Iambic Pentameter - Analysis - Sample

Comments by Hugh Cook, 2003

This exercise in analyzing Shakespeare's verse dates from 1995, at which time I was at the University of Auckland studying a course in "Shakespeare on Screen". This exercise may be useful or useless, depending on what you are looking for.

Note that the bibliography is extremely skimpy (to the point of being almost non-existent) because this exercise was (in its original academic context) not an exercise in research but an exercise in analysis. In fact, there was no real requirement for this essay to have any bibliography at all.

In a different kind of essay (or in a different academic context) it might be necessary to quote some authority to justify the statement that "It often happens in Shakespeare that if one character fails to pronounce a complete line of iambic pentameter then the next character to speak will supply the missing syllables." However, here, that statement is simply taken as a given.

(The point in question was discussed at some point during the course in reference to the practical staging of Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare's lines tend to have ten syllables, and any line which falls well short of the ten syllables tends to stand out. Consequently, if Speaker A is speaking, and says only a few syllables, that is likely to wake up Speaker B, who will realize that, "Oh, it's my turn to speak!")

2003 comments end

Passage for Analysis (from William Shakespeare's play The Tempest) (Act V, scene i, 33-57)

33 Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
34 And ye that on the sands with printless foot
35 Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
36 When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
37 By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make
38 Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
39 Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
40 To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
41 Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimmed
42 The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
43 And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
44 Set roaring war - to the dread rattling thunder
45 Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
46 With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
47 Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
48 The pine and cedar; graves at my command
49 Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
50 By my so potent art. But this rough magic
51 I here abjure. And when I have required
52 Some heavenly music - which even now I do -
53 To work mine end upon the senses that
54 This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
55 Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
56 And deeper than did ever plummet sound
57 I'll drown my book.


Text from 1995:-

The passage under discussion comes from The Tempest, a play which was probably written round about 1611, the year which saw its first recorded performance. (Bevington, 1988: 611). In analysing this passage, it is possible to see how the metrical features reflect the developments which characterise Shakespeare's later style, and to detect characteristically Shakespearean patterns in the imagery and vocabulary.

To begin with, it is said that in the later years of Shakespeare's writing career he tended to eschew rhyme, and the absence of rhyme from the passage under discussion certainly accords with this tendency, thus helping place the verse within the period which has been assigned to its composition. The absence of rhyme would appear to be a matter of mere stylistic habit, unrelated to the purpose of the passage. However, in analysing other features of the passage, it is important not to lose sight of the authorial intentionality which conditions and modifies the manner in which Shakespeare here deploys his habitual style.

Authorial intentionality is easy to assess, given that the passage under discussion is a soliloquy in which Prospero, garbed in his magic robes, formally abjures his magic. The desired effect is plainly one of solemnity, and a slow and stately solemnity is given to the opening line by the three consecutive strong stresses in:-

v   -    v   -      -       -    v    -    v     -
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,

Representing the strong stresses with capital letters:-


Here, the succession of three strongly stressed syllables in "hills, brooks, standing" represents a deviation from iambic pentameter, the conventional pattern of blank verse, which consists of five feet, each foot comprising one unstressed (or lightly stressed) syllable followed by a syllable which is, in comparison, more heavily stressed. Accordingly, the line quoted may be said to display that loosening of metrical patterning which characterises the verse of Shakespeare's later plays, which tends to be more free than that of the earlier plays, in which Shakespeare's habit is to cleave religiously to the strict demands of iambic pentameter.

However, as has been indicated, this loosening of the metrical pattern is not a matter of seeking freedom for freedom's sake. Rather, the massing of heavy stresses lin line 33 is designed to provide an introductory solemnity which is appropriate for the commencement of Prospero's invocation of those powers which he has hitherto commanded. The fact that this is an end-stopped line, a line which is terminated by the pause indicated by its terminal comma, helps increase its stately solemnity.

Were this a funeral speech, one could imagine a procession of successive lines of deliberate stateliness dominated by heavy stresses, as one finds, for example, in the opening of Book One of Milton's Paradise Lost. However, while the occasion of Prospero's speech is a solemn one, it is not unhappy, since Prospero foresees that all will shortly resolve itself for the best, as he makes clear in his opening words at the outset of Act V scene i:

Now does my project gather to a head.
My charms crack now, my spirits obey, and Time
Goes upright with his carriage.
The TempestAct V, scene i, 1-3.

