Cracking Shakespeare by Kelly Hunter

Iambic pentameter: The rhythm of your feelings

The first question I ask a new group of students is whether they know what the iambic pentameter is and crucially whether they know how to use it as an actor in order to deepen their understanding of their character’s inner life. The answers to the first question range from ‘It’s the dedum dedum dedum thing,’ to ‘It’s the natural way we speak,’ (Is it?) to ‘I’ve never heard of it.’ There are no conclusive forthcoming answers to the second question. This first chapter is an almost verbatim copy of the way I introduce the iambic and how to use it.

What exactly is the iambic pentameter?

An iambus is the metrical term for a heartbeat: the natural inner rhythm of the human being and the first sound we hear in the womb. The rhythm has two beats, the first weak and the second strong: Bu-boom. Pentameter means five feet – one foot equals one heartbeat – therefore the rhythm of one line of iambic pentameter, which underpins every line of Shakespeare’s blank verse, consists of five heartbeats that have a continual forward momentum.

Bu-boom, Bu-boom, Bu-boom, Bu-boom, Bu-boom

But the natural speech patterns of Shakespeare’s words don’t always ‘fit’ this iambic rhythm and it’s within these irregular patterns that you will find initial insights into your character’s feelings. To begin to understand how this works, first consider your own heartbeat, a fundamental task because as an actor you must bring your own heart and feelings to your character. The rhythm and rapidity of your heartbeat is constantly changing according to circumstance and emotion; it registers and reflects your feelings often before you have had the time to process your thoughts. For example, if while you were reading this book, a door swung open and a masked attacker entered the room brandishing a weapon and pointing it straight at you, your heart would undoubtedly ‘race’, ‘miss a beat’, ‘leap to your throat’ or indeed ‘stop’, at least metaphorically. Your understandable fear would register in the disturbed rhythm of your heartbeat, the adrenalin racing around the body forcing the heart into action.

Equally if the same door swung open and the person you had been secretly in love with all your life walked slowly toward you, your heart would undoubtedly register the event. Outwardly you might not move a muscle, but inwardly the movement of your heart would be virtually impossible to ignore. At the very least you might find yourself blushing. Your heart’s continual reflection of feelings creates an emotional barometer, registering your own authentic visceral existence. Similarly the changing rhythm of Shakespeare’s iambic is an exploration of the personal, intimate experience of life: it represents the rhythm of your character’s feelings.

Line-by-line, the changing patterns within the rhythm of the verse offer clues as to whether your character’s feelings are in their ‘natural’ state or whether they are heightened and if so by how much. These clues offer psychological insights from which you can start to deepen your understanding of your character’s inner life. The key question is this: How do I use the iambic to read these clues? The answer is to become a ‘detective of emotion’.

The emotional detective: Video

You are going to test out whether the natural rhythm of the words matches the rhythm of the iambic to discover whether your character’s feelings are steady or shaken. If the words ‘fit’ the rhythm, the character can be said to be in the centre of his emotional life. Conversely if the words do not fit and it sounds ‘all wrong’ to squeeze them into the heartbeat rhythm, then some inner or outer turmoil has shaken the character’s feelings. This will not fundamentally change the way you speak the line; it simply deepens your understanding of it.


Take one line of verse at a time. This example from King Lear will conclusively establish the technique. As he speaks these words at the end of the play, the old king is holding the dead body of his daughter in his arms; he has reached an apotheosis of pain, anguish and suffering:

Never, never, never, never, never - King Lear, 5.3

  • To begin, beat out the rhythm of the five heartbeats in any physical way you want, it doesn’t matter how you do it – one hand on your chest, both hands on your thighs, drumming your fingers on a table – as long as you ensure you are actually engaging with the rhythm. At the same time whisper the five Bu-booms to yourself, so that the rhythm is truly present in your body and voice.
    Bu-boom, Bu-boom, Bu-boom, Bu-boom, Bu-boom
    This represents a steady emotional rhythm, unchanged by inner or outer turmoil.
  • Now speak the line out loud, trying to fit the words to the steady iambic rhythm by emphasizing the syllables that fall on the five strong heartbeats, paying no heed to your natural instinct. Do this quietly, almost whispering so that you can hear and feel the rhythm of the line for yourself. This is the testing part of the exercise. It will sound like this:
    Never, never, never, never, never
    Ridiculous. It is palpably clear that the line should not be spoken like this. It is not natural.

The key questions in this exercise are: Does it feel and sound completely natural to emphasize these words on the five strong heartbeats? Do the words match the iambic rhythm? Is the character in the centre of his rhythmic emotional life? If not, as is manifestly obvious in this case, the rhythm of the character’s feelings are disturbed, changed and shaken.

  • Now speak the line again, this time as naturally as possible, paying no heed to the iambic (don’t add in any pauses though), so as to confirm for yourself whether any of the naturally emphasized words fall on the strong rhythmic heartbeats. It will very likely have this rhythm running through it:
    Never, never, never, never, never.

Spoken naturally, the words are in direct opposition with the rhythm of the old king’s heartbeat, telling you that his feelings are shaken to their core and that the rhythm with which he speaks is completely ‘off the beat’, i.e. the naturally emphasized words fall on the weaker beats. These are technically called inversions or trochees; the rhythm of one heartbeat goes ‘Bu-boom’ as opposed to ‘Bu-boom’. Think of these inversions as tiny emotional heart attacks, or moments of heartbreak. Shakespeare’s clue for the actor is in perceiving the rhythm of King Lear’s line as five cries of heartbroken pain, relentlessly following one after the other. He is broken-hearted and this is directly revealed in the rhythm.

In this example, these tiny heart attacks underpin Lear’s heartbroken emotional state, whilst for other characters in other plays, they may signal moments of ecstatic joy when the expression of feeling cannot be contained within the natural iambic rhythm. A change in rhythm registers a heightened alteration in feeling. Remember no one in an audience cares what these changes are called; people don’t sit in a dark theatre eagerly anticipating inversions and trochees, but they may well remember for many years to come the soulfulness with which you speak the words.

Cracking Shakespeare by Kelly Hunter is available to purchase now at 10% off the RRP.