What is Iambic Pentameter?
How Iambic Pentameter Works
What is iambic pentameter? How does it work? This article explains the basic construction of iambic pentameter as found in the most famous of Shakespeare's plays.1
With the exception of the Merry Wives of Windsor, which is 90% prose, Shakespeare’s plays employ generous servings of a verse line known as iambic pentameter (also called blank verse when unrhymed). Some of his early plays are almost entirely in this form, and all but four plays are at least 50% verse. So it is useful to understand something of iambic pentameter in order to develop an ear for its complex rhythms and to appreciate its dramatic uses.
The term iambic pentameter has three parts which together give a rough description of this verse form. The term meter refers to a pattern of rhythm. If you pronounce most two-syllable words in a natural way, you will sense a rhythm, with one syllable receiving more energy than the other. Say the words in (1) and note the different rhythms:
(1) táble (stressed/unstressed)
An accent mark over a vowel indicates that the syllable containing that vowel is pronounced with more energy than the syllable without the accent mark. We call this increased energy “stress,”2 and an accented syllable is called a stressed syllable. Syllables with less energy are called “unstressed.”
Iambic refers to a pattern of meter where an unstressed syllable precedes a stressed syllable. The words in (2) have an iambic rhythm and each forms a metrical unit known as an iamb:
(2) affórd, forbíd, inféct, adópt
Two-word sequences can also have an iambic rhythm.
(3) a bít, the mán, to gó, is mád, of míne
The term penta (five) tells us how many instances of this iambic rhythm make up a line. Each instance is traditionally called a foot, so an iambic pentameter line has five iambic feet, or iambs. In these ten-syllable lines of five iambs (4), observe how the the second syllable in each foot gets more stress than the first syllables.
Thy gláss/ will shów/ thee hów/ thy béau/ties wéar/ (Sonnet 77, line 1)
And cáll/ upón/ my sóul/ withín/ the hóuse/ (Twelfth Night, 1.5.251)
Beshréw/ that héart/ that mákes/ my héart/ to gróan/ (Sonnet 133, line 1)
We sense that the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th syllables (marked with ´) receive more emphasis than the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th syllables. In (5), the line has ten syllables, but notice that it is not iambic pentameter. If we use the jargon of verse analysis, we say the line does not scan.
Here the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th syllables receive the emphasis. If we placed this line after any of the lines in (4), we would not sense a meter developing and would interpret the passage as prose.
Thy gláss/ will shów/ thee hów/ thy béau/ties wéar/
Récog/níze the/ rhýthm’s/ nót i/ámbic/
One appealing feature of iambic pentameter is that it sounds like verse yet seems natural. The perfectly iambic lines in (7) were randomly selected from different plays. Read them in sequence and notice how they sound rhythmical without seeming “sing-songy” or bouncy.
Expóse/ thysélf/ to féel/ what wrétch/es féel/ (King Lear, 3.4.39)
In wóm/en’s wáx/en héarts/ to sét/ their fórms/ (Twelfth Night, 2.2.30)
To bréathe/ such vóws/ as lóv/ers úse/ to swéar/ (Romeo and Juliet, 2. Prologue. 10)
The three lines, though not sing-songy, do sound rhythmically monotonous. Imagine a play with 2500 such lines pounding away one after the other. The effect would surely be deadening, and dramatists would be severely limited in the kinds of sentences they could write and the vocabulary they could use. So they relax the rules a bit.3 Most of these deviations fall into two categories: adding extra syllables and altering the iambic meter.
There are three common ways to increase the number of syllables beyond ten.
If every line had to end with an iamb, many, if not most, two syllable words—mother, pantry, person, hungry—could never end a line. So iambic lines allow an extra unstressed eleventh syllable (even a twelfth) at the end of line. This eleventh syllable is called a feminine ending, and about 10% of the lines in Shakespeare’s early plays and about 30% in his later plays have such endings. The lines from (4) have been modified to show how the feminine ending sounds.
Thy gláss/ will shów/ thee hów/ thy béau/ties wéath/er.
And cáll/ upón/ my sóul/ withín/ the pán/try
The words weather, pantry, and suffer provide the 10th and 11th syllables in these lines, but because the 11th is unstressed, the lines still sound iambic to the trained ear. If feminine endings are allowed, then almost any word can be worked into the end of an iambic pentameter line. In fact, we can easily make the unmetrical line (5) acceptable if we add a syllable at the beginning of the line to push the stressed syllables into the even-numbered positions. Since the 11th syllable is unstressed, it counts as a feminine ending.
