Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Cutting Shakespeare and Untangling Iambic Pentameter

On Thursday, we hosted our first Folger “office hours” – a digital opportunity for you to bring your questions about teaching Shakespeare. And we got some good ones! The theme was Romeo and Juliet, but we also had some lively discussion going about more general topics, like iambic pentameter.

If you’re interested in seeing all the tweets from “office hours,” just search for #folgerofficehours on Twitter.

We tried to give what answers we could (in the moment and with the restriction of 140 characters), but we’d like to expand on some those answers here.

“Abridge” can mean changing Shakespeare’s words, or cutting the lines.  If you mean changing the language—using modern language instead of Shakespeare’s text–take a deep breath and don’t change the language.  Lots of material in Shakespeare Set Free gives you and your students the path to and through Shakespeare’s language.  And then your students won’t be deprived of  the opportunity–and the thrill–of experiencing and conquering Shakespeare’s language.

However, if you mean cutting lines to make a speech or a scene shorter–this is something that has been done since the very beginning with his plays, and is done all the time now by directors and actors.  We know, for example, that certain lines from Richard II offended Queen Elizabeth I and were outlawed during her lifetime.  And we know that Hamlet performed uncut would keep you in the theatre for four hours or more.  So judiciously cutting the plays is a part of almost every Shakespeare experience.  You do it too.

Knowing and understanding these plays is not just about reading every single line.  Students who experience the language in meaningful ways are likely to have a better experience and gain greater understanding than students who are made to slog through every line.

Here’s our cheat sheet. It helps if you say what’s quoted and bold out loud. Put the stress on the words in all caps.

a beat = a syllable = “da” in “da DUM” (just like your heartbeat)

foot/feet = the combination of two beats, one strong stress and the other weak = “DA dum” or “da DUM”

iamb = a foot that has an unaccented syllable followed by a accented syllable = da DUM”

pentameter = five iambic feet = “da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM”


Thanks to everyone who participated!

Keep an eye out for our next Folger Office Hours.


  • Thank you so much for your responses to my questions. It means so much to be supported by the Folger Shakespeare Library, and these interactions will benefit my eighth graders.

    To follow up on my second question, my students often ask why Shakespeare breaks the pentameter at times and throws in an extra syllable. Below is an example, and I would really appreciate your insight.

    From Act 2 Scene 2

    My ears have yet not drunk a hundred words
    Of thy tongue’s uttering, yet I know the sound. (11 syllables)
    Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague? (11 syllables)

    Neither, fair maid, if either thee dislike.

    How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore? (11 syllables)
    The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
    And the place death, considering who thou art, (11 syllables)
    If any of my kinsmen find thee here.

    thank you,


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