Making Shakespeare’s Verse work for you

Click here for the Verse Examples

Intro
I’ll start with my experience of Shakespeare. I didn’t have a great start with Shakespeare. My family had a friend called Trevor Peacock, a terrific actor, who played Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream quite often at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park. So, my parents would take me to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a very early age. People often think it’s a suitable play for young people, as it’s got fairies and magic in, but it’s quite a complicated play to follow so it was a bit of a blur for me – I wasn’t hugely enthusiastic. It probably wasn’t the best introduction to Shakespeare.  

At ‘O’ Level,  I had to do an exam on Macbeth, and I had German measles - so I had to sit in a hall writing an essay on it on my own. I had no enthusiasm for it whatsoever. So I was very lucky that once I got to University (I studied History & German) I happened to be in Germany, and a friend was putting on a production of Macbeth, and because I spoke the best English, I was asked to play Macbeth. During that, I just loved it, and got the play completely. I’ve been doing Shakespeare ever since.  At the end of Drama School, I was meant to be playing Coriolanus, but I landed my first professional acting job and left early, so I never got to play it – I'm looking forward to watching the Tom Hiddleston one tonight!  

I’ve done lots of Shakespeare as a professional actor and run lots of workshops – I had the good fortune to meet Christopher Geelan and Sarah Gordon, who run the Young Shakespeare Company, with them I’ve done lots of work.  

So, Shakespeare’s verse. A lot of actors get put off by verse speaking in Shakespeare, they think of it as some sort of intellectual exercise, they get put off by something that seems to be forcing them into a rigid pattern of speaking, or encouraging them to almost ‘sing’ the lines as if they were a poem. That is not what we’re here for!

So let’s start with a few questions from you...

Can you please explain the iambic pentameter. I know it means 5 beats, but is it in every sentence that Shakespeare writes, or is it just in the soliloquies?  

It’s not in everything he writes – quite often he writes in prose, and quite often why is a mystery. But I hope throughout this workshop we can uncover some clues as to when Shakespeare uses verse, what he might be doing.  I think it’s really important at this stage to emphasize that it is just clues - Shakespeare’s not here to answer our questions – ultimately, it’s up to our interpretation. It’s up to you whether you use these clues or not! It certainly shouldn’t prevent you from interpreting the characters how you wish, and you shouldn’t feel ‘tied down’ by it.  

As a young person trying to tackle Shakespeare, I have found that multiple people have different opinions on how they think Shakespeare should be done. One of the things I’m struggling with is verse work. Do I pause after each verse line or each thought?

In terms of breathing and voice, it’s really important to do some good preparations on breath and voice work. It gives you options of when to stop rather than running out of breath and gives you the broadest range and resonance. If you have a ‘free’ voice it allows the truth of the character to come across. In terms of opinions of how things ‘should’ be done, you need to be your own boss – I can give you hints on ways you might choose, but they’re not hard and fast rules.  

Vocal freedom is the most important thing – you need to sound like a person talking, rather than someone holding their breath to fit the rules.  

So, onto the Verse Workshop!

We’re here to provide some insights as to why Shakespeare may have used Verse, and provide a toolbox to unlock clues in the writing to make verse work for you and to help you enrich your characterisation.

Iambic Pentameter is a verse form, blank verse. It sounds complicated but it’s not – Meter = verse, Iam = leg, Pent = five. So it’s a verse line of five legs. A leg of verse is a soft beat followed by a hard beat. So for example from Macbeth, ‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen’ - it’s each a soft beat, followed by a hard beat. Why write in this verse form? There's lots of reasons, but one reason is that Shakespeare's actors had to have 7 or 8 plays in repertory constantly (like the cinema). They didn’t get a full script (as it would have taken too long to write the play out so many times) - if lucky, they got a cue script with their lines on, and the cue line. So, they had to hold a lot of information in their head.

