|What is Iambic Pentameter?|
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 |
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:
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 Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and all European Amazon outlets.