following exceptions, and if we must date the event it was during that period when modern English was finding its poetic language, a period concluded triumphantly in the verse of Sidney and Spenser.

  1. Two unstressed syllables could replace the one which iambic permits, if “elision” was possible whether actually in speech, or only theoretically.

  2. An extra unstressed syllable after the tenth made a “feminine ending,” and did not count.

  3. In any foot except the last the iambic could be reversed, i.e., replaced by a trochaic foot.†

These are substantially the exceptions as codified by [Robert] Bridges in The Prosody of Milton‡, the best handbook we have on iambic pentameters. What Bridges codified was Milton’s code, as it had been for several generations the code of Milton’s predecessors, and would be for his successors over a century and a half; since then it has been well known to poet-prosodists, and adhered to systematically when they pleased. But it is not quite complete, in my judgment. I wish Bridges had added:

  1. Any two successive iambic feet might be replaced by a double or ionic foot.

John Crowe Ransom (1956). ‘The Strange Music of English Verse’. The Kenyon Review 18:3, p. 471.

† Most prosodists also allow substitution by a spondee, including in the last foot. ‡ Sic; the work is titled Milton’s Prosody.

With these exceptions in mind, we can scan my preferred reading as follows. In the first line the first two feet are substituted with trochees (Ransom’s exception 3) and there is a feminine ending (exception 2):

Go, say | I sent | thee forth | to purch- | ase honour

The second line is regular:

And not | the king | exiled | thee; or | suppose

In the third line the fourth foot is substituted with a trochee and the fifth with a spondee, but there is a problem with the third foot, which doesn’t have any stress:

Devour- | ing pest | ilence | hangs in | our air

We can rescue the scansion by placing a little stress on “-lence”, a so-called “promoted stress” or “secondary stress”, making the foot an iamb. English always has some variation in stress on adjacent syllables, so this is not unreasonable.

The fourth line also needs a promoted stress on “to”, but is otherwise regular:

And thou | art fly- | ing to | a fresh- | er clime

What if this doesn’t work?

You might find, after going through this exercise, that your preferred reading can’t be scanned as iambic pentameter, even after employing all the exceptions. There are a few reasons why this might happen:

  1. You’ve misunderstood the line and so put some of the stresses in wrong places. You might look at annotated editions of the play to see how other readers have interpreted the line.

  2. Shakespeare pronounced some of the words with stresses in different places. For example, “exiled” in the second line of this passage. See the “Language change” section below.

  3. The line is exceptional. For example, a couple of lines before this passage, there’s the line:

    Think not the king did banish thee

    which has only eight syllables. Either two syllables two have been lost from this line, or else Shakespeare was content to vary the rhythm with an occasional tetrameter.

Language change

When scanning Shakespeare, we always have to bear in mind that four hundred years of language change have taken place, and so Shakespeare and his contemporaries pronounced words and phrases somewhat differently from us.

In the passage from Richard II the main difficulty of this form is “exiled” in the second line, which is now always pronounced “exiled”, with the stress on the first syllable. However, it seems that Shakespeare could also pronounce it “exiled”, with the stress on the second syllable, if he chose. It has this property in common with many other English words of French origin:

Perhaps there is no language in which, within a comparatively short period, more words have shifted their accent, than has been the case in the English tongue.

Speaking generally, the wholesale stress-shifting which French words had undergone in becoming English ones, had been consummated before Shakespeare’s time; still, the number of deviations from the modern practice in this regard to be found in his works, is a very respectable one. Of such deviations we give examples in the first column of the following list […]

exile (verb) M. N. D. iii, 2, 386.

Bastiaan Adriaan Pieter van Dam and Cornelis Stoffel (1900). William Shakespeare: Prosody and Text, pp. 178–180. Leyden: E. J. Brill.

The line referred to is:

They wilfully themselves exil’d from light,

William Shakespeare (c. 1595). A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act III scene II.

An even clearer example of the phenomenon is this line:

Both you and I, for Romeo is exil’d.

William Shakespeare (c. 1595). Romeo and Juliet, act III scene II.

This kind of internal evidence for pronunciation can never be wholly conclusive: we can’t use the scansion to tell us the stress unless we know what Shakespeare intended it to be, which we don’t. But the line from Romeo and Juliet would be quite ugly with “exiled”.

Resources

There are several web sites which give scansions for Shakespeare’s complete works. But you mustn’t take these as gospel, because as discussed above, the scansion has to follow from the stress that you put on the lines when reading, and that depends on how you interpret the lines, and what you think needs to be conveyed to the audience. Different interpretations will give rise to different scansions.

Prescanned Shakespeare gives the following scansion. Their notation uses ^ for an elision (exception 1), 2 for two unstressed syllables in a foot, T for a “double foot in which three long syllables are put together”, and ?? for a difficult line.

  ,           ,           ,         ,          ,
 Go say^I | sent thee | forth to | purchase | honor  ??
      ,          ,     T  T    T      2     ,
 And not | the king | exiled thee;| or suppose
    ,        ,      ,       ,             ,
 Devour|ing pest|ilence | hangs in | our air
       ,         ,       ,       ,        ,
 And thou | art fly|ing to | a fresh|er clime:

In my opinion this is a terrible way to scan the passage! It is hard to read, misses the sense, destroys the iambic rhythm by substituting all five feet in the first line, and the “double foot [with] three long syllables” is not admitted as an iambic variant by Bridges, Ransom or other prosodists. Therefore I would advise caution when using this site!

Shakespeare Scanned gives:

Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honour
And not the king exiled thee; or suppose
Devouring pestilence hangs in our air
And thou art flying to a fresher clime

This scansion regularizes all the feet (except for the feminine ending in the first line), which seems a little dull to me. Also, it is hard to reconcile an unstressed “Go” in the first line with the comma that follows it. But at least this scansion is readable, unlike the one at Prescanned Shakespeare.

Example performance

Here’s Michael Pennington delivering the speech at the Royal Shakespeare Company. His choices for this passage are as follows:

Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honour
And not the king exiled thee; or suppose
Devouring pestilence hangs in our air
And thou art flying to a fresher clime

But other actors will make different choices.

| improve this answer | |
  • I would say that the second line is not regular. I would scan it "And not the king exiled thee; or suppose, with a trochaic substitution in the fourth foot. This also emphasizes the break after "thee" and keeps stress off the conjunction "or". – Peter Shor Oct 23 at 13:27
  • Wow! Very thorough.‎ Thanks for the help! – ak0000 Oct 25 at 15:22

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