For example, in Romeo & Juliet, the opening lines are “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.” It’s simply easier to remember things if they have a pattern – so it makes it easier for his actors to remember it!

Another reason he may have used Iambic Pentameter is because this particular verse form has a lovely natural rhythm to it. It has momentum, like a heartbeat or hooves of a horse – it feels like an ongoing, dynamic rhythm. It provides a bassline for the meaning.  

You would be quite amazed if you observed the way we speak from day to day is often more rhythmic than you’d think. In fact often follows this same beat. Try ‘beating that out’. Yes’ it’s regular blank verse.  It seems an intentional decision by Shakespeare - blank verse follows most naturally the pattern of human speech. It doesn’t sound like a poem, it sounds naturalistic.  
There’s one other really crucial thing that we’re going to look into in the workshop today. So we’ve said that Shakespeare’s verse has a natural rhythm, like a heartbeat – the question is then, when do you notice your heartbeat? You don’t notice your heartbeat until it stops. That’s slightly true of Shakespeare verse. We’re interested in finding out, when things don’t match the rhythm, why don’t they? Can that help us?

The audience perhaps were a more aural culture who were able to pick up on those patterns clearly when they broke up. Maybe we can use that to look into irregularities, and how they might affect our choices as an actor.  

So, first verse example is Hamlet contemplating suicide. ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’. What is unusual about it? It has 11 syllables – in fact, so do the next few lines of this Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy.

‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ - 11 Syllables

It has to be deliberate, right. He could quite easily have written, “The question is, to be or not to be.”  Why? To make it stand out. If you look at lots of Shakespeare, this type of phrasing is called (slightly misogynistically) a feminine ending, because it has a soft ending. Often when you get these 11 syllable lines, they show the character is in some kind of turmoil. For example again, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo’. There's a lack of certainty in having 11 beats, which gives you a clue on how to play the character, maybe.

‘For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo’ - Rhyming Couplets

I think the rhyme is used in different ways for different purposes – in this case, it rounds the play off nicely. In Shakespeare’s time, we weren’t able to pull the curtains down or turn the lights off. It’s a very aural way of ending a play, and it also finishes off the scene nicely.

In other examples, they’re used when friends or lovers are talking to each other. For example, Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream - ‘The more I hate, the more he follows me / The more I love, the more he hateth me’ - it’s two friends who are thinking in the same way, they are in sync with each other, but it’s also slightly comic.  

However, in the example of the Friar in Romeo & Juliet, he quite often talks in rhyming couplet. For example ‘This alliance may so happy prove, to turn your households rancour to pure love’. It’s a slight false rhyme - and it sounds slightly trite. You could take this as a character decision – he doesn’t have a great deal of life experience, but he tries to solve things, which causes a lot of problems in the play - maybe he thinks too simply about things!

Question - Some tutors I’ve had in the past have said if you find an irregular line you should try to ‘fix’ it by joining syllables together, what’s your take on this?

I don’t think you should try and ‘fix’ it but try and find out why it’s written that way. For example, Juliet is mostly written as two syllables, but sometimes her name is used as three syllables – don’t try and fix it, try and figure out why he’s done so.  Sometimes it’s simply how it fits with the verse, but there may be a deeper meaning – is it a scene ending, people opposed or in sync, a character decision, etc!  

‘It is the cause, it is the cause my soul’ - Monosyllabic

The character Othello uses lots of monosyllabic words – they slow the line down. They are really significant lines. They require a weight – Othello is a thoughtful man who is about to kill his wife. Think of the weight of the words.  

There’s a wonderful example of this in King Lear, when his daughter has been killed and he walks on stage carrying her body - “Howl, howl, howl, oh you are men of stones’. You can race through that line if you like, but the suggestion that’s being made about this is that these single words, taking one single beat each, really slow the line down. They are often really significant lines, that require the time to be taken over them. It’s helpful as an actor to find those lines and go ‘why has Shakespeare chosen these words?’.