(9) And réc/ogníze/ the rhýth/m’s nów/ iámb/ic
Lines can also have extra syllables if a syllable can be dropped without the word becoming unintelligible or sounding unnatural. Note how many three-syllable words can become two-syllable words in rapid or slightly slurred speech.
(10) interest (intrist)
The trick in “scanning” Shakespeare is to anticipate whether he intends such words to be two or three syllables. As you read Shakespeare, be prepared for slurrings (traditionally called elision or syncope) that may appear odd, incomprehensible, or archaic to modern speakers such as to’t (to it), e’en (even), show’th (showeth), upon’t (upon it), and lov’st (lovest).4
Lines can have an extra unstressed syllable right before a major punctuation break, a variation called epic caesura (“says you’re a...”). Note in (11) that the second syllable of the word kingdom is unstressed and precedes a major punctuation break. This extra eleventh syllable is not added to the syllable count, creating a mid-line feminine ending of sorts.
....Know that we have divided
In thrée/ our kíng/
dom; and ‘tís/ our fást/ intént (King Lear, 1.1.39-41)
If we allow a feminine ending, slurring, and an epic caesura in a single line, we can produce a fairly complex line that stays within the rules of iambic pentameter. How would you scan this thirteen-syllable line (12) from Twelfth Night? Is it iambic pentameter?
(12) Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy (Twelfth Night, 1.1.14)
Some scholars question the meter of this line, but here’s a try at scanning it. Even is slurred to E’en. The second, unstressed syllable of minute is not counted because it precedes a major punctuation break (epic caesura), and the second, unstressed syllable of fancy is a feminine ending.
(13) E’en in/ a min/
ute. So full/ of shapes/ is fan/ cy
Shakespeare is pushing the limits here, especially for contemporary speakers who have trouble slurring even to e’en, but the line technically qualifies as iambic pentameter.
Besides an iambic rhythm, a two-syllable foot can have three other rhythms: trochaic, spondaic, and pyrrhic, as shown in the table. These rhythms can be worked into an iambic pentameter line in various ways.
A spondaic foot—one where both syllables are likely to be stressed—can occur anywhere in an iambic line. Spondees work well at the beginning of a line as these revisions of the lines from (4) show.
Bíll’s gláss/ will shów/ thee hów/ thy béau/ties wéar/
Cáll nów/ upón/ my sóul/ withín/ the hóuse/
Cúrse nót/ that héart/ that mákes/ my héart/ to gróan/
In (15), spondees (in boldface) are worked into the middle and end of lines.
Thy gláss/ will shów/ Bíll hów/ thy béau/ties wéar/
Upón/ my sóul/ withín/ the hóuse,/ cáll nów/
Beshréw/ that héart/ that mákes/ Bób’s héart/ to gróan/
Spondees have an interesting effect: they slow down the line. Speakers need time to give stressed syllables extra energy, so lines filled with spondees have a deliberate, pounding rhythm. A line from King Lear demonstrates this clearly.
(16) Nó, nó,/ nó, nó./ Cóme, lét’s/ awáy/ to príson/ (King Lear, 5.3.9)
If every iambic pentameter line had to begin with an iamb, then most English words could not start a line. Yet a quick look at Shakespeare’s sonnets reveals a different reality. We find these poems start with stressed one-syllable words (look, when, not, but, let, lord, how, why, full, take, sin, thus, love), and trochaic two-syllable words (béing, wéary, músic, Cúpid)—all words or phrases that start off the line with a stressed syllable.
Iambic pentameter solves this problem by allowing a trochaic rhythm to start a line (sometimes called inversion). These modified versions of (4) are all acceptable iambic pentameter lines.
Mírrors/ will shów/ thee hów/ thy béau/ties wéar/
Cálling/ upón/ my sóul/ withín/ the hóuse/
Cúrsing/ that héart/ that mákes/ my héart/ to gróan/
Trochaic words can also occur in the middle of a line if they follow a strongly stressed syllable or a major punctuation break. In (18), haply has a trochaic rhythm, but it is allowed because it follows a major punctuation break. It also follows the heavily stressed word all.
