When it comes to making sense of Shakespeare’s language and how to speak and interpret it, the Royal Shakespeare Company readily employs our brilliant artistic director, Nia Lynn.

Whether you’re a seasoned actor or just curious about Shakespeare, Nia’s insights make the Bard’s words come alive in an easy-to-understand and exciting way to explore.

What Is Iambic Pentameter?

As explained by Lynn, “The phrase iambic pentameter is simply the name given to the rhythm that Shakespeare and many other writers of his time used in their plays.”

“The rhythm of iambic pentameter is a heartbeat, de-dum.” This rhythm consists of five ‘heartbeats’ or iambs per line:

  1. de-dum 
  2. de-dum 
  3. de-dum 
  4. de-dum 
  5. de-dum 

This rhythmical pattern creates a unique musicality and flow in Shakespeare’s plays, making the language more dynamic and expressive.

Lynn emphasizes the physicality of the rhythm, suggesting a hands-on approach to understanding it: “If you take your hand and just place it onto your chest and just do a little, up, down… we’re just going to make that one little beat the most musical beat we’ve done today.” This method helps to internalize the rhythm, making it more than just a literary concept.

There are practical applications of iambic pentameter for actors. As she states, “Iambic pentameter is a really useful tool for actors because the rhythm helps give structure to the language.”

Skipping a Beat

In her analysis of Juliet’s lines from “Romeo and Juliet,” Lynn demonstrates how iambic pentameter is not always rigidly adhered to. She notes, “There are some lines that feel so satisfying when they land in that rhythm, and similarly, when they don’t, it’s like, um, what’s going on?” It highlights how deviations or adherence to the iambic pentameter in Shakespeare’s plays can be a window into the characters’ feelings and thoughts.

Nia draws a fascinating comparison between our physical responses to emotions and the use of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare’s narratives. She observes, “When we are excited, angry, or in love, our heartbeat changes,” suggesting a link between these physiological changes and the rhythm of speech. Similarly, she explains, “how characters use the iambic pentameter can give us an insight into the emotional and mental state.” 

Just as our heart rhythm can signal different emotions, the characters’ engagement with this rhythmic pattern in their dialogue often mirrors their inner conflicts, passions, or calm. Lynn’s insights encourage a deeper appreciation of how Shakespeare’s use of rhythm is not just a poetic device but a tool for expressing the nuanced emotional landscape of his characters.