Pause for dramatic effect

11 April 2017

Wilkie Dickinson-Sparkes on how breaks in iambic pentameter provide insights into Shakespeare's characters


In the RSC Voice and Text workshop, I was reminded of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, via our discussion of Macbeth.

Although Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, this rhythm was often broken for atmospheric effect. “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold”, Lady Macbeth proclaims, in five perfect iambs. This is followed by “What hath quenched them hath given me fire – Hark! – Peace!”, making perhaps 12 syllables and not very satisfying iambs. The break in metre reflects Lady Macbeth’s shock. If iambic pentameter sounds like a heartbeat then Lady Macbeth’s heart literally skips a beat in fear. In Hamlet at the Almeida with Andrew Scott, every speech was broken up with long pauses, and I was worried at first that the actors had forgotten their lines.

How foolish I was.

A pause invites interruption and discord, a break in the natural order of the speech. As Lady Macbeth’s pause invites a creak, a cry, a sound of some kind, something for her to say “Hark!” to, so too do Hamlet’s pauses invite something to interrupt him and disrupt him. The expectation of the interruption sews discomfort in an audience and makes the anxiety of plays such as Hamlet or Macbeth palpable in the room.

Or maybe he had just forgotten his lines.


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Photo credit: Manuel Harlan