If you’ve studied any of Shakespeare’s sonnets you may have heard of “iambic pentameter”… but what exactly is iambic pentameter?
Iambic Pentameter Definition
In a line of poetry, an iamb is a foot or beat consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, or a short syllable followed by a long syllable. For example, deLIGHT, the SUN, forLORN, one DAY, reLEASE. English is the perfect language for iambus because of the way the stressed and unstressed syllables work. Interestingly enough, the iamb sounds a little like a heartbeat.
Pentameter is simply penta, which means 5, meters. So a line of poetry written in pentameter has 5 feet, or 5 sets of stressed and unstressed syllables. In basic iambic pentameter, a line would have 5 feet of iambs, which is an unstressed and then a stressed syllable. For example ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18.
This line has 5 feet, so it’s written in pentameter. And the stressing pattern is all iambs:
shall I | compARE | thee TO | a SUM | mers DAY?
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM
Put simply, iambic pentameter is a metrical speech rythym that is natural to the English language, and one that Shakespeare made use of. Shakespeare used iambic pentameter because it closely resembles the rhythm of everyday speech, and he no doubt wanted to imitate everyday speech in his plays.
Check out this brief tutorial on meter and iambic pentameter: