Keeping Beat With the Bard: The Actor’s Guide to Performing in Iambic Pentameter

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From the depths of Macbeth’s torment to the loving declarations of Verona’s star-crossed lovers, the pulse of iambic pentameter sets the stage for William Shakespeare’s timeless explorations of the human experience.

Learning how to perform in the rhythm of the Bard’s language is more than just an academic endeavor; it’s also key to breathing life into some of the most iconic characters ever created. Here, we explain what iambic pentameter is and how to speak in it, and list a few iconic Shakespeare performances to check out.

What is iambic pentameter?

Used in traditional poetry and verse, this metered pattern is characterized by 10 syllables in each line that are divided into five metrical feet. Each foot is composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, creating a “da-DUM” pattern that mimics the natural flow of speech and the rhythm of the human heartbeat. When read aloud, iambic pentameter has an enthralling, elegant melodic quality.

Take this soliloquy from the balcony scene in Act II, Scene 2 of “Romeo and Juliet”: 

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.
It is my lady. O, it is my love!

Stressing the iambs properly, the monologue reads:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.
It is my lady. O, it is my love!

To hear how the passage sounds out loud, watch this scene from Carlo Carlei’s 2013 film adaptation.

This linguistic pattern infuses Shakespeare’s works, serving as both a structural and emotive technique. Actors can bring the Bard’s characters to life onstage and screen by using this metric pattern to portray a range of emotions, from soft murmurs of doubt to booming declarations of love.

How to read and speak in iambic pentameter

  • Study the greats. Watch notable performances of Shakespeare’s works, keeping an ear out for the way actors emphasize certain syllables, infuse words with emotion, and maintain a steady rhythm.
  • Notate your script. Until speaking in iambic pentameter begins to feel as natural as breathing (more on that in a moment), mark the stress pattern of each syllable, using an “x” to denote an unstressed syllable and a dash for a stressed syllable. 
  • Focus on your breathing. Proper delivery of iambic pentameter requires good breath control. Take deliberate pauses and breaths in order to match the text’s rhythmic breaks, striving to preserve the meter without making the lines sound unnatural.
  • Find your rhythm. Clap along with the pattern’s alternating, heartbeat-like pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. Getting into this rhythm is the first step to understanding the text’s richness and melody, which will enable you to connect with the characters’ feelings and experiences on a deeper level.
  • Use a metronome. Try speaking along with an online metronome to keep your tempo steady.
  • Record yourself. Take a video of yourself reading one of your favorite Shakespeare excerpts. When you watch it back, note any moments that sound stilted or unnatural. Revise your oration and record again, then rinse and repeat until you feel confident in your work.
  • Keep practicing. Putting in the time is essential to creating a natural performance of iambic pentameter. The beat will become more distinct and simple to follow the more you practice, so read aloud as much as possible. Try altering your tone, tempo, and volume to add to the richness of the language. Remember that iambic pentameter isn’t just a relic; it’s a dynamic method that’s a vital part of contemporary Shakespearean performance.

Examples of iambic pentameter recitations from film and TV

These performances exemplify how legendary actors and directors have interpreted Shakespeare’s characters, breathing new life into classic rhythms.

“Richard III” (1995), dir. Richard Loncraine: Act I, Scene 1

Ian McKellen’s performance as Richard III exemplifies how an actor can use linguistic patterns to convey power and manipulate the viewer. Listen to McKellen’s cadence—particularly when he says “our dreadful marches to delightful measures”—to see how he expertly brings Shakespeare’s language to life.

“Hamlet” (1996), dir. Kenneth Branagh: Act III, Scene 1

Branagh, who both directed and starred in this film, delivers Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in the natural ebb and flow of iambic pentameter, making the language feel accessible and emotionally resonant.

“Romeo + Juliet” (1996), dir. Baz Luhrmann: Act I, Scene 5

As the titular star-crossed lovers, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes maintain emotive fluidity and rhythm in Luhrmann’s modernized adaptation of this tragic romance. The actors imbue the dialogue with passionate intensity, and the film’s bold visual style adds a layer of excitement and energy to a timeless tale of love and death.

“Shakespeare in Love” (1998), dir. John Madden: A New Juliet

In this film about the Bard, screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard created dialogue that flows in and out of iambic pentameter, showcasing its use in both dramatic and everyday speech. The actors’ adherence to the meter in this scene conveys the characters’ heartfelt emotions with precision and grace.

“Anonymous” (2011), dir. Roland Emmerich: The Life of Henry V

This brilliant film explores the theory that Shakespeare’s plays were actually authored by Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, offering a thought-provoking and entertaining take on the subject. John Orloff’s dialogue is rich with iambic pentameter, providing a metatextual analysis of the beauty and complexity of the rhythm. Through its compelling storytelling and stellar performances, “Anonymous” challenges viewers to reconsider their assumptions about history and literature.

“Much Ado About Nothing” (2012), dir. Joss Whedon: Act I, Scene 1

This film’s modern setting doesn’t detract from the rhythmic chemistry between Alexis Denisof’s Benedick and Amy Acker’s Beatrice. The actors’ meticulous attention to meter takes the comedic banter between their characters to the next level, creating a dynamic exchange that stays true to the spirit of Shakespeare's original text. 

“The Hollow Crown” (2012–2016), various directors: “Henry V,” Act IV, Scene 3 

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BBC Two’s series of feature-length TV adaptations of the Henriad (“Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2,” and “Henry V”) features standout performances by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III and Tom Hiddleston as Henry V. Hiddleston delivers his lines in the pivotal “no surrender” scene with commanding rhythm and intensity, underscoring the gravity of the king’s situation.

“Macbeth” (2015), dir. Justin Kurzel: Act I, Scene 3

Kurzel’s adaptation of the Scottish Play maintains Shakespeare’s rhythmic integrity while infusing it with raw emotion, as evidenced by this scene, which depicts Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Banquo’s (Paddy Considine) faithful meeting with the witches. The movie explores the title character’s psychological depths, as Fassbender conveys Macbeth’s internal struggles with nuance and intensity.

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