Pause, What Did You Say?: Ambiguity in Iambic Pentameter

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

Editor: Greta Brasgalla, Folger National Teacher Corps and Curriculum Specialist at El Dorado High School, El Paso, TX

Common Core Anchor Standards: R.1, R.4, R.5, SL.1, SL.6

Text: Julius Caesar 1.2.1-71

Alternative Texts:

  • Macbeth 2.1.1-41
  • The Tempest 2.1.219-339

Lesson Overview

Students will analyze ambiguity in Shakespeare’s meter using imperfect iambic pentameter lines from Julius Caesar 1.2.1-71. Students will evaluate how the lines reveal character motivation.

Time: One 45-minute class period


What To Do

  1. Explain to students that 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. Have students go through their copy of the play and find some examples.
  2. Give students a copy of Julius Caesar1.2.1-71, 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Guiding Questions:
    1. 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.
    2. Why does Shakespeare give Brutus a curt line here? How do Cassius' two iambs reveal the relationship between these two characters at this point in the play?
    3. 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? How does changing the pause change the meaning?
  6. Working with Julius Caesar 1.2.1-71, ask students to work with a partner and look for other places 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). Discuss how pauses can change meaning.


Students write an open-ended response in which they describe what the imperfect lines in the selection reveal about the characters and their motivations.

Lessons Using Alternative Texts

Complete the exercise 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?

The Tempest
Complete the exercise 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" (2.1.307), Sebastian asking Antonio, "But for your conscience?" (2.13.16), and Sebastian telling Antonio, "There's meaning in thy snores" (2.1.244). Does Sebastian need to be convinced? How does the placement of pauses help you to answer this question? Why are these three lines imperfect?