This being so, Shakespeare is not locked into a mood of unrelenting solemnity, and is free to follow a line dominated by heavy stresses with a line dominated by light stresses:

v   -    v  v   v    -    v    -    v    -
And ye that on the sands with printless foot

Representing the strong stresses with capital letters:-

And YE that on the SANDS with PRINTless FOOT

The pattern of light (v) and heavy (-) stresses shown above is not the only conceivable way of rendering this line, but lightly stressed syllables most certainly do dominate the line.

Additionally, the second line takes less time to say than the first, since its syllables are shorter: by the stopwatch, the complicated syllables of the first line such as "elves", "brooks", "lakes" and "groves" would take more time to say than their counterparts in the second line, "ye", "the", "print" and "foot".

The overall result is that the slow introductory solemnity of the first line serves, by way of contrast, to accentuate the light, fast- paced, nimble quality of the second line, which is being used to characterise the mysterious sprites who are being invoked by Prospero - elves of some description which "do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him / When he comes back".

In such manner, Shakespeare varies the stress patterns within individual lines to help convey mood and meaning. He also varies the number of syllables within lines, another feature which is characteristic of his later style.

The counting of syllables is an uncertain art. Take for example line 52. If "heavenly" is assumed to have two syllables rather than three, and if "even" is assumed to be given the single-syllable pronunciation "e'en", then this line can be held to contain ten syllables. However, it is certain that this passage contains at least four lines of eleven syllables: 35, 38, 44 and 50. By contrast, there are no lines containing fewer than ten syllables excepting the last.

This passage ends with the line "I'll drown my book", which consists of only four syllables, and so falls severely short of the quota of ten syllables required to satisfy the demands of iambic pentameter.

It often happens in Shakespeare that if one character fails to pronounce a complete line of iambic pentameter then the next character to speak will supply the missing syllables. Within The Tempest itself, this pattern is seen in the exchange between Prospero and Ariel immediately before Prospero commences his speech of abjuration:

And they shall be themselves.
ARIEL                         I'll fetch them, sir.

The Tempest
Act V, scene i, 32.

However, when Prospero says "I'll drown my book" nobody immediately speaks to complete the supply the missing syllables. Instead, the stage directions call for "solemn music", and various characters enter. It is Prospero himself who speaks next, supplying a ten-syllable line. The overall effect is one of an emphatic disjunction, the shortness of "I'll drown my book" serving to emphasise both the drastic nature of the action Prospero is speaking of and its finality.

The fact that there have been no short lines until "I'll drown my book" helps emphasise the finality and disjunctive nature of this line.

It is reasonable to presume that this effect is intentional, since Shakespeare freely uses short lines elsewhere in Act V scene i, as for example in 62 "For you are spell-stopped", at 87 "Thou shalt ere long be free" and in Ariel's exit line, line 103, "Or ere your pulse beat twice".

In the passage quoted, then, the succession of full-length or over-length lines followed by the one short line "I'll drown my book" appears to be aimed at achieving a specific and carefully focused effect of disjunction and finality. Other variation, however, may be variation for its own sake - a variation designed to refresh the language through constant change.

In particular, the weak stresses which conclude the four indisputable eleven-syllable lines, lines 35, 38, 11 and 50, probably serve this function of varying the sound of the lines.

The table of metrical tests which Bevington has adjoined to his edition of Shakespeare's works indicates that early plays contain few lines marked by such feminine endings and the later plays more. It follows that the fact that feminine endings are common in the passage under discussion helps support the idea that The Tempest belongs in the period of composition which has been assigned to it, late in Shakespeare's career.

Another feature of this passage which helps date The Tempest is the number of run-on lines, of which there are many. The lines which are clearly end-stopped are 33, 42, 52, 54, 55 and 57, meaning that, out of a total of twenty-five lines, nineteen are run-on lines. It follows that 76% of the lines in this passage are run-on lines.

Obviously a passage such as the one under discussion is far too short to permit conclusive statistical analysis. However, given that Bevington's table of metrical tests shows that the later works have the higher proportion of run-on lines, the high proportion of run-on lines in the passage again supports a late date for The Tempest.

To pay so much attention to the metrical features of this passage is to suggest that it is these features which are the most interesting, but actually this is not the case. Rather, it is the language of this excerpt which holds the greatest interest.

This passage is performative, in that by declaiming it Prospero performs the action of which he speaks, that is to say the renunciation of his magic. Prospero's words "I here abjure" are a performative utterance, a renunciation of magic. And yet, thanks to the odd way in which the relevant passage is phrased, the act of renunciation is both carried out and deferred:

But this rough magic
I here abjure. And when I have required
Some heavenly music - which even now I do -
To work mine end upon the senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.

