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Shakespeare's Verse: Iambic Pentameter - It's Easy!
"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:-
Technical term for the rhythm used in Shakespeare's verse
Here is a rhythm - call it a 'meter' - so, here is 1 meter:
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:
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.
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
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!
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!
Hub that includes information about the sonnet form
A hub that includes glossary of terms used in poetry (such as iambic pentameter)
A WordPress article with a humorous slant in its analysis of Sonnet 18