Sunday, 24 June 2012

What is Iambic Pentameter? And How Did Shakespeare Use it?

What is Iambic Pentameter?
Iambic pentameter is the metre (or rhythm) that most of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the blank verse of his plays conform to.

But what is iambic pentameter in all its splendour and what does it sound like?

The Basic Form of Iambic Pentameter

In its simplest from, iambic pentameter is a line containing ten syllables, or five pairs of syllables (a pair known as an iambus).

These pairs each contain an unstressed and stressed beat, which can be illustrated in the sound of a clock, ‘tick-tock’ or is often referred to as ‘de-dum’ - the ‘de’ being the unstressed beat and the ‘dum’ being stressed. So a line of iambic pentameter follows this rhythm:

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

Shakespeare put it a little more eloquently when he wrote:

a HORSE - a HORSE - my KING - dom FOR - a HORSE

Whether we realise it or not, English speakers are naturally inclined to this pattern. It is, of course, in most cases, a subtler version thereof, but it is present nonetheless. Unlike French, for example, which tends to have a more consistent pattern of stressed beats, ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da’ (a little like the sound of a machine gun), English leans towards the up and down of iambic pentameter.

However, there is much more to iambic pentameter than meets the eye, and Shakespeare was no stranger to mixing things up a bit.

What is Iambic Pentameter With a Feminine Ending?

Shakespeare found that there were times when ten syllables just weren’t enough. This is where iambic pentameter with a feminine ending comes in, because it has an additional unstressed beat tacked on at the end of the line. In other words, it sounds like this:

What is Iambic Pentameter With a Weak or
Feminine Ending?
de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de

And if you’re wondering where Shakespeare used this, the answer lies in the most famous Shakespearean quote of all:

to BE - or NOT - to BE - THAT is - the QUEST - ion

This is also sometimes called a ‘weak ending’, finishing, as it does, on an unstressed beat. Presumably, this notion of it being ‘weak’ is the reason for naming it ‘feminine’, but let’s try not to take it to heart, girls.

Now, you may have noticed that in Hamlet’s quote above, ‘be’ and ‘that’ are both stressed, when ‘that’ should really be unstressed. Well, that brings us neatly onto the other variation of iambic pentameter.

What is Inversion?

Inversion is, as its very title suggests, inverting the beats. In other words, where there should be a stressed beat, it becomes an unstressed beat and vice versa. This can, in the case of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”, occur in just one iambus, but it can also be used on more than one or, indeed, be used throughout the line.

So, what’s that all about then? Well, quite simple it places emphasis on specific words. Shakespeare wants an actor to stress Hamlet’s ‘that’, because THAT is the question.

And, because Shakespeare was such a rebel, sometimes he’d just rip the rulebook up altogether and have two stressed syllables in the same iambus. As is the case in Richard III:

Understanding Shakespeare's Iambic Pentameter
NOW is - the WIN - ter of - OUR DIS - con TENT

The ‘now’ is inverted, so the emphasis is very much on the present. In other words, what’s happening, is happening NOW. And, of course, in the fourth iambus, he wants to stress that the discontent is OURS.

Is Iambic Pentameter Important When Reading Shakespeare?

Yes. We’ve got to remember that Shakespeare wanted particular words or syllables stressed for a reason. And, especially when it comes to performing Shakespeare, if you trust that he knew what he was doing, you can’t go far wrong.

However, there is a fine line between following the rhythm and sounding like a demented (but admittedly well-educated) cuckoo. Therefore, I think it’s important to find a balance between a natural pattern of speech and the metre that Shakespeare put down.

From the point of view of studying and understanding the work, I believe that following the rhythm of the words can be immeasurably helpful.

If you’d like to learn more about Shakespeare’s work, words, and rhythms, take a look at What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon on, and all European Amazon outlets.


  1. This doesn't particularly explain WHY Shakespeare used iambic pentameter though?

    1. Sorry, I didn't know it was meant to, or that I'd claimed it would.

      But to answer your question: unfortunately, it's impossible to know with certainty Shakespeare's motives, though I would imagine they were threefold.

      Firstly, as I mentioned above, English does have a certain natural iambic cadence to it.

      Secondly, iambic pentameter lends itself extremely well to the dramatic. For reasons I can't explain (I'm not sure how many people could), it just sounds grand and deep. That's why Churchill used it in some of his speeches, and, more recently, Barack Obama, "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

      Thirdly, everybody else was doing it. Writing plays in iambic pentameter was in vogue. It's how Thomas Kyd penned The Spanish Tragedy, and it was how the likes of Marlowe and Jonson wrote, too.

      Hope that helps!

  2. can u tell me what the iambic pentmeter sounds like (for example a heartbeat)

    1. Hello there,

      Yeah, a heartbeat isn't a bad analogy. And I think that's why it's a rhythm we naturally gravitate towards. The de-DUM de-Dum de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM is a lot like the pattern of our heartbeats.

  3. "inversion", "the feminine ending" about he didn't use iambic pentameter through large chunks of his plays,only when it was convenient. if you try to read his plays using iambic pentameter you do sound like an idiot, so lets stop pretending that he wrote in iambic pentameter. he tried to write in iambic pentameter and it just doesn't work, so instead we have his lovely speeches that have a wonderful rhythm but you can not really explain it mathematically all of the time.

