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 another way to think of it it 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, the iamb sounds a little like a heartbeat).
‘Penta’ means five, so pentameter simply means five meters. A line of poetry written in iambic pentameter has five feet = five sets of stressed syllables and unstressed syllables.
Putting these two terms together, 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.
Iambic Pentameter Examples
Here are three very different examples of iambic pentameter in English poetry:
Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 starts ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’. This line of poetry has five feet, so it’s written in pentameter. And the stressing pattern is all iambs (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable):
Shall I | compARE | thee TO | a SUM | mers DAY?
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM
From Shakespeare to Taylor Swift, whose #1 dance-pop single Shake It Off includes some iambic pentameter. Who knew?! (And yes, we have just classified Taylor Swift as a poet!)
I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, sha-ake
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM
And one final (and more traditional) example of iambic pentameter, this time from Robert Browning’s poem My Last Duchess. The poem is written as a dramatic lyric made up of rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter, with each line made up of 5 sets of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables – 10 syllables in all:
That my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands…
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot…
Beginning to understand it now? Check out this short tutorial
Why Do Poets Use Iambic Pentameter?
Iambic pentameter is used frequently, in verse, poetry and even pop songs. This rhythm was popularised by Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatised such as Shakespeare and John Donne, and is still used today by modern authors (read sonnet examples from other poets – some use iambic pentameters and some use other meters).
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, using iambic pentameter allow them to imitate everyday speech in verse. The rythm gives a less rigid, but natural flow to the text – and the dialogue. Put simply, iambic pentameter is a metrical speech rhythm that is natural to the English language. 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.
Why Shakespeare Loved Iambic Pentameter
Common Questions About Iambic Pentameter:
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.
Thank you for this. You made learning iambic pentameter quite easy. It’ll be fun to write in, as well.
Glad we could help :)
Hello, please help :( I’ve done so much research on this and can’t seem to grasp it. I need to write two lines, but I can’t seem to find a theme or understand how to even write it.
Who wrote this article?
preseraro: La literumado estas ‘playwrights’, ne ‘playwrites’.
thanks Mike – typo amended.
heck anybody want to find examples of this in shakespeare for me? not a fan of this homework assignment
this helped a lot! thanks!!!
You said iambic pentameter must have ten syllables, but can’t there be an unstressed syllable at the end ?
dsjsdjdsjdjsdjks we’re all here because of English teachers. Mine assigned a freaking sonnet in iambic pentameter plus all the sonnet requirements…and she never taught meter. I’m still confused, pray for me. (although the video in this post helped, thank you very much!)
I’m actually here because of a Doki Doki Literature Club YouTube video.
Another clear example of things we will never use in life. The education system is failing all of us.
it’s useful for anyone who wants to write music or plays or books or movies or likes to read and would appreciate having the tools to recognize various techniques when they see them. but then again, books & learnin’ ain’t for everyone.
You don’t use analytical thinking skills in real life? These are mind exercises that strengthen your mind and you can then apply those skills to whatever you want to analyze and learn.
And if you need a way to make it relevant, if you ever want to give a good speech before an audience these same devices are used to make the best speeches.
It helps a lot, thanks.