To complete the number of syllables in a pentameter Shakespeare (and other contemporaries) let multiple actors say a verse, like shown in Macbeth

Were two actors complete a pentameter:

DUNCAN: As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt

The newest state

MALCOLM: This is the seargent

Who like a good and hardy soldier fought

Or sometimes three actors:

ROSS: The victory fell on us

DUNCAN: Great happiness!

ROSS: That now

Sweno, the Norway's king, craves composition

I was wondering if anyone knew how this technique is called. Also, I know there's a practical reason for doing this but would there also be a stylistic one?. Source any stylistic motives please.

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic as being far more appropriate to another site in the Stack Exchange network, LiteratureSE. Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 15:36
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    @EdwinAshworth Terminology about poetry (like terminology about arguments/biases/fallacies) has been on topic herein the past though I agree that literature.SE would be more likely to know.
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 15:58
  • @Mitch The tags selected do not include 'terminology', and at least half the question (90%+ of the answers) will be discussing style. Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 16:15
  • What, not how! Isn’t that one of the first things taught in English as a Foreign Language?
    – David
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 20:48

1 Answer 1


In literary criticism, such lines are often called short lines. For example, see Bowers, 1980):

Because of its abrupt break with regularity, the Shakespearean short line within a pentameter speech is immediately noticed by the ear and, in a reading edition, by the eye.

Sicherman (1984) also uses short lines as well as part-lines. She argues that many (though not all) of the short lines in Shakespeare plays have a stylistic effect (put in italics), and she uses Julius Caesar as evidence:

Using the example of Julius Caesar, widely considered the best printed of the Folio texts and therefore not so susceptible to editorial tampering, I shall try to show that the Folio short lines often provide eloquent implicit directions for stage-business, rhetorical emphases, and - above all - nuances of characterization.

This terminology also appears in more popular sources, like public-facing websites (Elizabethan Drama):

  1. Using Short Lines. Finally, an individual line may just simply fall well short of 10-syllables for no obvious reason at all. A speech may end with a short line, for example with only 4 or 5 syllables; this is followed by a different character speaking the next line, that line containing its full complement of 10 syllables. This technique can be used to signal that the speakers are about to change topics or ideas.
  • 'The Greeks had a word for it or something rather like it. Greek tradedy was written in iambic trimeter (three iambic feet, where the base iambic foot is four syllables) and so in tudor terms in iambic hexameters of six feet, not the tudor five. Emotionally excited dialogue could be used to 'raise the temperature': this was done by giving alternate lines to two disputing characters. It was called 'stichomythia' ('speech in ranks'). When it gets really hot you get split lines ('hemistichs')! But this is different and TeliesinMerlin has the answer.
    – Tuffy
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 18:12

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