If you’ve ever studied William Shakespeare, you’ve probably heard of iambic pentameter. Many of the characters in his famous plays use it when they speak. That’s why I wanted to learn more about it! You can find a lot of it in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Iambic pentameter is a common meter in poetry. Meter is a unit of rhythm, and it refers to the pattern of syllables or beats in a line. Sometimes, I look back over a speech, thinking that the words must have rhymed, but that isn’t always the case – I realize now that it was just the effect of iambic pentameter! Successive lines can rhyme, but they don’t have to.
Iambic pentameter consists of a line with five feet, or accents. Each foot (iamb) contains an unaccented syllable and an accented syllable. This means that the full line is ten syllables long, accented on every second beat. Visualize it like this:
Here is an example, said by Macbeth.
“The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires”
We can count out the last line like this:
It’s almost addictive – I’ve been counting syllables and looking for iambic pentameter in lines and poems all week!
Watching a Shakespearian play is probably the best way to experience the rhythm and flow of the characters’ words. Even when reading Shakespeare, I’ve been struck by how melodious the lines sound together in my head.
Interested in reading more lines of iambic pentameter? Check out Shakespeare’s Star Wars.