Shakespearean Verse

For a helpful online glossary that provides definitions for some of the language and Shakespeareanisms in Twelfth Night, see

What is the “language” of Shakespeare? How does it work? Most of the playwrights in Shakespeare’s time were writing in a metrical form of verse known as iambic pentameter. In this form, each line consists of five poetic units called “feet,” and each foot is equal to two syllables. The second syllable of each foot is accented. Sometimes these lines rhyme, as they do in Feste’s songs in Twelfth Night. However, Shakespeare more often used unrhymed iambic pentameter, known as blank verse. Blank verse closely resembles the natural rhythms of speech in English, which allows the speaker greater freedom of tone, while still having a specific emphasis within the line, which would be lacking in prose. 

A line such as, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” from Romeo and Juliet provides an excellent example of the use of iambic pentameter because it can easily be broken up into its five feet: five stressed and five unstressed syllables.

But, soft / what light / through yon- / -der win- / -dow breaks?

Whether or not a character speaks in iambic pentameter is often attributable to his or her station in life. People who are of a higher position in the class structure of the play (including Olivia, Orsino, and Viola) often speak in meter, while the lesser subjects (including Maria and Fabian) tend to speak in prose. This, however, is not always the case.

Shakespearean Verse: Some Basics


Scansion:  the analysis of verse to show its meter.

Meter:  the systematically arranged rhythm in verse — rhythm that repeats a single basic pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Foot:  the basic unit of verse meter.


Iamb:  A metrical foot consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. (E.g., A-bove, Me-thinks, The night)

Trochee:  A metrical foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. (E.g., Me-tal, Feel-ing, Flow-er)

Spondee:  A metrical foot consisting of two stressed syllables. (E.g., Play on, Well said)


Pentameter:  A form of verse consisting of 5 feet, 10 syllables.

Iambic Pentameter:  A form of verse consisting of five iambs. (E.g., I do / I know / not what, / and fear / to find)

Irregular meter: Often Shakespeare will break the pattern of stresses to create moments of interest, to highlight themes and word choices, to create a rest or pause, or to underline the specific intention of the character.  (E.g., Would I / or not. / Tell him / I’ll none / of it.)

“Feminine” endings: Lines of verse that have an “extra” unstressed syllable which can occur at the end of a verse line or within a verse line at the end of a phrase.  (E.g., There is / a fair / be-hav- / -ior in / thee, capt-ain)

Reprinted from McCarter Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Audience Resource Guide