What is Iambic Pentameter?
Iambic Pentameter has:
- Ten syllables in each line
- Five pairs of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables
- The rhythm in each line sounds like:
ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM
Most of Shakespeare’s famous quotations fit into this rhythm. For example:
If mu- / -sic be / the food / of love, / play on
Is this / a dag- / -ger I / see be- / fore me?
Each pair of syllables is called an iambus. You’ll notice that each iambus is made up of one unstressed and one stressed beat (ba-BUM).
In his plays, Shakespeare didn’t always stick to ten syllables. He often played around with iambic pentameter to give color and feeling to his character’s speeches. This is the key to understanding Shakespeare's language..
Sometimes Shakespeare added an extra unstressed beat at the end of a line to emphasize a character’s sense of contemplation. 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
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 Hamlet quote 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 you must not be tricked into thinking that he invented 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. In my opinion, this is unimportant. What really matters is that the study of iambic pentameter gives us a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Shakespeare’s writing process.