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Shakespeare's Verse: Iambic Pentameter - It's Easy!

Updated on May 29, 2014
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"Crown up the verse, and sanctify the numbers"

Sometimes people can get confused by descriptions like 'iambic pentameter' and 'blank verse', and this can be part of making Shakespeare's work seem strange and hard to relate to. Before you feel any confusion (or to combat any confusion you've already experienced), follow the simple instructions below. They really are simple, and this is because the basics of Shakespeare's verse are simple - they connect to the heartbeat and to the natural rhythms of English speech.

So, here goes, the Discover Fine Acting Introduction to Iambic Pentameter:-

Iambic Pentameter

Technical term for the rhythm used in Shakespeare's verse

Here is a rhythm - call it a 'meter' - so, here is 1 meter:

de-dum

Here are 5 of them:

de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum

Read them aloud, emphasising the bold bits:

de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM

Here are two words:

So long

Here are 10 words:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see

Read them aloud, emphasising the bold bits:

So LONG as MEN can BREATHE or EYES can SEE

You have now spoken Shakespeare in strong 'iambic pentameter'. Congrats!

Simple as that.

How do you say 'iambic pentameter'?

A note about pronunciation - 'iamb' is pronounced "I am". That emphasis on the second syllable (beat) is what an 'iamb' is all about.

In 'pentameter', 'meter' no longer rhymes with 'litre'. The 'me' syllable is shortened, as in the 'diameter' of a circle: pentameter.

Why is it called 'iambic pentameter'?

That first meter used - the 'de-dum' - was repeated 5 times. 'Penta' comes from the Greek word for '5', so that series of 5 meters is called 'pentameter'.

An 'iamb' is two beats with the emphasis on the second beat - 'de-dum'.

That is why 'de-dum' x 5 makes a line of iambic pentameter.

Shakespeare's sonnets and the major part of his plays are written in iambic pentameter and this use of a set rhythm creates verse.

Source

But what was that quote about?

Getting back to the particular verse quoted, here is what happens for as long as men are alive and have sight:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The 'this' Shakespeare mentions is his Sonnet No. 18, the one that begins "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" - you may well have heard of it and another quote from it: "the darling buds of May". Through this sonnet, the person Shakespeare has written about is immortalised and will be alive in print as long as there is a person living / any being reading this verse. Beautiful! And Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 can be enjoyed online in many ways.

Read Sonnet 18

Illustrated Sonnet 18

I created this image on my site as I had to replace a broken link - feel free to explore Discover Fine Acting if you wish to, but truly, there's no pressure!

Source

And the other quote?

The first quote on this page provided this hub's first subtitle: "Crown up the verse, and sanctify the numbers" from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (Act 3, Sc. 2, line 180). Here Troilus is speaking about the things people will be saying in times to come and how certain ideas will be remembered.

With Shakespeare's work, such magnificent ideas and rich language are still remembered today - and iambic pentameter helps us with this:-

Memorising the lines

When you know that the lines fit with a rhythm of 5 x 'de-dum', you will notice if you accidentally drop a word or phrase - or somehow add one!

And the very rhythm helps the lines to stick in your mind - that is why it can so easily be sung and rapped (see Shakespeare's Sonnets Online - Sonnet 18). Playing with the lines like that is a good way to get them into your memory.

Can you relate to iambic pentameter?

Now, do you find this rhythm very strange? For actually, we often stress things just like this when we are speaking normally - it is the rhythm of our heart, you see.

Read that again:

Now, do you find this rhythm very strange? / For actually we often stress things just / like this when we are speaking normally - / it is the rhythm of our hearts, you see.

There - iambic pentameter: the last two sections even rhymed! The first two didn't, though, and that is 'blank verse'.

The next chapter in this Skills for Shakespeare series looks at blank verse and rhyming verse, and starts to work with how the iambic pentameter rhythm gives incredible direction to actors when it comes to performing.

Are you confused?

Has this been a helpful article for you? If yes - why? If no - very BIG why: what is needed to improve it?

With your comments, this hub can be made a very useful resource, and other helpful hubs to come can be greatly improved.

So - are you confused? Comment below, or ask a question directly!

