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Acting iambic pentameter and performance

Acting iambic pentameter and performance:  What should an actor do with iambic pentameter?

Ok, we could do a year long course on this topic, but let’s give you a place to start and get inspired.

(If you don’t know what iambic pentameter is, click here.)  Shakespeare was one of the greatest writers of all time and he layered in many clues for actors to help them play their parts, in some ways making it foolproof.  Looking at how he chose to use stressed and unstressed syllables can give you tremendous insight.

Let’s say you are preparing one of Romeo’s famous speeches from Romeo and Juliet for an upcoming audition and you don’t know where to begin.   (If you have college auditions in your future listen up!)

Here are the first two lines of text from Romeo’s most famous monologue (all punctuation removed):

But soft what light through yonder window breaks

It is the east and Juliet is the sun

Here is one way to “scan” it (scansion is simply the action of scanning a line of verse for the stresses):

But SOFT what LIGHT through YON der WIN dow BREAKS

First line, straightforward.

But the second line starts to mix it up.

Here’s how I scanned it.  

It is the EAST and JU liet IS the SUN  

What do you notice?  First, in order to get 10 syllables you discover you must make Juliet’s name two syllables instead of 3 – or “jool-yet” versus “joo-lee-et”.  Second, the way I chose to stress the syllables or “scan” it doesn’t look like regular ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM.  Hmmm.

So what does this mean? Why didn’t he take out the second “is” so her name wouldn’t be so funky?  What’s up with that “it is the” part? Did Shakespeare mess up?  This is where it gets fun for the actor.  Since Shakespeare has been dead over 400 years we can’t ask him exactly what was intended with each line of verse; instead we get to play detective and make choices using the trail of breadcrumbs Shakespeare left behind.

There are all kinds of clues to look for in the iambic–sometimes the line isn’t a perfect 10 syllables or it seems like maybe the stresses are in weird places–these clues give us the opportunity to look at what’s going on for the character.  Knowing the story and thinking about what Romeo could be feeling in this moment, I think of an irregular heartbeat at first glance–could it be that Romeo’s heart skips a beat as he gazes upon his love–giving her name just two beats?  What do you see?

Let’s NEXT see HOW this HELPS you SPEAK your TEXT!

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