An Introduction to Iambic Pentameter

How Shakespeare Uses Meter to Create Rhythm and Emotion

Title page of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609)
Shake-Speares Sonnets, quarto published by Thomas Thorpe, London, 1609. Wikimedia Commons

When we speak of the meter of a poem, we are referring to its overall rhythm, or, more specifically, the syllables and words used to create that rhythm. One of the most interesting in literature is iambic pentameter, which Shakespeare nearly always used when writing in verse. Most of his plays were also written in iambic pentameter, except for lower-class characters, who speak in prose.

Iamb What Iamb

In order to understand iambic pentameter, we must first understand what an iamb is.

Simply, put an iamb (or iambus) is a unit of stressed and unstressed syllables that are used in a line of poetry. Sometimes called an iambic foot, this unit can be a single word of two syllables or two words of one syllable each. For instance, the word "airplane" is one unit, with "air" as the stressed syllable and "plane" as the unstressed. Likewise, the phrase "the dog" is one unit, with "the" as the unstressed syllable and "dog" as the stressed. 

Putting the Feet Together

Iambic pentameter refers to the number of total syllables in a line of poetry—in this case, 10, composed of five pairs of alternating unstresssed and stressed syllables. So the rhythm ends up sounding like this:

  • ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM

Most of Shakespeare’s famous lines fit into this rhythm. For example:

  • If mu- / -sic be / the food / of love, / play on ("Twelfth Night")
  • But, soft! / What light / through yon / der win / dow breaks? ("Romeo and Juliet")

    Rhythmic Variations

    In his plays, Shakespeare didn’t always stick to ten syllables. He often played around with iambi pentameter to give color and feeling to his character’s speeches. This is the key to understanding Shakespeare's language.

    For instance, he sometimes added an extra unstressed beat at the end of a line to emphasize a character's mood.

    This variation is called a feminine ending, and Hamlet’s famous question is the perfect example:

    • To be, / or not / to be: / that is / the ques- / -tion

    Inversion

    Shakespeare also reverses the order of the stresses in some iambi to help emphasize certain words or ideas. If you look closely at the fourth iambus in the quote from "Hamlet" above, you can see how he has placed an emphasis on the word “that” by inverting the stresses.

    Occasionally, Shakespeare will completely break the rules and place two stressed syllables in the same iambus, as the following quote from Richard III demonstrates:

    • Now is / the win- / -ter of / our dis- / content

    In this example, the fourth iambus emphasizes that it is “our discontent,” and the first iambus emphasizes that we are feeling this “now.”

    Why is Iambic Pentameter Important?

    Shakespeare will always feature prominently in any discussion of iambic pentameter because he used the form with great dexterity, especially in his sonnets, but he did not invent it. Rather, it is a standard literary convention that has been used by many writers before and after Shakespeare.

    Historians are not sure how the speeches were read aloud—whether delivered naturally or with an emphasis on the stressed words.

    This is unimportant. What really matters is that the study of iambic pentameter gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of Shakespeare’s writing process, and marks him as a master of rhythm to evoke specific emotions, from dramatic to humorous.

    Format
    mla apa chicago
    Your Citation
    Jamieson, Lee. "An Introduction to Iambic Pentameter." ThoughtCo, Apr. 10, 2018, thoughtco.com/introducing-iambic-pentameter-2985082. Jamieson, Lee. (2018, April 10). An Introduction to Iambic Pentameter. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/introducing-iambic-pentameter-2985082 Jamieson, Lee. "An Introduction to Iambic Pentameter." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/introducing-iambic-pentameter-2985082 (accessed May 20, 2018).