Further Reading

How (and why) to write a sonnet

Hub that includes information about the sonnet form

Sonnet Rhyme Scheme and Literary Poetry Terms

A hub that includes glossary of terms used in poetry (such as iambic pentameter)

Poem analysis - "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

A WordPress article with a humorous slant in its analysis of Sonnet 18

Your comments

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    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      3 weeks ago from Scotland, UK

      Thank you very much, Verlie, that's great - thanks for letting me know, and for commenting again. Congratulations on sonnet-writing, too! :-)

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      4 weeks ago from Canada

      Hi Danielle, I just want you to know that this article was my aha moment in understanding iambic pentameter, I was actually able to write a Sonnet after reading this (and the other articles you have linked). Thanks again!

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      4 weeks ago from Scotland, UK

      Apologies to those whose comments I missed for so long - been away from HubPages for some time. Hope everyone's enjoying Shakespeare meantime! :)

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      4 weeks ago from Scotland, UK

      Thank you for commenting, Martin, and making me think! A definition of iambic pentameter is "a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable, for example Two households, both alike in dignity." I believe I have covered all of this, but it could be that a single sentence stating it might be helpful. I shall consider!

    • profile image

      Martin 

      4 weeks ago

      I didn’t find this useful because it described an iambic pentameter but didn’t define it so I’m not really any the wiser.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      6 months ago from Canada

      Thank you Danielle! This is a perfect teaching system for the iambic-ally challenged and the mired meter maker. I love how you laid it out. Can't wait to read your related articles.

    • Arthur Gulumian profile image

      Arthur Gulumian 

      11 months ago from Pasadena, CA

      Perfect. I remember my English teacher from a while back using the same method. Shakespeare understood poetic verse and flow better than anyone in his time. Truly a timeless inspiration. Great article.

    • profile image

      Nick Kenney 

      3 years ago

      Hi Danielle;

      Thanks for the link to your blog about Shakespeare from Hamlet. When explained in the way you have, iambic pentameter makes perfect sense. I can attempt Shakespeare's Sonnets (and Hamlet) with more confidence now.

      Regards;

      Nick.

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 

      4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      lol no problem Danielle Farrow! :o)

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      4 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Thank you, ajwrites57, for commenting and for sharing - and apologies for such a delay in responding!

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 

      4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Interesting and informative hub! I love how you break it down into simple terms! Danielle Farrow well done! Shared!

    • profile image

      Monroe Bartolet 

      4 years ago

      [quote]8192 characters left.[/quote]

      Unbelievable a superb deal of magnificent suggestions!. You talked about this extremely effectively!

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      5 years ago from Scotland, UK

      You are very welcome, Kim - I am glad you found this useful! Do you think you might start using iambic pentameter in your poetry?

      If you have any questions to do with Shakespeare's work, please feel free to get in touch: I love to 'talk Shakespeare'.

    • ocfireflies profile image

      ocfireflies 

      5 years ago from North Carolina

      I wish my teacher had shown me this before we got so heavily involved into Shakespeare. Thank You.

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      5 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Brilliant! Thanks, Thomas, glad you enjoyed - and reading aloud is exactly what's wanted for Shakespeare. :D

    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 

      5 years ago from New Zealand

      A fun hub you've written here. Any hub that gets me reading something aloud and pretending to be a poet has got to be well written! Hehe, voted up and followed.

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      5 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Thank you very much for your visit and comment, chef-de-jour!

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 

      5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Any clear explanation of iambic pentameter is a bonus! You have created a clear and easily understood way in to WS and his beautiful poesy.

      Thank you.

      A tweak of the title may do you some good!

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      7 years ago from Scotland, UK

      The removed information is available here:

      https://hubpages.com/literature/Shakespeares-Sonne...

      There are lots of entertaining links for you to explore. :)

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      7 years ago from Scotland, UK

      I'm glad you think that, Susan - and thank you for commenting!

    • profile image

      Susan Wales 

      7 years ago

      Thanks Danielle - that was interesting and easy to understand.

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      7 years ago from Scotland, UK

      The links to which Wayne is referring have been moved to form a new hub - follow me / check back to enjoy them later!

    • Danielle Farrow profile imageAUTHOR

      Danielle Farrow 

      7 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Thank you very much, Wayne!

      I've been thinking all day that I needed to move those links - you have confirmed my thought and brought me here to do it.

      Thanks again!

    • Wayne Adam profile image

      Wayne Adam 

      7 years ago from Parrish,FL

      Cool. Good simple definition and example of iambic pentameter, easily understood. I understood blank verse too.

      Food for thought,the section from "Read Sonnet 18" to "And the Another Quote" breaks the flow of the article, I first thought the article ended after the video until I searched further down to the other section. Also in that section, it may be information overload if one views all the links listed. Of course, it was my first impression, but as a whole I thought the article was very good and interesting.

      Wayne

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