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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Earlier in the course, we talked about iambic pentameter. This is the kind of rhythm that Shakespeare used in much of his writing. Here, actor James Garnon explains in more detail how the iambic pentameter works, and he gives the example of the famous “to be or not to be” speech where Hamlet is wondering whether or not to kill himself. Shakespeare’s plays, often, a lot of his words are put into a specific verse structure, which we call the iambic pentameter. That sounds very complicated. It isn’t. Iambic just means that it’s got two beats in it that are, ostensibly, “I am,” with the stress on the second part– “I am.” But they are in a pentameter. That’s a five-foot line.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds So in each line of the verse, it goes I am, I am, I am, I am, I am. Very simple. It’s rather like any form of poetry, or beat, or song. But if you observe it– so for example, “to be or not to be, that is the question.” If you observe the iambic, the meaning becomes clearer. Obviously, in speaking you don’t say to be or not to be. But the knowledge of that and by paying attention to that, when you come to speak it, the meaning becomes clearer. To be or not to be, that is the question– leading to the final line.

Skip to 1 minute and 42 seconds And when you say it and give yourself over to Shakespeare, when you get out of the way, you stop trying to make sense of it and you stop trying to explain it to people– if you just give into it– the line plays through you and sings and becomes clearer. All you actually need to do with Shakespeare is sit and just receive it, just like when we watch films from America where you might be watching a sort of film about the police in some inner city in America. And everybody talks very quickly, and you can’t quite follow all the lingo. But you don’t worry. You just watch the scene. You’ll find that you pick up quite a lot of it.

Shakespeare's verse

Learn about the rhythm of Hamlet’s famous line: To be or not to be

James talks about iambic pentameter. Look at two famous speeches from Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Read them aloud. Can you feel the rhythm of the iambs as you read?

From Hamlet

Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!

From 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,

Try memorising one of the speeches.

  • How easy (or how difficult) do you find it to memorise a short Shakespearean speech like this? Share your experience with other learners.

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This video is from the free online course:

Exploring English: Shakespeare

British Council