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Welcome to Episode #82 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

One of the aspects of Shakespeare’s plays known for causing the most eye rolls in a class for beginning Shakespeare students is the concept of iambic pentameter. For many other students, myself included, however, it is precisely the short lines, rhyming words, and systematic beat to the sound of the words in Shakespeare’s plays which causes them to enjoy Shakespeare’s works in the first place. I think Kenneth Branagh demonstrates the meter best when he tap dances to iambic pentameter in the film version of Love’s Labour’s Lost. The bard’s metrical approach to word choice and phrases in his plays allows the words to flow off the page and onto the stage, or into the dancing shoes of some Shakespeareans, with a skill very similar to that of a musician learning how, when, and how long to hold a note when playing a musical score. Not only are pauses are important for Shakespeare’s lines, but we can see in even the stage directions of Shakepseare’s plays that often the action on stage is influenced by the words he chooses to write for a particular character. The development and use of iambic pentameter in theater is unique to the time period when he was writing. It turns out that iambic pentameter has it’s own important role to play in each Shakespeare’s production and actors in Shakespeare’s theater like Richard Burbage or Will Kempe, had to learn where to place their emphasis and pauses just like Shakespearean actors today. Our guest this week trains just such actors in this particular skill, and she’s here to today to walk us through the history of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, please welcome, Shane Ann Younts.

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Shane Ann Younts is an Associate Arts Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where she teaches voice, text and Shakespeare classes in the Graduate Acting Program. She also teaches a complete voice and speech program in New York City. In addition to the voice, speech and text work, the Advanced level includes applying these tools to the texts of Shakespeare.

She has coached productions of Shakespeare for The New York Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park (All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, and Hamlet), and the Public’s off-Broadway production of Timon of Athens. She was the voice coach for the Guthrie Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and Antony and Cleopatra, and the voice coach for Romeo and Juliet for Westport Country Playhouse.

Shane Ann has served as Voice Consultant/Dialect Coach for Broadway – Clybourne Park, Newsies, Bonnie & Clyde, Mary Poppins, The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, Spamalot, and Tarzan and off-Broadway productions of Storefront Church, The Duchess of Malfi, Edward II, and many others.

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Shane Ann about :

  •  Why was writing in verse important for the plays?
  • I’ve read that the specific meter of iambic pentameter came originally from the French, specifically 12th century Troubadours of Provence. Acknowledging the 12th century was much closer to Shakespeare than it is to us today, how did this rhyme scheme become popular in England?

  • Was iambic pentameter used on stage as a kind of additional prop on stage, or was this the normal speech pattern in 16th century England?
  • … and more!

I pray you do not fall in love with me


As You Like It (III.5)

Image:A portrait from the Welsh Portrait Collection at the National Library of Wales. Depicted person: Geoffrey Chaucer – English poet and author. Source

What is iambic pentameter?

Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter in his plays, but he is far from the only one to do so. This metered form was the industry standard for Elizabethan England, and indeed the most stylish form of writing English poetry for centuries. To be considered good at poetry, or talented with words, you had to be able to write well in iambic pentameter. 

Geoffrey Chaucer, who is known to have heavily influenced William Shakespeare, wrote in ten syllable lines (just like the bard). Interestingly, for Chaucer, when you read his lines you only hear the iambic pentameter if you pronounce the final “e” in the words. We do not naturally pronounce that letter today, and in fact, they didn't either when Chaucer was writing, so he was mispronouncing the word to get the beat right for iambic pentameter. As a result, many readers of his own time found his writings to be rough to read. Sound like any bard you know?  

Gone to be married, Gone to swear a peace.


King John (III.1)

Example of Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare's plays

Here are a few places you can see iambic pentameter in Shakespeare's works: 

From Shakespeare's Richard III

 /  ×    ×  /  ×  /  ×    /  ×  /
Now is the winter of our discontent

And this one from Hamlet demonstrate's what's known as the feminine ending:

 ×  / ×   /   ×  /      /  ×    ×   / (×)
To be or not to be, | that is the question

It is called that because the final syllable is unstressed, so this is softer. 

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare's plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


…that laid their guilt upon my guiltless shoulders…


Richard III (I.2)

Bernautz de Ventadorn (Old Occitan spelling), as depicted in a medieval vida. This man is one of the troubadors who could have been responsible for iambic pentameter, but even if he wasn't the originator, he was a founding father, so to speak, of the poetry we have from Chaucer, and then Shakespeare. Source

Where did iambic pentameter come from?

We don't know for certain where it started originally, though there are some rumors about French troubadors making it up. About 1150, in France, all of the plays which were written were done in rhyme and that’s different from Shakespeare but in this period of time, the reason that it was in rhymed verse is because it was played out of doors, and it’s easier to hear a rhymed verse and understand what someone is saying. While the French used iambic heptameter, as opposed to iambic pentameter, there seems to be a relationship between needing to be heard at the back of a crowd, and have your words be understood prior to the advent of audio and sound technology, and having your presenters speak in metered and rhyming verse. 

Cercamon (Occitan pronunciation: [seɾkɔˈmun]fl. c. 1135-1145), whose real name, as well as any actual biographical data, is unknown, was one of the earliest troubadours. He was apparently a jester of sorts, born in Gascony, who spent most of his career in the courts of William X of Aquitaine and perhaps of Eble III of Ventadorn. He was the inventor of the planh (the Provençal dirge), of the tenso (a sort of rhymed debate in which two poets write one stanza each) and perhaps of the sirventes. Source

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Come hither gentle mistress…


Othello (I.3)

Othello and Iago from the book by Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1901). Source

Changes in meter alert audiences to a problem!

We are taught in English classes that poetry (rhymed lines) are used to indicate high status characters, or that unrhymed lines (prose) would have been used for lower status characters. 

The verse and rhyme scheme can also indicate a problem for the listener, and plays a role on stage for foreshadowing that works a lot like tense music in the background of movies today. 

When Richard III, says

“that laid their guilt upon my guiltless shoulders”

He's using a feminine ending, or softer sound, to indicate that something is wrong. For an audience who was not used to having professional soundtracks to accompany these lines, but instead relied on the lyrical nature of the dialogue itself, this was one way of indicating a change in mood, or building anticipation.

In Shakespeare's Othello, the villian Iago is someone who you are supposed to keep suspect throughout the story. When you look at his lines, it seems Shakespeare was building this awareness for his audience through the meter because almost everytime Iago talks about being honest, it’s always a feminine ending. 

Meter can be used like Shakespeare does in these plays to alert the audience to a lie or problem. 

Books Shane Ann Younts recommends:

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