Working with Text
Emma Poltrack



Scansion analysis of poetic meter in verse lines

Foot a unit of syllabic rhythm

Iamb a foot consisting of an unstressed-stressed pairing

Meter how many feet in a line

Prose text without a metrical structure

Blank Verse unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter

Feminine Ending an unstressed ending (draws attention to the word and can add insecurity or doubt)

Masculine Ending a stressed ending

Couplet a pair of rhyming verse lines


Bade : bad

Doth : duth

Sirrah : SEER-uh

Troth : troath

Zounds : rhymes with wounds

Ne’er : rhymes with hair

Ta’en : rhymes with stain



Cardinal Rule of Shakespeare: if you don’t know what you’re saying, your audience won’t know either. To prevent confusion on both sides, the absolute best thing you can do is go through your lines one by one and paraphrase them in a way you understand. It’s important, when you do this, to do every word and every phrase. The American Shakespeare Center suggests paraphrasing on the lines themselves (writing over each word), while Barry Edelstein, author of Thinking Shakespeare, suggests concentrating on the tone and doing a series of paraphrases that eventually boil large sections down to their basic idea.


Prose and Verse

Something to pay attention to when going over your lines is the shift between prose and verse. There is no hard and fast rule for why these shifts occur, though it can be said characters “rise” into verse and “fall” into prose. Verse is usually a sign of heightened emotion, the higher classes, ceremony or speaking from the heart (soliloquies are often in verse). Prose tends to be used in cases of wordplay, the lower classes, rational or logical argument and cases where you are speaking from outside yourself (drunkenness and madness are often prose). The important thing is to notice the tonal shift and find your character’s reason for switching from one to the other.



One of the more nervous-making aspects of Shakespeare is dealing with his verse. "Iambic pentameter" is a phrased that comes up a lot and is used to describe the rhythm of the meter, as dictated by a line's syllable units (also called feet). Iambic is used to describe the syllable pattern (unstressed-stressed) while pentameter tells us the number of feet. Depending on the prefix, that’s how many feet you’re dealing with (pent =, 5, tri = 3, etc.).


Here are the most common syllable patterns:

IAMB: unstressed-stressed (new YORK)

TROCHEE: stressed-unstressed (LON-don)

ANAPEST: unstressed-unstressed-stressed (ten-nes-SEE)

DACTYL: stressed-unstressed-unstressed (MICH-i-gan)

AMPHIBRACH: unstressed-stressed-unstressed (chi-CA-go)


Okay, that's all very well and good, but how does it help with Shakespeare?


Scanning your lines can be a tricky thing, but it often can reveal unexpected ideas on your character or motivation or can reinforce your natural instincts as an actor. However, it's important to note that while Shakespeare often used iambic pentameter as starting point, he mixes it up quite a bit. This is why Shakespeare doesn't (or shouldn't) sound like an endless droning of da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM. The trick is being able to look at how the metrical stress compares to the natural stress and then figure out why the deviations occur.


The best way to do this is to take your lines individually and mark the scansion. First, look at the metrical stresses by dividing the line into feet and indicating the iambic pattern. For example:


 I did not then entreat to have her stay


Then, re-write the line with your own natural stresses and see how it compares (if you’re having trouble figuring out the natural stresses, it helps to clap or tap the line out as you say it). What gets stressed in the second, but not the first? These words often have added importance. If there are no differences between the two reading, then the line is regular, but you can still use the stresses to guide you. For example, in the line above, the stress falls on the word "then," which highlights the implicit contrast between a time when she was indifferent to Rosalind's presence and now, when she relies on it so heavily.


Another thing to note when doing this is the number of beats in the line, because that can affect pronunciation. Look for words that end in -ed and -ion, especially, if you have a line with only nine syllables. That can indicate that "beloved" should be "be-lo-VED" (sometimes this is marked with an accent mark) or "moderation" should be "mod-er-a-shee-un". Likewise, lines with too many syllables may indicate an elision, or a cramming together of syllables (such as in "i'faith" instead of "in faith", though the apostrophe is not always present to tip you off).


Now that I've overwhelemed you with all of that, there just one thing more. Barry Edelstein said it quite well in his book, so I'm going to go ahead and quote him directly: "If it doesn't help you communicate the thought behind the line, it's useless. There is no point in adhering to it slavishly. Let your instincts lead you."


Tips About The Text


Key Words

These words might be helpful to highlight in your lines:

But/Yet/Therefore Indicates a change in argument and should be slightly stressed
Thou/You Indicates the relationship between the speaker and the person he or she is addressing; “thou/thee/thine” is informal (like the French “tu”) and is used between people of equal stature or a person of higher stature to an inferior (Orlando: "Why whither, Adam, wouldst thou have me go?") while “you/your” is formal and used by strangers or by inferiors to a superior (Corin: "And how like you this shepherd's life, Master Touchstone?") or in the plural. Noticing what form you use when, and with whom, can clue you in on the situation and your characters feelings/relationships with other characters.
All/Now Index words such as "now" and "all" should also be watched for and stressed.



Shakespeare loves using antithesis, which the the juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas. For example:

"What would you have? Your gentleness shall force

More than your force move us to gentleness"

In this quote from Duke Senior, the pairs are "gentleness/force" and "force/move" It’s a good idea to recognize these pairings, since they convey important ideas, and beause of this they often require stressing. Notice that in the second line, emphasizing the pairing changes the line from regular meter, so as an actor it is up to you examine the differences between the two line readings and decide which is better for your character.


The syllable pattern in a line is a great indicator of the pace at which a line should be read. Monosyllabic lines require a slower reading or they risk getting jumbled together, while polysyllabic lines have a natural rhythm that dictate a quickening of pace. Recognizing pacing changes can be an aid to tracking the emotions of your character. Why are they speaking faster? Why slower? Answering these questions can give you insights beyond what thr words are saying.


The Paper Trick

Take a piece of paper and put it over your lines. Now, uncover the first line, read it aloud, and only uncover the next line once you’ve reached the end. This will give a sense of the rhythm of the blank verse—not quite a pause, but not quite ignored, either. You can do this trick for prose, too, by rewriting each sentence as a line.


A List of Resources


  • Thinking Shakespeare by Barry Edelstein
    • A really in-depth look at how to pull apart the language of Shakespeare and get in the thick of it. Barry loves himself a bit too much, but if you can get past that, it's a great resource. A lot of his suggestions require serious text work, though, and if you're not willing to really go through it all, it might not help that much (a lot of his more basic suggestions are already in this guide).
  • Shakespeare's Advice to the Players by Sir Peter Hall
    • This book is a great reference, and will probably be the most useful. It has many sections based around different aspects of the text (verse, prose, alliteration, rhyme, etc), making it easy to look up specifics and most sections are 2-3 pages, giving you just enough information to help but not enough to overwhelm. The second half of the book applies lessons learned in the first half to 20 different Shakespearean speeches, and is worth taking a look at if you want to get a sense of the kind of work that can be done with the text.
  • American Shakespeare Center’s Actors Handbook  (
    • A great resource if you are looking for more a more in-depth look at some of the things covered here (verse, especially) is the second section, pages 19-35. While you’ll have to skip over some of the stuff that doesn’t apply to us (ASC housing policies, for example), the whole packet is definitely worth a read, giving insights in how the ASC approaches its productions and offering new ways to think about scenes and the rehearsal process.