‘The Queen, my Lord, is dead’ - 6 syllable lines

It is also monosyllabic words like before, but it’s also a 6 syllable, short line. It’s like there’s a built in pause. The character Macbeth has been given the ‘space’ where the extra syllables would be, giving him until the next line to pause.  Or perhaps it’s like a funeral march at the end of the line “boom- boom, boom- boom”…

“Two households both alike in dignity” - inversion of the pentameter  

The opening lines of Romeo and Juliet. The emphasis on the first beat grabs the audience by opening quickly. Two is the focus word – there are two households, two lead characters. The dramatic dynamic is created by the ‘two’ - but that takes us against the rhythm of the iambic pentameter. It inverts the emphasis, telling us the play is all about ‘two’, maybe…  

In that same scene of the daughter’s death in King Lear, he has a line which goes “Never, never, never, never, never”. It inverts the emphasis and has repetition – by inverting the iambic pentameter it feels very jarring, and unnatural. Its disharmonious, like his daughter's death – it is unnatural to him.  

“Who’s there
Nay, answer me
Stand and unfold yourself
Long Live the King
Bernardo, he”


We see this on the battlements at the opening of Hamlet. At first it doesn't look like verse – and plenty of characters don’t speak in verse, often working-class characters, like the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they talk in prose quite a lot. It’s difficult to work out why sometimes – for example when I played Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, I was disappointed to find he doesn't speak a single line of verse. I’m still not sure why!  

Question – How do you identify if something is written in prose?

Often you can tell by the look on the page – if it’s written in ‘block form’ it’s clear it’s not in verse. It’s difficult!

But let’s use the example quote from Hamlet above. If you beat it out, you get 2 regular lines of 10 – it is in verse but split over two characters. It creates a sense of urgency, and speeds things up. They’re standing on the battlements in the dark, one of them has seen a ghost the night before. Shakespeare needs to build the feeling that this is a cold, dark night and feels quite dangerous to them. By them also questioning each other, it’s almost like it starts with a sense of urgency and the verse tells them to speed things up. The stakes are high, standing on the battlements having seen a ghost, it’s dangerous. By deciding not to write this verse in prose, he’s giving you a clue as to how it should be played.  

‘If we shadows have offended, think of this and all is mended’ - 8 syllables

These lines have only eight beats each, and it’s not iambic pentameter. This line is from a fairy – fairies have their own verse form. For an aural culture like Shakespeare’s audience, that change, hearing that the fairies have their own of speaking, is exciting. You’ll also find Shakespeare gives different rhythms for different types of characters – when there’s magic involved it often comes in 8 syllable lines. Prospero often speaks in this verse form; it’s got an enchanting quality to it. The Witches in Macbeth use it – it’s often called the ‘magical rhythm’.  

Shakespeare uses other verse types as well. For example, the Mechanicals use verse within their play, and it’s almost like a mockery of ‘a verse play’ - it has a slightly silly feel to their verse form, it feels contrived and unsophisticated, and that’s the whole point!

Finally, yes although Shakespeare’s original audiences may be more attuned to the rhythm of the verse, but I do think subliminally, our audience takes them in. And an actor can take them in, and it really pays off, if you want to use these clues in approaching your character. My advice would be to make sure you beat out your lines and work out why you might have irregularities.
There’s some really complicated examples, look at bits of The Tempest – the opening is chaos, the verse is all over the place - characters are in torment.

Another thing to consider is that there really wasn’t a director when Shakespeare was writing – so I think it’s his clues that tell us how he wanted it to be played. But if you want to ignore it, that’s also fine.  

Line Elision

Another element to look at is where a line elides (the thought or ‘sentence’ goes into the next line). There’s usually a reason why the line goes onto the next line. If you observe it, you’ll quite often find there’s a reason.  For example, in Hamlet ‘Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / the slings of arrows’- is there a natural pause after ‘suffer’, whilst the character thinks about what that suffering will actually entail?  

