Examples of Iambic Pentameter in Shakespeare's Plays

Plays of Shakespeare
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Shakespeare was famous for writing in iambic pentameter, which is a specific way of rhyming sonnet lines in ten syllables. There are also forms of unrhymed iambic pentameter, as in Macbeth, with the noble characters. This metrical pattern of writing is also known as blank verse, and Shakespeare was famous for composing his plays as such. However, he also included additional forms of writing such as poetry and simple prose.

Understanding Iambic Pentameter

The term "iambic pentameter” can sound intimidating at first, however, it's simply a way of speaking that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been used to. While it is important to have an understanding of what iambic pentameter is to appreciate the plays, there are only five key things to know:

  1. Iambic pentameter is a verse rhythm often used in Shakespeare’s writing.
  2. It has 10 syllables per line.
  3. Syllables alternate between stressed and unstressed beats, creating this pattern: “de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM.
  4. Shakespeare played around with this structure to create different effects (for example, he changed the stress pattern and added syllables).
  5. Generally speaking, high-class characters speak in iambic pentameter and lower class characters speak in prose.

The Origins of Iambic Pentameter and the Reasons for Its Use

The goal of iambic pentameter was to create a meter for the English language in the sixteenth century. The reason for this was due to Latin being seen as "the language of true literature" while English was for common folk. Because Latin was seen as a superior language for poetry and literature, poets developed iambic pentameter to use English words that could be stressed and unstressed. 

The effect of the pattern from Blank Verse allows poetry to be full of movement, imagery, and a music-like quality. In contemporary poetry, it is considered somewhat of a lost art, however, some use the pattern or a similar rhyming scheme as a technique to bring their work to life.

Iambic Pentameter Examples From Famous Shakespearean Plays

Examples of iambic pentameter are found in many of Shakespeare's plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and more. See instances of the pattern in the verses that follow.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
(Act 2, Scene 2)

From Julius Caesar:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!
(Act 3, Scene 2)

From A Midsummer Night's Dream:

And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;
(Act 3, Scene 1)

From Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
(Act 1, Scene 1)

From Macbeth:

Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland
In such an honour named. What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time,
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny;
Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen,
Who, as 'tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life; this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure, time and place:
So, thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone.
(Act 5, Scene 8)

From Hamlet:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!
(Act 1, Scene 2)

From Twelfth Night:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
(Act 1, Scene 1)