Iambic pentameter & the principles of metrical variation: part 1 – feminine endings & simple variations

In these posts I aim to outline the principles by which Shakespeare varied the rhythm of the iambic pentameter line. These principles produce metrical patterns, or ‘figures’, which Shakespeare employed to highly expressive effect.

But first, what is iambic pentameter?

An iamb is a metrical unit, or footthat is comprised of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable: di-dum.
The second syllable of the iamb is called the beat syllable (the beats provide the pulse of the verse line).

The penta- in pentameter means ‘five’. So iambic pentameter is a meter of five iambs: di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum. Five iambs. Five heartbeats.

When | do count | the clock | that tells | the time

Some people find it hard to recognise stress, so it may be useful to know that stress is primarily defined by pitch. Higher pitched = stressed. Lower pitched = unstressed. If you read the line above out loud, you will find that you automatically pronounce the syllables I have typed in bold at a higher pitch (or you may even find it easier to hear the pitch difference if you ask someone else to say it out loud).

Secondary factors include duration, volume and vowel quality (vowels in unstressed syllables tend to have a more indeterminate sound).

Another neat way to illustrate stress is to compare pairs of words with identical spelling, but a different meaning depending on where you place the stress! For instance, a rebel rebels, and you present a present. If you recognise the difference between rebel and rebel, and present and present, what you are recognising is the stress placement!

The Feminine Ending

One well known metrical variation is the feminine ending: an extra unstressed syllable at the end of the line:-

To be | or not | to be | that is | the ques | tion

Feminine endings can have various effects, depending on the context. In this context, the downward fall of the feminine ending has a searching tone. The feminine endings continue for the next few lines, while Hamlet expounds on his opening ‘question’:-

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

Whether ’tis no | bler in | the mind | to su ffer
The slings | and | rrows of | outra | geous fortune
Or to take arms | against | a sea | of troubles

Besides a couple of simple variant feet, which I will explain later in this post, I have marked two choriambs in red: this is the swinging dum-di-di-dum pattern I described in the Introduction, and it is one of the radical variations we will look at in Part 2.

Though I have chosen to stress “Or to take arms” as a choriamb (“Or to take arms“), there are two other ways these words could be stressed: “Or to take arms” and “Or to take arms“.  These two stress patterns are called, respectively, the minor ionic (di-di-dumdum), and the 2nd epitrite (dum-di-dumdum); these are the other two radical variants we will explore in Part 2! I have chosen the choriamb in this instance because it happens to be the reading I personally find most pleasing, as the swinging movement throws us into the word “against“, where the nasal “n” presses up against the “st” (“against“), which aurally mimics what the words themselves are describing (remember the line from Alexander Pope’s poem in my Introduction? “The sound must seem an echo to the sense”!). And, of course, this reading repeats the earlier choriamb (“Whether ’tis nobler”). However, the other two readings are perfectly legitimate, and some might find different justifications for them!

If we return to Hamlet’s opening line…

To be | or not | to be | that is | the ques | tion

…you might have noticed, as well, that I chose to emphasise ‘is‘ instead of ‘that‘: not a reading I have heard anyone else adopt (apart from once, in a recording of excerpts from Shakespeare in which the actors delivered the lines in what is believed to be Shakespeare’s original accent, which sounds quite different to modern ‘received pronunciation’!), but this reading, as well as introducing a more urgent tone, will automatically encourage an actor to actively engage with their audience – a practice more consistent with the theatre practice of Shakespeare’s day, and the intimacy of The Globe. ‘That is the question’, on the other hand, more readily accommodates the modern interpretation of a contemplative Hamlet and his inward philosophical musings.

I arrived at this reading by simply following the iambic rhythm, rather than choosing to vary from it. This introduces an important principle: if a line reads well by following the iambic rhythm, it is probably what Shakespeare intended, and you probably should not vary from it! Any variation needs to be justified (of course, that’s not to say some might not find justification for placing the emphasis on ‘that‘: this is just my reading!).


In everyday speech, when one word begins with the same sound with which the previous word ended, we normally allow the two words to share that sound, rather than make the same sound twice. So most people, when pronouncing Hamlet’s line, will not pronounce the ‘t’ twice in ‘not to’:

To be or not to be, that is the question

The ‘t’ I have highlighted in red will not be pronounced by most people. However, there is a theory that Shakespeare intended that in such instances the two words should be separated – that he intended that the actor should have to ‘pick out’ the words for expressive effect:

To be or not / to be, …

An interesting result in this case is that by committing to the separation, which creates a suspension after the word ‘not‘, you will find yourself automatically pronouncing the second ‘be‘ with a full stress. By contrast, pronouncing the line the way it is usually pronounced, with the suspension instead coming after the first ‘be‘,  there is an automatic tendency to allow the stress on the second ‘be’ to drop:

To be / or not to be, …

In short, committing to the separation, in this case, also results in a greater commitment to the metrical rhythm.

