Teaching Shakespeare | Introducing Iambic Pentameter | Royal Shakespeare Company

When an actor is doing Shakespeare, I think,
it is important they let themselves be aware of the underlying metre. I mean, obviously not all Shakespeare is written
in iambic pentameter but it is important for those parts that are, the most of it, that they,
that an actor feels the energy in that language, the energy of the rhythm underneath the language. We can investigate the rhythm of these words,
yeah, we can investigate what’s going on rhythmically. Just spread out a little tiny bit, so just have a sit down where you are. And I’m gonna clap a rhythm to you and I want
you to clap that rhythm back to me. So are you ready? *claps five beats – the class repeats it back* We’ve talked about how
important rhythm is in life and in Shakespeare. It’s a very useful device for so many things,
I mean, to play a call and response thing gets a group working as a group, listening
to each other, which of course is crucial in any play and in the rehearsal room. I think the key aspect of developing a successful
ensemble with students is when you use exercises that explore rhythm. I think that whether it’s through claps, for
example, or I think the shared experience of exploring that rhythm and of the discipline,
if you like, of being able to hold that rhythm amongst thirty young people, then enables
them when you start to bring whole sections of text to life to ensure that the energy
of the language is kept alive. *Claps a rhythm, which the students copy* The rhythm itself is ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum
ti-tum ti-tum. It’s five beats in a line but that ti-tum
sound, rhythm, is very near ordinary speech. One of the reasons why people think that it’s
an important rhythm is because it’s like the rhythm of the heart and that by investigating it, by looking at what’s going on rhythmically, in what’s happening in the words, we might
find something out about the heartbeat, if you like, of the character that’s speaking
those words. So if there’s interruptions to the beat, if
he slows down, if he speeds up, we can tell something about their emotional state. Playing around with that rhythm is very useful
to discovering meaning in a scene, and when that meaning’s coming out best, the rhythm
will be ticking along beautifully and it will seem to look after itself. What else does it sound like? A horse! Yeah. It does, it sounds like galloping hooves. Katie, me and you are going to gallop that
whole rhythm into the middle of the circle. Are you ready? After three. Di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum. The iambic pentameter has a physical resonance
so it’s great if we can get it into the body. And it’s also another way of working with
a text so that we can find the rhythm of it. Someone give us a line to say whilst we are
saying that. A famous line from Shakespeare. Anyone give us any famous lines? Go on, Reece, what’s that one? But soft, what light through yonder window
breaks? But soft, what light through yonder window
breaks? Just take the first line of the speech, yeah,
and we’re gonna gallop it with that rhythm really strongly. But soft, what light through yonder window
breaks? Ready? Three, two, one. But soft, what light through yonder window
breaks? Excellent. Thank you, Katie, for being the pioneer. Let’s all have a go at it. Get yourselves up. So the exercises are simply about getting
that in the body so the iambic becomes the physical. And it is a physical, it’s based on your heartbeat
so we’re just kind of thinking about the heartbeat through our whole body and then into the
text. But soft, what light through yonder window
breaks? The thing about the iambic pentameter is that
it is in our own language, so you can stress about it too much. It’s absolutely natural to the way we speak. We speak in iambic pentameter. And really what you need to do is be sensitive
to rhythm and if you’re sensitive to rhythm then the technicalities of it often reveal
themselves. To be or not to be, that is the question. Oooh, it doesn’t work, does it? The line has got an extra little beat on the
end. To be or not to be, that is the question. Got a little extra little beat on the end there. Then you’ve got an unfinished feeling or a
questioning feeling or like it’s broken, yeah. We walk it out, we beat it, we talk about
the heartbeat of the language and students also look for places where the iamb is broken
so that they can figure out why. It really deepens their understanding of the
text. But soft, what light through yonder window
breaks? What I would do if I was going to note that down, which I’m going to ask you to do with your little bit now, is write a dot for a
weak rhythm and a dash for a strong rhythm. But soft, what light through yonder window
breaks? But there might be moments where you have
got a question, and if you’ve got a question I want you to just put a question mark around
it. Cos it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t feel right
in your mouth, it doesn’t quite fit that heartbeat rhythm. And there’s such an amazing variety in the
rhythm of a line that actually excites us as we listen. We don’t know that is what is exciting us
but it keeps the energy of the language and somehow Shakespeare had the genius of being
able to write the rhythm of how we think. Any other question mark moments? And those first couple of words, naturally
you want to say “What if her eyes were there, they in her head”, yeah? So what if di-dum is different from dum-di? There’s a choice being made but “what if” would be,
we’d call it a trochee. It’s where you’ve got still a two beat rhythm
there but it’s inverted. We find that there’s a glitch in that rhythm
again. We’re saying it differently and it just makes
it stand out to our ears. In drama, it just kind of changes a rhythm
and kind of alerts an audience, which is exactly what Shakespeare’s doing with his language. You know, tum ti tum ti-tumming along and then suddenly it’ll go tum-tum and the rhythm will be broken and your ear will kind of prick up
and you’ll notice it and it brings out dramatic context for the rhythm. I think we have to explore all these issues
of rhythm and imagery and everything to find the depth of a character and once
we’ve found that and explored the rhythms and everybody has a different reaction to
those rhythms so it never quite sounds the same but it’s that that takes it into the
real sense of character and where they are in that situation.

7 thoughts on “Teaching Shakespeare | Introducing Iambic Pentameter | Royal Shakespeare Company

  • September 6, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    This was very helpful thank you! 🙂

  • January 9, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    Thanks for this video, RSC. I fully understand the term and concept of this. Much appreciated! 

  • November 24, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    Shakespeare used to walk into bars in Shoreditch and Southwark and employ jobbing untrained actors for walk on parts in his daily productions. Now a middleclass non descript lovey, has to train for seven years in a bullshit academy, gain a drama diploma by over analyses of every word, then brag about their esoteric in depth understanding of minutiae, before they can walk on and deliver the word 'bollox'. TIME TO BRING SHAKESPEARE BACK TO THE PEOPLE.  

  • September 29, 2015 at 12:21 am

    Thank you so much for making this available. I am teaching a Shakespeare class for home school kids and I have ALWAYS struggled with IP, this has helped me get it more and is helping me prepare my lesson on it for this week. I think this is going to really help!

  • October 21, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    This is an excellent introduction to iambic pentameter! Thank you.

  • February 21, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    While iambic pentameter is fascinating it's a lot less interesting than what's actually going on in the plays. Teachers who focus too much on this aspect of the language can totally kill students love of Shakespeare.

  • January 23, 2018 at 11:49 pm

    shakespeare can suck my weiner


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