Iambic Pentameter | Language Techniques
The basic rules of Iambic Pentameter
- It is like speaking in poetry.
- 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).Shakespeare used iambic pentameter with great dexterity – 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 whether speeches were delivered naturally or with an emphasis on the stressed words.
In his plays, Shakespeare didn’t always stick to ten syllables. He often played around with iambic pentameter to give colour and feeling to his character’s speeches.
1. Feminine Ending
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:
- Feminine Endings are the addition of an 11th extra syllable which makes the phrase sound unfinished, weak or contemplative.
- Hamlet uses many of these when facing dilemmas:
e.g “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
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.”
- Inversion is when one foot is reversed in the iambic pentameter sequence in order to draw attention to those words.
- e.g. from Richard III’s speech: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
- A heroic couplet is when two successive lines of iambic pentameter rhyme.
- It has a strong sound, often used at the end of a soliloquy when a character has made a plan or a decision.
- e.g. from Hamlet’s speech: “More relative than this: the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”