Here’s another example of separation that I find highly effective:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious / summer by this / son of York

I believe that separations also work well in his sonnets. Here’s a nice little example from Sonnet 39, where we have a separation before the word “separation”!:

That by this / separation I may give
That due to thee which thou deserv’st alone

 The Epic Caesura                                                                          

Another type of feminine ending that was only ever used in dramatic verse is the mid-line feminine ending, or epic caesura:-

Wake Duncan with thy knocking, i would’st thou could’st

Wake Dun | can with | thy knocking, || i would’st | thou could’st

(The first two feet are simple variants, and I will explain these later)

I have marked the extra unstressed syllable before the comma in pink. An epic caesura only ever comes before a break in the line. But with the extra syllable, there is not only a break in the line, but a disruption of the iambic rhythm – and then a resumption of the iambic rhythm after the break. If we continue where we left off with Hamlet’s speech, we find that the sentence ends on an epic caesura:-

And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep

And by | oppo | sing, end them. || To die, | to sleep,

Again, we have a break in the rhythm… followed by a resumption: di-dum, di-dum, di-dum-di… di-dum, di-dum.

In both these examples, the break…and resumption created by the epic caesura serves to highlight a contrast between the two halves of the line. In Macbeth’s line, the first half is a command…and the second half is a despairing acknowledgement of the impossibility of what he is asking. In Hamlet’s line, the searching tone instigated by his ‘question’ is replaced by the assertive tone of To die, to sleep’ (by which he means ‘to die is to sleep’).

Try reading these lines out loud a few times to get a feel for the effect. (I have marked two vertical lines after the epic caesuras, and will do so with any further examples).

Epic caesuras occur with some frequency in Shakespeare’s plays, so you will need to familiarise yourself with them!

Feminine Endings & Enjambment

You can also find end-line feminine endings in enjambed lines. Enjambment is when the phrase runs over the end of the line. If we again carry on where we left off with Hamlet’s speech, we run into three consecutive enjambments:-

No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,

No more; | and by | a sleep, | to say | we end
The heart |-ache, and | the thou | sand na | tural shocks
That flesh | is heir | to. ‘Tis | a con | summa | tion
Devou | tly to | be wished. | To die, | to sleep,

The words at the ends of the lines – ‘end‘ (at a line ending!), ‘shocks‘, ‘consummation’ – receive a heightened emphasis which they would not receive if there were no lineation. And they tell a story. If you only say the final word in each line of any passage of Shakespeare, you are likely to find they make a very strong and clear impression. If we list the words at the end of each line in this passage…


…doesn’t that just wrap it all up in a nutshell? (Incidentally, the word “consummation” has a double meaning: it means both a completion, climax or fulfillment, and ‘to be consumed’, to vanish into nothingness. ‘Consummation’ and ‘consumation’ were not differentiated by spelling by the Elizabethans).

In the opening to this speech from Macbeth, the enjambments, combined with the punctuation, create a quick stop-and-start effect, conveying the frantic energy with which he has to think on his feet:-

If it were done, when ’tis  done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all. Here,

If it | were done, | when ’tis |  done, then | ’twere well
It were done quick | ly. If | th’assa | ssina tion
Could tra | mmel up | the con | sequence, | and catch
With his | surcease, | success; | that but | this blow
Might be | the be |-all and | the end |-all. Here,

(The ‘di-di-dumdum‘ in ‘It were done quickly’, is a minor ionic: I will be looking at this, and other radical variants, in Part 2. I mark all radical variants in red).

Both of these passages contain one line that combines enjambment with a feminine ending.

To explore this further, let’s examine the following passage from The Winter’s Tale in which we hear Leontes’ reaction to having the ‘statue’ of Hermione revealed to him:-

                         …for she was as tender
As infancy and grace. But yetPaulina,
Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing
So aged as this seems.

                            …for | she was | as ten | der
As in | fancy | and grace. | But yet, | Pauli na,
Hermio | ne was | not so | much wrin | kled, noth ing
So a | ged as | this seems.

