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Shakespeare Wrote in Iambic Pentameter. But What Is That?

iambic pentameter
William Shakespeare was famous for using iambic pentameter in his plays and sonnets. The symbols above the words in this graphic are used to denote where the reader denotes stress in a line of a verse. Here the weak stress begins on the word "shall." CSA-Printstock/Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

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If you've ever studied Shakespeare, you're probably familiar with — or at least have heard of — iambic pentameter. While iambic pentameter may sound intimidating, it's really just the rhythm of speech that comes naturally to the English language. Shakespeare used iambic pentameter because that natural rhythm replicates how we speak every day.

When you break down iambic pentameter to understand the meanings of its parts, it becomes pretty simple to identify. If it feels a challenge to write in iambic pentameter, keep in mind that Shakespeare is a tough act to follow.

Poetry vs. Prose

To begin to understand iambic pentameter, first consider there are two basic types of writing: poetry and prose.

"Prose is the language of everyday speech," explains Paul Voss, associate professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, who specializes in Renaissance literature and Shakespeare. By contrast, poetry has a type of rhythm or beat like a song. This rhythm is called a meter. You also might hear the word verse, which refers to a single line of poetry or groupings of words in a poem.

Some verses rhyme and have a meter; blank verses have a meter but no rhyme; and free verses have neither rhyme nor meter. Written in verse, poetry sounds good to the reader's ear, just like song lyrics do, especially when it has a rhyme and a meter.

Feet and Iambs

When you read a verse of poetry, it will have different types of beat, explains Voss. The word foot is used to denote the sequence of the meter — remember meter means the poem's rhythm. The important factor is how the syllables in a foot are accented when read. An iamb is a foot of two syllables where the first is unaccented and the second is accented. That might sound complicated, but it mirrors English speaking in important ways.

"It's just the way the accent is emphasized — where you are going to put the stress," says Voss. Some words with an iambic pattern provided by Literary Devices include "portray" and "describe." With these words, the accent — or the syllable that is stressed — is clearly on the second syllable. Say them out loud and you'll hear it: pȯr-trā; di-skrīb.

There are several types of meters in addition to iambs, including trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. Each type has a specific combination of accented and unaccented syllables.

The Pentameter Part

Once you understand that an iambic foot is a two-syllable sequence with a meter that is unaccented/accented, the most difficult part is over. The prefix "penta" is Greek for "five," so when it's combined with "meter" to form "pentameter," it simply means five meters. In this case, the meters signify the number of feet, which means that iambic pentameter has five, two-syllable sequences that follow an unaccented/accented pattern, for 10 total syllables in the line.

Lines typically have two to seven feet, although even a one-foot line is possible, and each has a different name. For example, a trimeter has three feet. If you wrote a poem in iambic trimeter, each line would have six syllables. The lower the number of feet, the more "singsongy" the poem is, according to Voss.

When poets want to be serious, they might make the line longer. One translation of the "Iliad" is written in heptameter — it has seven feet. It's a good fit because telling a story of tragedy or nation building would not sound right in the casual rhythm of "Jack and Jill."

With its five feet, Iambic pentameter sounds like:

da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM

To check for it, first count the syllables in a line because there needs to be 10. Next, you will need to check the syllables for stress to make sure every other syllable is accented. That means, it's best to check for iambic pentameter by reading the lines aloud, which if we're talking about lines of poetry, is how they should be enjoyed.

Be careful that you pronounce the words as the writer intended. In the case of Shakespeare, that might mean speaking differently than we do today — or even just from country to country or region to region. Sometimes, a silent letter needs to be pronounced to make the meter work correctly or two syllables might need to be combined into one: Think of o'er instead of over.

iambic pentameter
Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" also is written in iambic pentameter.
The British Library

Examples of Iambic Pentameter

Shakespeare is probably the most famous writer of iambic pentameter. He used it for all of his sonnets. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote "The Canterbury Tales" in iambic pentameter and is credited by Martin J. Duffell, honorary fellow of Queen Mary, University of London, with inventing it.

But it was English playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe who first brought iambic pentameter to the stage, according to Voss. Thanks to Marlowe, iambic pentameter became the go-to rhythm for both tragedy and comedy, and Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists are known for it.

Likewise, Shakespeare chose to have characters speak in iambic pentameter, but not all of his characters did. Remember that iambic pentameter is more formal. So, when Shakespeare wanted to show a less educated character or give the impression of total buffoonery, he included limericks and prose as dialogue.

One well-known example of iambic pentameter comes from Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18":

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

There are many examples from that era. Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet used iambic pentameter in "To My Dear and Loving Husband," published in 1678:

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man.
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.

But you do not need to return to the 16th or 17th centuries to find examples of iambic pentameter. "Ode to Autumn" by John Keats, written in 1819, also uses the unstressed/stressed meter with 10 syllables per line:

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

How to Write Iambic Pentameter

Despite its sweeping popularity during the 16th and 17th centuries and continuation among some poets, most writers don't use iambic pentameter today. The majority of fiction today is written in prose, not poetry, Voss says.

"The novel has obliterated almost every other type of writing," he says. Today, even poets may write poetry in prose. "If you are using iambic pentameter today, it's almost like using a fountain pen."

But if you are called upon to write a poem in iambic pentameter, use the formula of five iambs per line. You can ensure you stick with the meter by drawing five lines on your paper. Include one iamb on each line. This may mean one word per line, two words per line or words that are broken up on the lines. You may need to revise the way you state something to get the rhythm to work. The important point is to count the syllables, not the words. Repeat this process for the length of your poem, following the rhyme scheme (if any) you have chosen.

Good luck; go make Shakespeare proud!

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