Variations from the norm

Once the expectation of iambic pentameter is set up, the reader or audience may notice when Shakespeare departs from this pattern and the effects that this produces.

Irregularly stressed lines

When Leontes is struggling with his terrible feelings of jealousy, (Act I scene ii) the lines of his speeches depart very noticeably from the regular iambic pentameter, sometimes containing more strong beats than usual and often beginning with a strong beat:

Is whispering nothing? ...
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh ...
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? Noon, Midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs; theirs only.

Many of Leontes' lines in his soliloquies are far from regular. Not only do they have stressed syllables where we might expect unstressed ones, but they are full of mid-line pauses – known as caesuras – which suggest his fraught mental state.

Smooth lines

In contrast, we can hear the smoothness and more regular stresses of Hermione's speeches to the court in III. ii, where she is determined that all shall hear her declaration of her own innocence:

‘Since what I am to say, must be but that
Which contradicts my accusation,
The testimony on my part, no other
But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me
To say 'not guilty': mine integrity
Being counted falsehood, shall, as I express it,
Be so receiv'd. But this: if powers divine
Behold our human actions (as they do)
I doubt not then but innocence shall make
False accusation blush, and tyranny
Tremble at patience.'

Shakespeare makes Hermione's speeches in this scene even smoother by adding an extra unstressed syllable to the end of several lines (as underlined in the above example); this is known as a feminine ending and has the effect of softening the end of the line. He also uses enjambement – a technique whereby the sense is carried on without pause to the next line, as we see in several of the lines quoted above.

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