Pronouns/Verbs


Generally speaking, Shakespeare very rarely puts emphasis on the pronouns, he puts it on the verb. Perhaps we have a very egocentric culture, but often we tend to emphasise the ‘I’, rather than the emphasis on the action. When you’re beating out the verse, try and put the emphasis on the verb and see if it helps you find the intended beat.  It may even add some dynamism to the lines.  

Juxtaposition  

Writers from this period often set their sentences up with two opposing words, as a juxtaposition. Like our earlier example of Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream - ‘The more I hate, the more he follows me / The more I love, the more he hateth me’. The love/hate opposition are picked out for emphasis.  And in working out how to make sense of lines and what to emphasise, it often helps to pick these opposites out.  

‘Hamlet’ scene verse analysis

Apologies, that we didn’t get as far as looking at this scene in the workshop.  Hopefully you spotted some of the above examples in it.  Here are some of the ones I spotted, and some of the clues I think Shakespeare might be giving us:

1. The very first word, ‘now’, is inverted, a hard, emphasised word in the soft, unemphasised position.  Possible reasons: start the scene with a bang; grab the Queen’s attention; get her off her guard.  Here’s a slightly wackier thought.  Two scenes back, having seen the effect of the play within the play on the King, Hamlet has girded himself into action with the words, “now could I drink hot blood, and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on.” That word ‘now’ again, in the unemphasised position.  Then what happens?  He’s passing the King’s bedroom, and sees him kneeling there unarmed.  It’s the perfect opportunity to revenge his father’s murder, and Hamlet seems prepared.  Again, he girds himself on with the line, “now might I do it pat, now he is a praying.”  The line starts with a ‘now’, a dynamic strong emphasis in place of the standard weak one.  But then what? The line ends with the word ‘praying’, a weak ending….and sure enough, the famously indecisive Hamlet changes his mind, and decides not to kill the King after all.  Is it a coincidence that this scene starts with ‘now’ as well, also a strong emphasis in place of a weak one.  Is Shakespeare almost mocking the character Hamlet, who keeps promising action, but ending in indecision, even when, in Hamlet’s own words “examples gross as earth exhort me”?  Maybe too much interpretation put into one little word, ‘now’, there?  Your choice.

2. The first line has only 7 beats, rather than 10, a short line.  Possible reasons: it gives the Queen a natural pause. What’s she going to say? Is she gearing herself up? Is she aware of her guilt and unsure what to say?

3. The Queen’s first word, Hamlet, is an inverted stress.  Maybe to grab his attention, make sure he’s listening.

4. Interesting in this line too is that in modern speech we might be inclined to emphasise the pronouns.  I think emphasising the verbs, hast and offended, makes it more dynamic.

5. In the next line, the word mother is also inverted.  Is Hamlet mocking her by repeating the inverted stress, then subverting the meaning of her words?

6. If the actress playing the Queen emphasises the verbs in the previous line, Hamlet’s pronouns really jump out here.  (She means he has offended his stepfather with the play he has put on.  He means she has offended his real father by getting remarried to his brother so quickly after his death).

7. Note also the use of juxtaposition throughout these 4 lines: Hamlet/Mother; thou/you; thy father/my father; Come, come; Go,go;  idle tongue; wicked tongue.  The characters are really on a collision course here!

8. The following two verse lines are split evenly between the two characters, suggesting Shakespeare intends a quick-fire exchange.  Hamlet won’t give her time to even think.  

9. The final line has 11 syllables, ending on a soft beat, mother.  It’s certainly a weighty line, Hamlet virtually disowning his mother.  He’s a famously indecisive character, though.  Does the weak ending here suggest, maybe, that he’s in two minds about disowning her?  He doesn’t after all do so in the end.  

I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of Shakespeare’s use of verse, and are encouraged to add some of it to your toolbox.  So many choices.  No wonder his most famous character was so indecisive!