(‘Hermione’ is pronounced as three syllables, ‘aged’ as two syllables)

Three lines in a row have a feminine ending, the first and third of which are enjambed. The feminine endings in these enjambed lines create a stronger break in the middle of the phrase than would be created by enjambment alone (the effect is similar to the disruptive effect of an epic caesura: we again have the extra syllable disrupting the iambic rhythm, and so creating a stronger break…then resumption than would be provided by enjambment alone). Read the passage out loud, then replace the words ‘tender’ and ‘nothing’ with ‘soft’ and ‘not’ and read it out loud again, and see if you notice the difference.

When combined with the breaks within the lines provided by the punctuation (as well as the separation of this…seems’), the breaking up of the phrases with enjambed feminine endings helps to convey Leontes’ wonder, and his highly engaged effort to express and make sense of his own reactions to what he is seeing.

If we revisit the enjambed feminine endings in the passages from Hamlet and Macbeth…

That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,

It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch

…we can see they both happen to be very similar: both lines end on a multi-syllabic word, in which the last accented syllable is a long “a” sound (“consummation” and “assassination”). Both create a suspension (heightened still further by the long “a” vowel) which sets us up for the sharp, crisp delivery of the next line: Hamlet’s next line, with it’s “t” sounds, and it’s run of light syllables before hitting the word “wished“; and Macbeth’s line, with it’s hard “c” sounds, and the tight, compact effect of the words “…trammel up…”.

Many actors ignore the lineation of enjambed lines. If Shakespeare had intended the lineation to be ignored, he would not have bothered with it! The last syllable of an enjambed line should not always be delivered with heavy emphasis: in many cases it can instead be delivered with a light touch – it may, for instance, be just a slight upward lift, or a slight suspension. But the lineation should not be ignored if your intention is to deliver the verse as Shakespeare intended!

And ignoring the lineation in enjambed feminine endings would be an even bigger mistake. Let’s rewrite Leontes’ lines as a prose passage:-

“…for she was as tender as infancy and grace. But yet, Paulina, she was not so much wrinkled, nothing so aged as this seems.”

It’s just not the same, is it?

I shall indicate all further feminine endings in pink typebut without marking them off with a foot division.

 The Simple Variant Feet

In some of my previous quotes, I marked some simple variant feet. A simple variation is created when you modify an iamb by adjusting the stress of a single syllable.

Let’s look again at one of our lines from Macbeth:-

Wake Duncan with thy knocking, i would’st thou could’st

Wake Dun | can with | thy knocking, || i would’st | thou could’st

In the first foot I have stressed the opening non-beat syllable: ‘Wake Dun’, instead of ‘Wake Dun‘. Instead of ‘di-dum‘, we have ‘dum-dum‘. This variant foot is called a spondee.

In the second foot I have destressed the beat syllable: ‘-can with’, instead of ‘-can with‘. Instead of ‘di-dum‘, we have ‘di-di’. This variant foot is called a pyrrhic (though, in practice, there often remains a slight stress on the beat syllable of a pyrrhic).

Pyrrhics create a narrowing and speeding up of the line (just as water flows faster when it enters a narrower pipe); and spondees create a widening and slowing down of the line (just as water flows slower when it enters a wider pipe).

In both cases, the beat (the rhythmic pulse of the line) still lands on the second syllable.

The 4th Paeon, the Golden Line & the Balanced Line

When a variant foot combines with another foot it creates a metrical pattern, or figure. A pyrrhic combines with the iamb in front of it to form the pattern: di-di-di-dum (di-di + di-dum! In practice, there may be just a light stress on the second syllable). This figure is called the 4th paeon (which I will sometimes refer to simply as a paeon, for short). In the line from Macbeth, this 4th paeon has a feminine ending created by the epic caesura:-

‘-can with | thy knocking‘.

             di-di-di-dum (di!)

Here is another example:-

My bounty is as boundless as the sea

I have not marked the foot divisions in this line. Can you see the 4th paeons?

Here it is again, with foot divisions:-

My boun | ty is | as bound | less as | the sea

                      di-di-di-dum-di-di-di-dum. Two consecutive paeons!

