What’s your first memory of reading Hamlet? I would be willing to bet that for most people, it was struggling to understand Shakespeare’s stilted language in the context of an English class you didn’t really want to be in.
Now that you’ll have the opportunity to revisit Hamlet through the dynamic and fast-paced staging of Bedlam Theatre Company at ArtsEmerson, it’s a perfect time to revisit Shakespeare’s “confusing” and “weirdly phrased” text and dive into why it was really written that way.
Most of Shakespeare’s verse are written in iambic pentameter, which is comprised of lines with ten syllables divided into five feet, or two syllables with one unstressed, long syllable followed by a stressed, short syllable. These individual two-syllable feet are called iambs. Think of your heartbeat (bă-dūm). Not all of Shakespeare’s most famous lines are in iambic pentameter, but most have that heartbeat-like iambic rhythm. For example, if you scan the meter of Hamlet’s most famous speech, the first line looks like this:
Tŏ bē, / ŏr nōt / tŏ bē / thăt īs / thĕ quēstiŏn
This line isn’t perfect iambic pentameter, as it has an extra unstressed syllable at the end. But what really matters about Shakespeare’s poetry is what it sounds like, as it was written to be read aloud. So why would Shakespeare—and many other famous English poets and playwrights—choose this meter specifically for their most important texts? Surely there’s a reason “To be, or not to be” is one of the most popularly known lines of poetry in the English language. Many argue that iambic pentameter mimics natural English speech the closest of all poetic meters, or that it’s the easiest to memorize.
Shakespeare was far from the first poet to use syllabic stress to his advantage. If you’re intimidated by iambic pentameter, try your hand at scanning a few lines of Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic Latin poem written entirely in dactylic hexameter.
Ārmă vĭr/ūmquĕ căn/ō, // Trō/iaē quī / prīmŭs ăb / ōrīs
Ītălĭ/ām fāt/ō // prŏfŭg/ūs Lāv/īniăquĕ / vēnĭt
Intimidating, right? Metrical lines are far more common in our day to day speech than one might think, though. If you know your Shakespeare canon well, you’ll know that the phrase “All the world’s a stage” originates in the Bard’s As You Like It, but have you considered that it’s iambic too? Many other common English idioms are iambic as well, including “a blessing in disguise,” “the ball is in your court,” and even the title of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Iambic pentameter is so common, in fact, that a twitter bot exists with the sole purpose of retweeting rhyming couplets of the meter that it finds in tweets. @pentametron finds ten syllable iambic tweets, retweets them, then pairs them off with another tweet that rhymes.
Iambic pentameter might still seem archaic or stifling, but it’s much more present in our daily speech than you would assume. If you’re interested in learning more about meter in Shakespeare’s poetry, we’ve linked some resources below. To experience Shakespeare’s poetry as it was meant to be heard, come see Bedlam’s Hamlet in repertory with Saint Joan, playing March 7th through March 25th. GET TICKETS NOW!
Learn more about iambic pentameter: