While reciting "To be or not to be" recently, I discovered a rhythmic pattern that I hadn't really noticed before. At least to me, there seems to be quite a few dactyls, especially in the second half of his famous soliloquy.

Could these interpretations be correct?

The | ìn-sol-ence of| òf-fice, and| the spùrns
That pa|tient mèr-it of |th' ùn-wor-thy takes,

OK, this isn't a dactyl but I didn't know what else to call it. Notice the 2 lines are treated as one and it has a feminine ending.

When he him |sèlf might his qui|èt-us make
With a bàre |bod-kìn?| Who would fàr|dels bear,
To grùnt| and swèat| ùn-der a| wèar-y life,| (or alternatively |un-der a wèar|y life|)
|But that the drèad| of some-thing à|fter death,

(I really don't know what it is I'm supposed to be doing to indicate the diactrics... I hope you will understand me)

To me it seems more natural that you group a bunch of the syllables together (like 3 or 4 of them) in a rushed or slurred speech pattern like someone who may be a little scared or hurried.

Also it seems like at times he is alternating between thought processes, as if he were weighing options on one hand, then on the other hand, so it'd be like: "with a bare bodkin?" (one thought, but then like in a piece of music you have one cadence already but you want to keep the flow going he jumps right into the next) "who would fardels bear".... etc etc etc...

What are your thoughts?

  • I'm not sure if this is on-topic for the EL&U site. Since it's about an existing work of literature, I would've thought it goes on Literature ... on the other hand, it doesn't have any votes to close it here yet ... Nov 19, 2019 at 9:31

1 Answer 1


It is an interesting fact about the iambus that in ancient Greek verse, the iambic unit is not short-long (two syllables) but short-long-short-long (four syllables). The first syllable could be long as well as short. And the long second syllable could be ‘resolved’ into two short syllables! So you could legally have an iambus like this


So there could be something like a dactyl. It was a kind of syncopation. It happens more in later Greek tragedy than i. archaic verse, and most of all (not surprisingly) in comedy, where you could get something like:

ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-tum-ti-tum ...S a single iambus.

Syncopation involves playing one rhythm against another. Any poetic rhythm can be syncopated for effect. So when Macbeth heard of Lady Macbeth’s death he. laments

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

the way to dusty death. Out brief candle.

you will notice how he makes the first line drag because of the clash between the iambic movement in your head and the rhythm you hear. Any word that comes out long when it should be short gets more attention. “Creeps” immediately stalls the line making it creep along. You can say that that opening word is a ‘spondée ’ (tum tum) rather than an iambus. But that would miss the point. Better to say it is spondaic.

Your passage is the same.

to bé or nót to bé thát is the quéstion.

Here, by reversing the stress the unexpected weight on that worth swells it’s importance. Even more does the “Out (stressed exactly where it should be unstressed and the first of three stressed monosyllables. That sentence could be read as a spondée trochee (stressed stressed / unstressed).

Of course, that is not how Shakespeare thought about it, any more than you or I think about grammatical usage most of the time we write. But it is reasonable to point out that “that is the” is dactylic in its movement. In that sense you are right to observe dactylic moments in this iambic verse.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.