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 five meters. So a line of poetry written in pentameter has five feet, or five sets of stressed and unstressed syllables. In basic iambic pentameter, a line would have five 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 five 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 rhythm 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:
Common Questions About Iambic Pentameter:
What is the purpose of iambic pentameter?
Iambic pentameter is a basic rhythm that’s pleasing to the ear and closely resembles the rhythm of everyday speech, or a heartbeat. For playwrights verses using iambic pentameter allow them to imitate everyday speech in verse.
Does iambic pentameter needs to be ten syllables?
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
Is ‘to be or not to be’ iambic pentameter?
No. Although there are elements of iambic pentameter throughout Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy there are many lines with more than ten syllables, which by definition means the lines can’t be in iambic pentameter.
How can you identify iambic pentameter?
Iambic pentameter is a line of writing that consists of ten syllables in a specific pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, or a short syllable followed by a long syllable. For example ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18.