What Is Iambic Pentameter and How Is It Used in Shakespeare's Writing? (2024)

There are many types of rhythmic patterns in poetry, but the one you have likely heard of most is iambic pentameter. Shakespeare is famous for writing in iambic pentameter, and you can find it in multiple forms in every one of his plays. He often used the popular rhymed iambic pentameter, but not always. In "Macbeth," for example, Shakespeare employed unrhymed iambic pentameter (also known as blank verse) for noble characters.

Understanding and identifying iambic pentameter is key to appreciating Shakespeare's plays, so let's take a look.

Understanding Iambic Pentameter

The term "iambic pentameter” can sound intimidating at first. However, it's simply a way of speaking thatShakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been accustomed to. In regards to how the Bard used this type of meter, 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 unstressed and stressed beats, creating this pattern: “de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM de/DUM.
  4. Shakespeare did sometimes play around with this structure to create different effects. For example, he changed the stress pattern and added syllables to create variation and emphasis.
  5. Generally speaking, high-class characters speak in iambic pentameter and lower-class characters speak in prose.

The Origins of Iambic Pentameter

Iambic pentameter was born out of a need to create a meter for the English language in the 16th century. At that point, Latin was seen as superior and "the language of true literature," while English was for common folk. Poets developed iambic pentameter as a way of enhancing English to make it worthy of literature and poetry as well.

Whether rhymed or in blank verse, the pattern's effect allows poetry to be full of movement, imagery, and a musical quality. In contemporary poetry, iambic pentameter is considered somewhat of a lost art; however, some use the pattern or similar meters as a technique to bring their work to life.

Read MoreShakespeare's Rhythm: The Magic of Iambic PentameterBy Lee Jamieson

Examples of Iambic Pentameter in Shakespeare's Plays

Examples of iambic pentameter are found in all of Shakespeare's plays, including the famous"Romeo and Juliet," "Julius Caesar," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "Hamlet." See instances of this meter in the verses that follow.

From "Romeo and Juliet:"

"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-crossed 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 loured 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 honor 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 crowned at Scone."
(Act 5, Scene 8)

From "Hamlet:"

"O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst (self-slaughter!) O God, 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 odor! 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, naught 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)
What Is Iambic Pentameter and How Is It Used in Shakespeare's Writing? (2024)
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