Note how the paeons create a swift forward movement, and how the final syllable of each one rings out after the run of light syllables. Note, too, the elegant symmetry of this line, with a stressed beat either end, connected by a stressed beat right in the middle! (To be clear, though I have marked four stressed syllables in this line, the first stress, ‘My’, is not a beat syllable: the beat lands on every second syllable. Here is the line with the beats underlined:

My boun | ty is | as bound | less as | the sea

You can see that only three of the underlined beat syllables are stressed: the 1st, 3rd & 5th. As I said, the beats provide the pulse – the rhythm – of the verse). This very smooth and even metrical pattern is known as the ‘golden line’. Here are two more examples (and this time I will not divide the 4th paeons into separate feet):-

And simpler than the infancy of truth                                            

And sim | pler than the in | fancy of truth

It faded on the crowing of the cock

It fa | ded on the crow | ing of the cock

A similar symmetry is created with a mid-line paeon, spanning the third and fourth feet:-

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads;
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown;
My figured goblet for a dish of wood;

I’ll give | my jew | els for a set | of beads;
My gor | geous pal | ace for a her | mitage;
My gay | appa | rel for an alms | man’s gown;
My fig | ured gob | let for a dish | of wood;

In three of the four lines only the middle beat is unstressed, creating a run of light syllables in the middle, and two stressed beats either side. Variety is provided by the appended pyrrhic (more on these later!) at the end of the second line.

This metrical pattern is known as the ‘balanced line’, and – as in the above example – it lends itself particularly well to antithesis.

The Spondee-Paeon & the Paeon-Spondee

Spondees, also, can combine with other feet to form a metrical figure. In fact, one could argue that the opening spondees in my quotes from Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet combined with the paeons to form a 6-syllable metrical figure (!): dum-dum-di-di-di-dum! (‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking…’; ‘My bounty is as boundless…’). This is actually a very common metrical pattern that sets up an appealing contrast between a heavy, emphatic opening followed by a swift release. Here are some more examples:-

So fastened in her arms Adonis lies

So fast | ened in | her arms | Adon | is lies

Doth homage to his new appearing sight

Doth hom | age to | his new | appear | ing sight

And this line combines a spondee-paeon with the patterning of the golden line (just like the line from Romeo and Juliet, as I chose to stress it):-

Rain added to a river that is rank

Rain add | ed to | a riv | er that | is rank

Rain added to a riv | er that is rank

(this time I have only placed a division between the 6-syllable spondee-paeon and the 4-syllable paeon)

Spondees can also be added to the end of a paeon to create the very striking metrical pattern of three light syllables running into three heavy syllables:
di-di-di-dum, followed by dum-dum, to create di-di-di-dum-dum-dum! Again, this is a common pattern, with the light swift movement bringing heightened emphasis to the three heavy syllables. Here is a highly expressive example from Hamlet’s speech:-

That makes calamity of so long life

That makes | calam | ity | of so | long life

Say it out loud and you can really feel the weariness in ‘soooo lonnng life!‘.

Here’s another lovely example from Sonnet 1 …

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes

But thou, | contrac | ted to | thine own | bright eyes

And another from Shakespeare’s first narrative poem, Venus and Adonis

Leading him prisoner in a red rose chain,

Leading him pris | oner in | a red | rose chain,

(“prisoner” is pronounced as two syllables: “pris’ner”. The line opens with a choriamb: another radical figure we will explore in Part 2)

Consecutive Spondees

Unlike pyrrhics – which should never be placed next to each other, or else you will start to lose the rhythm – spondees can be placed side by side, like a row of bricks:-

Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind

Rich gifts | wax poor | when giv | ears prove | unkind

Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time agreeing

Thoughts black, | hands apt, | drugs fit, | and time | agreeing

Two spondees laid next to each other, as in the first example, is called a ‘dispondee’ (which, I suppose, makes the second example, with three consecutive spondees, a ‘trispondee’!).

The 1st & 3rd Epitrites

Spondees can also combine with iambs. When a spondee is placed after an iamb it forms the pattern di-dum-dum-dum (di-DUM + DUM-DUM;  though in practice, there is often slightly less stress on the third syllable). This figure is called the 1st epitrite (an epitrite is a figure with three stresses, and this is called the 1st epitrite because the 1st syllable is unstressed). In these examples I will make the figure easier to identify by not splitting it into two separate feet:-

And one sweet kiss shall pay this countless debt

And one sweet kiss | shall pay | this count | less debt

Or what great danger dwells upon my suit?

Or what great dan | ger dwells | upon | my suit?

And here’s one later in the line:-

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date

And summ | er’s lease | hath all too short | a date

And see how in this example the slow emphatic epitrite is released into a swift paeon, hitting the word “beauty’s”:-

And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field

And dig deep tren | ches in thy beau | ty’s field

The following example (which contains an opening 1st epitrite in two successive lines) comes from the ‘log scene’ in The Tempest, when Ferdinand declares his love to Miranda:-

Beyond all limit of what else i’th’ world,
Do love, prize, honour you.