    1. Hello there,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I agree that the rhythm of the speeches can't always be explained mathematically. And you may want to call 'inversion' and 'feminine endings' cheating or just plain not using iambic pentameter. But quite a bit of the plays are written that way and that's not just true of the speeches. Yes, of course, he strayed from it when artistic license called for it. It's art, let's not forget, and no art sticks to rules rigidly. To dismiss the use of iambic pentameter out of hand seems a little hasty to me, though.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  4. I, obviously, am not a Shakespeare scholar and will accept that you may be able to prove that I was hasty with my declaration; I put this to you: if I wrote some play using limericks and didn't rhyme the final line even 20% of the time then I am guessing you would say that I had failed in my endeavor. My point isn't that there is anything wrong with Shakespeare, my point is that he had a wonderful way with words and the rhythm of speech and he naturally fell into an iambic pentameter much of the time, but he did not seem to worry about the mathematical part of it like scholars seem to do. Shakespeare sounds fantastic to us and we cannot definitively explain why, is that so horrible to say?

    1. Hello again,

      No, of course, it's not a horrible thing to say. And I absolutely agree that we cannot always explain what it is about Shakespeare's work that makes it 'sound' so great. I wouldn't want to explain it, either. It's magical. And magic can't be explained without it becoming not-magic.

      All I'm saying is that, when analysing the meaning of a speech or excerpt; learning a soliloquy; or performing in a Shakespeare play, keeping the iambic rhythm in mind can be very helpful. Knowing which syllables Shakespeare intended to be stressed is a handy thing to know, because they're not happy accidents.

      But in terms of simply enjoying it for what it is, you're right. You don't even need to know what iambic pentameter is, you can toss it out of the window and it doesn't make a great deal of difference.

      Thanks again!

    2. thank you for taking the time to reply, good to hear you say these things. I had no interest in Shakespeare, or any poetry in school, because it always seemed to start with a "math" lesson, thus my harping on this issue. no need to reply.

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  6. The term feminine ending actually derives from French prosody: in traditional French verse the mute 'e' at the end of a feminine noun was sounded - even if it came at the very end of the line!

    I'm not inclined to read the line from 'Richard III' the same way you do (I wouldn't choose to stress 'our'), but your reading IS pefectly legitimate metrically - Shakespeare is not being a 'rebel' or ripping up the rule book when he employs this di-di-DUM-DUM pattern (which he did, frequently). All of his contemporaries employed this same variation. This variation, just like the 'inversion', contains a displaced beat: in the case of the inversion, the beat is pulled BACK one syllable; in the case of the 'di-di-DUM-DUM', the beat is pushed FORWARD one syllable!

    I am going to introduce my own terminology at this point, so I can discuss this with greater clarity:-

    1. An 'inversion' followed by an 'iambus' produces a metrical pattern that I call a 'choriamb': DUM-di-di-DUM. This is a swinging movement from one post to the next!

    2. The 'di-di-DUM-DUM' pattern I call a 'minor ionic'.

    Now, in the table below, I have marked unstressed syllable with a dash (-) and stressed syllables with a cross (x):-

    Two consecutive iambs: -x-x
    Choriamb : x--x
    Minor ionic : --xx

    You can see very clearly that with the choriamb the first beat syllable has been DRAWN BACK one space, and with the minor ionic the beat syllable has been PUSHED FORWARD one space.

    However, displaced beats cannot just be used willy-nilly: if they are not to disrupt the rhythm, there have to be certain preconditions to their use:-

    1. The 'inverted' foot needs to be preceded by a break.

    2. The displaced beat within an inversion needs to be compensated for by a full stress on the next beat syllable; or to put it another way, the downward FALL of the inversion needs to be met by the full upward swing of the following iamb (which produces the 'choriamb': DUM-di-di-DUM). In addition, there should be no more than a slight pause on the first syllable: if you have a lingering pause on the first syllable, it destroys the rhythmic swing from one post to the next.

    3. The minor ionic needs to be accommodated WITHIN a phrasal structure: if the last syllable of the minor ionic is ALSO the first syllable of the following phrase, it creates a fracturing effect in which the displaced beat is no longer clearly recognisable (in fact, the same is true of the choriamb, but even more so of the minor ionic).

    For more detail and examples you can check out my blog page:- (or just google 'versemeter')

    If you do take a look, I'd be really interested to hear your feedback! I have recently finished doing some more work on it, and would be really grateful for any feedback on whether my posts are clear and easy to follow, or whether they could be improved!

    1. Hello, Keir.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. You make some great and very interesting points, and, to be honest, if I were performing the 'winter of discontent' speech, I'm not sure I'd stress the "our", either. At least, not as much as the other emphasised beats.

      Anyway, thanks again for sharing your views on the structure of the phrases, and the details of your site. I'll be sure to check that out.


    2. Thank you! I'm also in the middle of writing an analysis of Shakespeare's first sonnet, which should be up on my blog page within the next week or two.