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Pause - What did you say?

Teachers' Rating:
  3 ratings

Booth as "Brutus". Print, 19th century

March 2008

Amy Krajeck teaches at Webster Thomas High School, Webster, NY


Plays/Scenes Covered

Julius Caesar 1.2.1-71

Macbeth 2.1.1-41

The Tempest 2.1.219-339

What's On for Today and Why

In Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, when two characters share a line, the characters say the lines quickly without a pause in the speech. However, the rhythm and meter of iambic pentameter may not be carried through the characters' lines. When this happens, it is called an imperfect line. Imperfect lines indicate an absence of speech - not words - and therefore create a pause of meaning. Students should play around with the sound of these pauses to discover the fundamental ambiguity of important dialogues. The three examples provided deal with characters that are testing each other out and deciding whether or not they can trust each other.


This lesson should take one class period.

What You Need
New Folger editions of Macbeth, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar
Available in print and Folger Digital Texts

What To Do

1. Give students a copy of Julius Caesar, 1.2.1-71, with limited stage directions. Explain that they will be playing around with Shakespeare's language to discover their own interpretations of the text and relationships between characters.


2. Review iambic pentameter with students by having the class read a passage chorally that follows perfect iambic pentameter (Flavius' speech in 1.1.1-15, for example) while clapping out the rhythm. Explain that most of Shakespeare's language is written in this rhythm, but at times he writes in prose or uses an imperfect line, especially when two characters are trying to figure out each other's motives and they need time to pause and think.


3. Ask two students to read Cassius' and Brutus' lines in 1.2.30-50. During the first read, ask students not to pause on imperfect lines. During the second read, ask students to take a noticeable pause after saying the imperfect lines.


4. Ask the class what effect putting a long pause in between Brutus saying, "Not I, " and Cassius saying, "I pray you, do" has on their conversation. Why does Shakespeare give Brutus a curt line here (cut to one iamb)? How do Cassius' two iambs reveal the relationship between these two characters at this point in the play? Ask students to move the pause to the beginning of lines. How does this change the subtext (thoughts and feelings of the characters) of the dialogue? For example, if Cassius' pause comes at the beginning of his line immediately after "do," indicating that he won't even think about going to see the order of the course. This is different to the pause being placed at the end of Cassius' line - giving time for Brutus to think about going with Cassius and therefore indicating that he is indeed ready to be persuaded.


5. Working with Julius Caesar 1.2.1-71, ask students to work with a partner and look for other places in the example passages where Shakespeare has included an imperfect line (for example, "Beware the ides of March" (1.2.28), or "I'll  leave you" (1.2.36).


6. Ask students to read 1.2.1-71 to one another and to pause at the imperfect lines. Discuss how these pauses help to unravel the relationship between the characters, particularly Brutus and Cassius. How do these pauses emphasize certain lines of the play? Are students surprised by which lines are imperfect? Why or why not?


7. Repeat the exercise (steps 1-6) for Macbeth, using 2.1.1-41. After Banquo asks, "...Who's there?" Macbeth responds with one iamb - "A friend." Ask students what is ironic about this imperfect line. Where should the pause go? What changes by putting the pause before " A friend" to moving it after the line? Who becomes more leery of whom when the pause is before? After?


8. Repeat the exercise (steps 1-6) for The Tempest, using 2.1.219-340, where Antonio convinces Sebastian to kill Gonzalo and Alonso to become king. The three imperfect lines in this passage include Sebastian's, "Methinks I do" (307), Sebastian asking Antonio, "But for your conscience?" (316), and Sebastian telling Antonio, "There's meaning in thy snores" (244). Does Sebastian need to be convinced? How does the placement of pauses help you to answer this question? Why are these three lines imperfect? (Hint: think about subtext.)

How Did It Go?
Did students understand how placement of pauses creates and changes subtext and therefore meaning? Were students experimenting with different placement of pauses - trying to find the right spot for them? Did students unravel the relationships between characters based on the sound and feeling of the text related to pauses? If so, the lesson was successful.

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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