Given to my Intro to Shakespeare students and now y’all. (Sorry, leaving out the bit where I show how to listen for stresses, and mark them, or show them rather they already know how to listen for stresses, just don’t know they do.)
And here we go. The baseline foot of iambic meter is the iamb: x /
The most common variation in an iambic meter is the trochee: / x
Other common substitutions in an iambic meter are
the anapest x x /
the spondee / /
Occasionally you’ll see the pyrrhic x x and it’s usually paired with the spondee like so x x / / and that’s sometimes also called a double iamb.
Only other foot possible, in English, is the dactyl / x x and you won’t see it in an iambic line. If you do you’ve grouped the stresses wrong. Erase your foot divisions and start over, remembering to maximize the number of iambs.
Similarly, if you come up with this x / x or this / x / as a foot, you’ve gone astray somewhere, unless you’re scanning Greek or Latin verse for quantity, which you ain’t. Back up and start over.
Sometimes at the end of a line you’ll have an extra unstressed syllable, and want to join it to the final iamb to make a foot like this x / x don’t. Leave it there. It’s not lonely, it’s a syllable, not a kitten. If you see a kitten, rescue it.
Moves to watch for, and effects they’re thought to have. An initial trochee
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
creates emphasis by leaning into the words to come. A mid- or end-line anapest can lend speed, momentum, naturalness –
x x /
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
A spondee creates emphasis a bit differently than the trochee,
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
pounding its fist on the words right at hand. The pyrrhic-spondee pairing (double iamb)
x x / /
with a bare bodkin? who would fardels bare?
is an interesting move, softening, yielding, then hitting hard. Take a look at this moment in Hamlet’s monologue; can you discern what the variation does, here? How would you perform it?
Last thing, we sometimes see trochaic meters in these plays – songs and spells, mostly. Trochee world is Bizarro world – English is biased to the iambic, so when you go trochaic, you go to the strange. In a trochaic meter, iambs are the most common substitution, and feel like an unexpected or unaccustomed softening. No anapests here but dactyls have become possible. Spondees and pyrrhics rock on, as before.
To review (and add a little). Feet that make the basis for meters in the plays:
iamb x /
trochee / x
Feet that can be variations in those meters:
anapest x x /
dactyl / x x
spondee / /
pyrrhic x x
How to describe the length of a line
one foot monometer four feet tetrameter
two feet dimeter five feet pentameter
three feet trimeter six feet hexameter
To give a full description of the meter of a line, identify the baseline meter (dominant foot and number of feet) and any substitutions. E.g., “iambic pentameter with a spondee in the fourth foot” or “trochaic tetrameter with a dactyl in the third foot.”
The marks, the terms, are a pain, I know, but they’re a means to an end. A violinist doesn’t learn to read sheet music so she can read sheet music. She learns it so she can play a Bach concerto.
Lastly, note we’re marking meter here, not rhythm, which is a subtler business altogether. There’s a way to mark it but we’re not going there. Fortunately, as speakers of English, you live in its rhythms as fishes in water, so just trust your sense of the character as a living human being, speaking to others the same. The meter is in there, lending order quietly, almost invisibly. When reading these lines, don’t be a robot, be a person.