With the words "I here abjure", Prospero goes through the linguistic act of renouncing his magic. And yet, having done that, he still possesses that magic, for it allows him to demand "Some heavenly music". He does so demand music in another performative statement, "which even now I do". Clearly, then, his earlier act of renouncing his magic was not effective, or not immediately so.

Prospero goes on to state that once he has demanded music, then he will renounce his magic: he says "I'll break my staff" and "I'll drown my book". However, by the time he says these things, he has already demanded music, with the words "which even now I do". The overall effect is to create a sense of profound ambivalence regarding exactly what counts as an effective act of renunciation and exactly when (if ever) this renunciation will become truly effective.

This ambivalent use of language is appropriate to a play which which toys with notions of exactly what constitutes reality, and in which various characters are at times hard pressed to distinguish between observed truth and hallucination.

Fittingly, the exact nature of the entities which Prospero is evoking in this speech, and the exact nature of the "rough magic" which he is renouncing (or, at least, is claiming to renounce) are matters which are left less than clear by his speech.

The light and fast-paced second line, "And ye that on the sands with printless foot", does characterise one variety of the "elves" which Prospero is invoking, but does so in terms of a negative - the negativity of the "printless" foot.

The "elves" are next described as "demi-puppets", an extremely ambiguous thing indeed. They make "sour ringlets" "Whereof the ewe not bites" - another characterisation in terms of a negative.

There then follows a profound contradiction. The elves are "Weak masters", and yet it is by their aid that Prospero has been permitted to achieve all manner of major effects by his "so potent art". Given that Prospero then demands music "To work mine end upon the senses", the possibility arises that his entire art amounts to the ability to sway the mind rather than the ability to exert actual force on the literal world.

It is this quality of deliberate and unresolvable ambiguity which is the most interesting feature of this particular passage. Apart from this perplexing and highly evolved ambiguity, in terms of imagery and vocabulary this passage is in many ways typical of Shakespeare's poetic language as a whole.

In particular, this highly ambiguous passage makes heavy use of concrete specifics. As mentioned above, certain of the elves are characterises as being of "printless foot". This image manages to be both vague and concrete at the same time. A foot which leaves no footprint is a very specific image, but nevertheless leaves entirely open the question of what kind of entity could possess such an attribute.

Similarly concrete and specific are "Jove's stout oak", "the strong-based promontory" and the "spurs" by which "pine and cedar" are uprooted.

Shakespeare's verse does not partake of a generalised world of "trees" but of a particularised world of "oak", of "pine" and of "cedar". When Prospero talks of abandoning his magic, he does so through metonymy, imaging his magic by means of the concrete particularisation of "my staff" and "my book".

This particularised world is animated by a constant flow of active verbs, such as "chase", "fly", "bites" and "rejoice".

To describe the abandonment of his magic, Prospero uses the vigorous verbs "break" and "drown", describing intellectual processes by means of verbs which pertain to the physical world.

Embodied in this vigorous verb-driven verse are metaphors so unforced as to scarcely seem like metaphors at all. The words "the mutinous winds" necessarily involve metaphor, since for the winds to be construed as being "mutinous" they must be regarded as being metaphorically imbued with personality. However, in context, that "mutinous" does not immediately register as being metaphorical.

Similarly, when Prospero talks of calling up a storm, he figures the storm metaphorically as "war". However, since this is prepared for by the concrete specificity of the "green sea" and "azured vault", and since it is followed by the literality of "rattling thunder", it does not register as being self-consciously metaphorical.

Of course, even the words "azured vault" are themselves metaphorical, since they speak of the sky metaphorically as a "vault", that is to say an architectural structure. However, since the "green sea" locates us firmly in the world of the concrete, it is easy for the metaphorical "azured vault" which follows to masquerade as part of that same concrete world.

It may be said, then, that Shakespeare has arrived at the ability to merge the concrete with the metaphorical, to the point where the transitions between the one and the other become virtually imperceptible, only to be teased out through close analysis.


Bevington, David. Date and Text. The Late Romances. By William Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Bevington, David. Shakespeare's Language: His Development as Poet and Dramatist. Complete Works of Shakespeare. By William Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. In The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, volume 1. Ed. Frank Kermode and John Hollander. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. In The Late Romances. Ed David Bevington. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.


Copyright © 1995, 2003 Hugh Cook