Sunday, 13 September 2015

Why Did Shakespeare Use Iambic Pentameter?

Most of Shakespeare famous lines are in
iambic pentameter, but why did he use it?
I've written about Shakespeare's iambic pentameter before, but I only discussed what it is, what the variations of it are and why it's important to be aware of the rhythm when reading the plays or poems. What I didn't delve into is why Shakespeare used it in the first place.

Well, there are a few possible reasons, and Shakespeare's reason was likely to be one or a combination of all these things.

The Power of Poetry

As you might have already noticed, not every line in Shakespeare is written in iambic pentameter. Often you'll find text in ordinary prose. 

However, for the big speeches, and almost all of his most quotable of quotes, Shakespeare strays into poetry. Why? Well, because poetry is powerful. 

Just as musicals and operas focus on heightened emotions, poetry taps into a level of emotional expression that isn't available to us with 'ordinary' speech. 

So, when Hamlet is contemplating suicide and the meaning of life, he strays into the poetic. When Richard III is waxing lyrical about his plans to seize power, he literally waxes lyrical. When Othello is about to kill the woman he adores...yep, you've guessed it, he uses poetry, too.

But why iambic pentameter rather than any other form of poetry?

What's Special About Iambic Pentameter?

The English language naturally inclines
to iambic rhythm
Well, one reason might simply be that it is a very natural pattern of speech in the English language. 

Most of the time we don't even notice which syllables we're placing emphasis on, but there is a rhythm to all languages and English has iambic leanings. 

So, Shakespeare's words sound poetic, but, at the same time, they don't sound so poetic as to seem unnatural. "If music be the food of love, play on." It doesn't sound stilted, but it's got that wonderful iambic rhythm that lends it more power. 

Another reason might be a practical one: text written in iambic pentameter is easier to learn and memorize, making life easier for Shakespeare's actors.

It's more likely, though, that Shakespeare was attracted by the fact that there's something about iambic pentameter that just 'sounds' dramatic. 

It's difficult to discern exactly why, and maybe it's more magical for not knowing, but there is a grandiosity to that rhythm that perhaps doesn't exist in any other poetry. And that is unquestionably why even modern writers and speech makers use it. An example is when Churchill spoke of, "The greatest days our country has ever lived."

One final and less interesting reason is that it was what everyone else was doing. Because we quote so much Shakespeare, and he's the most famous playwright of his generation (or any other generation for that matter), it's easy to think that he invented this way of writing. 

But he didn't. He was far from the first; he was following in the wake of countless others before. There was no trail to blaze with iambic pentameter.

But one thing that can't be debated was he used it exceptionally well, which is why parts of his verse are so often quoted as examples of the iambic rhythm. 

To read more on Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, check out:

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