Steven Pinker's "3 second rule": Does it Tell Us Something Important About Shakespeare's Iambic Pentameter Line?

Well this came out of the blue, which is one of the reasons I like having a bog. But one reader, Allan Henderson by name sent me a fascinating suggestion about a controversy I deal with in a chapter of %%AMAZON=0375503390 The Shakespeare Wars%%.


For those of you who have not yet read the book (and what’s your excuse?), in Chapter 7 “The Search for Shakespeare in a Delicate Pause” I address the impassioned contention by Sir Peter Hall, the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company that contemporary Shakespeareans have neglected a profoundly important element in the way actors speak Shakespeare’s iambic (da DUM, da DUm, etc) pentameter verse line: the need for a delicate pause at the end of each five-iamb line.

According to Hall, the crucial pause helps define and give full resonance to the sound and sense within each line, setting each line off slightly from the line to follow and thereby allowing its subtlies to resound with all their beauty and power intact–rather than losing the line’s majestic integrity by hastening on to the next line for some illusory “naturalistic effect”. The pause makes each line a virtual poem unto itself, bounded on either end by that delicate esthetic enclosure. .

it’s not uncontroversial and I didn’t completely understand Sir Peter’s insistence on line structure until I interviewed the extremely astute director Barry Edelstein who had his own novel but persuasive interpretation of the Hall pause. Edelstein believed that that delicate interval could be looked upon by actors as the moment when, metaphorically, they think up the next line.


Not that they actually make it up anew every night, obviously. But heuristically it gives a sense of freshness, of newly minted utterance to lines that can otherwise sound merely recited.

In any case Mr. Henderson sent me a fascinating fresh speculation on this subject that he thought up while simultaneously reading my book and Steven Pinker’s new work:

“Hi Ron,

I was reading your SHAKESPEARE WARS book at the same time as
reading Steven Pinker’s new THE STUFF OF THOUGHT book, where he points
out that the human experience of the present moment is not a continuous
flow, but a roughly 3-second interval – which is about the duration of
the pentameter line. So maybe this supports Peter Hall’s point that
the pentameter line needs to pause before moving on to the next present
moment. If you write back to me I can
send you more about this.”

Fascinating! i wrote back and he expanded on this line of thought:

“Steven Pinker’s observation about the 3-second present comes from Ernst Poppel, a brain researcher at the University of Munich. Dubbed Poppel’s Law it says that “We take life three seconds at a time.” Poppel illustrates his law by pointing out that a handshake lasts about three seconds. So does the preparation for a golf swing, short-term memory, a phrase in spontaneous speech, the pause when channel surfing for a television program to watch, and a line of poetry. Pinker talks about this on page 189 of his new book THE STUFF OF THOUGHT, where he says “our intuitive conception of time differs from the ceaseless cosmic stream envisioned by Newton and Kant. To begin with, our experience of the present is not an instantaneous instant. Instead, it embraces some minimum duration, a moving window on life in which we apprehend not just the instantaneous ‘now’ but a bit of the recent past and a bit of the impending future.”


“If you go to this web page– you’ll see that Poppel has timed several poetic lines, and he talks about “breath units” and pauses in lines of poetry too.

“It seems to me that if the human mind processes information in roughly 3-second chunks, then a line like Shakespeare’s will play into that human tendency to experience time as a train of “boxcars of fixed length.” Shakespeare can then play with that 3-second length for lots of sophisticated effects. On the other hand, it seems to me that Shakespeare’s prose is a different story, where he doesn’t have the fixed-length boxcars and has to do a lot of work to define the size of the boxcars as he goes along with a different set of techniques.

“By the way, if you multiply it out mindlessly, without thinking about any extra pauses for important dramatic things going on, then you get about 1200 lines of iambic pentameter per hour, which is about 2400 lines in a play for a ‘two hours’ traffic of our stage.’

“Time as ‘a train of boxcars of fixed length'” Who’d have thunk it? What a thought-provoking connection! It’s a subject I’ll have to return to after further (more than 3 seconds’) thought.


But I’m grateful to Mr. Henderson, further confirmation of my feeling that while this blog may not have the most readers in the blogosphere it has some of the smartest.


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