Teaching Shakespeare!

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Introducing Iambic Pentameter: Feeling Our Way

*Beware the ides of March…and join us for our live-streamed Master Class on teaching Julius Caesar! Since Caesar is in the air these days, we’re bringing you a special post on teaching meter in this play. Enjoy—and let us know how it goes!*

(Image: Folger Library)
(Image: Folger Library)

With Julius Caesar, I introduce iambic pentameter to my students with a fun, physical activity. We start by standing in a circle. I turn and open my hands wide, encouraging the student next to me to open her hands up too, and together we bring them together to clap at the same time. I instruct her to pass a clap to the next person. We go around the circle like this, and notice how we fall into a rhythm while passing the clap.

I give my next instruction and demonstrate. I say, “I’m going to say my name while making eye contact with someone across the circle. That person has to say my name back to me. When I hear my name, that’s my permission to move across the circle and take that person’s spot.” So I say “Ms. Stangel-Plowe” to Amy, and Amy has to say “Ms. Stangel-Plowe” back to me, and only then do I cross. Then, as I cross, Amy says “Amy” to another student across the circle, who repeats “Amy” and then Amy takes that person’s place on the circle. We do this until everyone has had a chance to cross. This is trickier than it sounds because students are in a hurry to say their own names. They have to slow down and repeat their classmate’s name before they say and then listen for their own name.

Next, we repeat the activity, except instead of saying and listening for my name, I say “I am.” I wait to hear it back, then cross the circle. Then that student says “I am,” waits to hear it repeated, and so on, until everyone has crossed on “I am.”

Now, I say, repeat after me, “I am, I am, I am, I am, I am.” They repeat. Then, we clap on the downbeat as we repeat the line; the beat is the word “am.” Then we stamp our feet on the beat as we repeat the line again. Then I model crossing the circle in five steps, stepping on the beat, as we say the line. I demonstrate and each student takes a turn.

Then, I ask students to notice how many beats in the line (five) and how many syllables (ten). I explain that this line, with this particular rhythm, is called iambic pentameter. The students squeal or sigh with recognition! They’ve heard of this before!

We then invent our own lines that follow this rhythm, and we cross the circle as we speak our lines. I go first and cross on “The pool is cold so I will not jump in,” stepping on each downbeat as we did with the “I am” line. Each student takes a turn, trying to step on the downbeat of what they make up that fits the rhythm. There are lots of silly iambic lines and not-so-iambic lines. I just look for engagement and experimentation at this point!

During this introduction, meter becomes both physical and natural, something we easily recognize and embody. Afterward, I write a line from the play on the board — “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world.” We say the line together and I ask students to point out the downbeats. Now, students know right away which syllables get the downbeat; I let them direct me to mark those as “stresses.” Then we mark the unstressed syllables. I point out that every unit of unstressed-stressed is an “iamb” — yes, like the “I am” of our activity. Since there are five of these units, the line is called iambic pentameter.

You could extend this lesson by having students look at moments when Shakespeare’s poetry is not always strictly iambic. Variations can reflect possible shifts in emphasis or meaning. Take, for example, the line we used “Why, man, he doth bestride the natural world” which runs onto the next line with “Like a Colossus.” Students notice that the word “like” is naturally emphasized, even though the lines are otherwise iambic. Students point out that emphasizing the first word “like” is natural… and might even have something to do with the rhetorical tools Cassius is using to get Brutus to join the conspiracy. Meter can wake up the ear and open up a world of student interpretations. And it all starts with a clap.

2 Comments


  • I was looking for a kinesthetic activity to teach iambic pentameter to my high school freshmen and this was fantastic! They loved making up their own lines. I think this activity was a necessary precursor to Shakespeare’s sonnets and, soon, Romeo and Juliet.

    There is something empowering about saying, “I am I am I am I am I am” while surrounded by your peers. I am reminded of my favorite Sylvia Plath quote: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” I think most of my students will remember this activity for a long time.


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