Beyond all lim | it of what else | i’th’ world,
Do love, prize, hon | our you.

Actor’s playing Ferdinand never follow the meter on this last line: they always linger on the first two stressed words, and drop the emphasis on the last (and all important) word, ‘you’:-

“…Do LOVE… PRIZE… HONour you”.

A metrical delivery is much more compact and muscular:-


The key word here is ‘YOU’! YOU are my ALL the WORLD! The usual delivery, by contrast, can easily end up being insipid.

When a spondee is placed before an iamb, it forms the pattern dum-dum-di-dum (dum-dum + di-dum). This is the 3rd epitrite (because the 3rd syllable is unstressed). Again, I have not divided the figure into two separate feet:-

Love give me strength, and strength shall help afford

Love give me strength, | and strength | shall help | afford

In this line from Hamlet’s speech, the 3rd epitrite (placed at the end of the line, this time) contains a split spondee: a spondee with a break in the middle, which I shall underline:-

To sleep, perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub

To sleep, | perchance | to dream; | ay, there’s the rub

And this example has a 3rd epitrite both at the beginning and end of the line:-

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend

Unthrifty love | liness, | why dost thou spend

The Appended Pyrrhic

The above example also contains an appended pyrrhic: a pyrrhic at the end of a word. In this case, the word is ‘loveliness‘. In this example, the appended pyrrhic comes before a line break. As a general rule, the only pyrrhics you should find before a line break, or at the end of a line, will be appended pyrrhics. Here’s an example of an end line appended pyrrhic (which also happens to contain two consecutive 3rd epitrites, the first of which contains a split spondee):-

And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding

And, tender churl, | mak’st waste in nigg | arding

[Additional note: the appended pyrrhic is also the only pyrrhic that can be followed by another pyrrhic! However, I only occasionally encounter examples of this.]

The Isolated Spondee

Finally, because of it’s solid, brick-like quality, a spondee doesn’t always combine with another foot: in which case it’s an isolated spondee. These two examples are from his first narrative poem, Venus and Adonis:-

Pure shame and awed resistance made him fret

Pure shame | and awed | resis | tance made | him fret

Is love so light, sweet boy, and may it be

Is love | so light, | sweet boy| and may | it be

And these examples are from Hamlet (three of which are split spondees):-

Seems”, madam? Nay, it is: i know not “seems”

Seems”, mad | am? Nay, | it is: | i know | not “seems”

It wafts me still: go on. I’ll follow thee.

It wafts | me still: | go on. | I’ll fo | llow thee.

Oh, villain, villain, smiling damned villain!

Oh, vi | llain, vi | llain, smi | ling dam | ned villain!

So, uncle, there you are: now to my word;

So, un | cle, there | you are: | now to my word;

The last example ends with a choriamb. The reason I call the choriamb a radical variation is because it contains a displaced beat – which is the subject of my next post: Iambic pentameter & the principles of metrical variation: part 2 – radical variations

(And here is a link to my glossary)


6 thoughts on “Iambic pentameter & the principles of metrical variation: part 1 – feminine endings & simple variations

  1. Clear enough for others to get the idea, but why confine the discussion to Shakespeare? All through the history of the Language, you’ll find great metrical poems that can serve as excellent examples. My interest is in encouraging others to write formal as well as presenting my own work and still-developing ideas about poetry.

    Read through the Thomas Gray poem for a fine statement of the crushing oppressiveness of poverty.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘All through the history of the Language, you’ll find great metrical poems that can serve as excellent examples’. I quite agree, Alan!

    There are two reasons why I have concentrated on Shakespeare.

    Firstly, I have a personal obsession with Shakespeare!

    Secondly, these posts are not only aimed at writers and readers, but also actors. I am interested not only in poetic verse, but also in dramatic verse – which makes Shakespeare the perfect subject!

    For these reasons, Shakespeare’s verse is my starting point, but I may well expand my focus further down the line. There are certainly many, many poems I would like to write about (including Thomas Gray’s!). In fact, a comparison of metered poems from different time periods might be an excellent subject for a future post!

    Thank you so much for your comment and your interest!


  3. This is Peter Groves, author of (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2013) http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/rms-9781921867811.html , and I’d like to say how much I’ve enjoyed reading your blog (and agreeing with most of it). As you well know, the vast majority of writing on metre on the web is jejune at best, and at worst grossly misleading, and your blog fulfills a very important purpose. I am writing to ask if you would be able to contact me on my university email (supplied in the log-on procedure).


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