(18) They lóve/ you áll?/ Háply/, when I/ shall wéd/ (King Lear, 1.1.110)
Phrases that appear to be trochaic are permitted if they fall within a lengthy sequence of one-syllable words. In the 3rd foot of (19), we would normally expect the word love to get more emphasis than which, yielding the trochaic rhythm /lóve, which/.
(19) A bróth/er’s déad/ lóve, which/ she would/ kéep frésh/ (Twelfth Night, 1.1.30)
This reading sounds like prose. But notice that the word which is surrounded by one-syllable words. In this environment, rarely-stressed words such as the, which, of, is, and been can be stressed to preserve an iambic rhythm without sounding unnatural, as in (20).
(20) A bróth/er’s déad/ love, whích/ she wóuld/ keep frésh/
Actors may choose not to give the line an iambic rhythm, but the fact that they can qualifies the line as iambic pentameter. (See "Listening for Phrasal Stress" in the Reading Tips at the end of this article for more information on this point)
Normally, pyrrhic feet do not cause a problem. A foot with two unstressed syllables glides right by without upsetting the meter. The lines in (21) show typical uses of pyrrhic feet (in bold italics).
For she/ did speak/ in starts/ distract/edly/
She loves/ me sure./ The cun/ning of/ her passion/
Invites/ in me/ this chur/lish mes/senger. / (Twelfth Night, 2.2.20-22)
1 Shakespeare's use of iambic pentameter did not remain consistent over his career. In his later plays, such as Coriolanus, expect more deviations from the rather tight rules described here. And recognize that Shakespeare was not required to write blank verse and that his plays will mix verse and prose. He was also no perfectionist and did not provide careful editions of his work. Expect as you read a play to see the work of scholars who have done the editing that Shakespeare failed to do. Faulty meter is often corrected or "emended." The more detailed editions will painstakingly list all these changes and the justifications for them. (back)
2 We perceive stress as extra energy. The reality is a bit more complicated. Stress can be achieved by an increase in volume, a lengthening of the syllable itself, a pause after a syllable, a rise in pitch, or even a change in the timbre of one's voice. It may be a combination of these. (back)
3 Think of the term "rule" as meaning constraints on the patterns of rhythm that Shakespeare tended to employ when he wrote blank verse. Or think of these rules more simply as a description of what Shakespeare typically did or typically did not do. Shakespeare, of course, could ignore these rules whenever he wished to, but there is no doubt that Shakespeare placed constraints on what he typically allowed in a verse line. He most certainly counted syllables. Though he experimented with ways of stretching the boundaries of blank verse, he did not write free verse. Some of his prose passages may have a free verse feel. For a technical description of the rule-governed approach that underlies my description of Shakespeapere's verse, see the Wikipedia article on generative metrics. (back)
4 Occasionally Shakespeare will coax an extra syllable out of a word. Entrance becomes something more like ent-er-ance. Fire seems more like fi-yer and cruel more like cru-el. (back)
Complete these exercises as you read the article.
This exercise will help you develop a sense of where stress falls within a word. In each of these two-syllable words, which syllable gets the most emphasis?
Answers to Exercise 1a
Here are longer words that Shakespere used. Each has two stressed syllables. Which syllables receive stress?
Answers to Exercise 1b
Note: You may sense that one of the stresses in each word is stronger than the other. You are right. When words are spoken in isolation, one syllable tends to get extra emphasis. The accent mark ‘ indicates a weaker stress.
This difference is not important when analyzing metrical rhythm, so this article will mark only one level of stress. (See "Listening for Phrasal Stress" in the Reading Tips at the end of this article for more information on this point)
Which of these words or sequences of words can have an iambic rhythm without sounding unnatural?
Let’s test your ear. These ten-syllable lines are all from Shakespeare’s plays, but not all of them are iambic pentameter. Can you identify the lines that are not? It may help to add slash marks (/) after the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th syllables.
Here is a possible verse line that is missing the 4th and 5th feet. Which of these words or phrases could complete the line without interrupting the iambic rhythm?
In front/of her/ she saw /____ /_____/
Answers to Exercise 4
Numbers 4 and 7 would interrupt the iambic rhythm. Shakespeare rarely fills the fifth foot with words such as sóldier or cléarly, which have a stressed/unstressed rhythm. He would push these words over one syllable to create a feminine ending.
In front/of her/she saw/a fine/sóldier/
In front/of her/she saw/him quite/cléarly/
In front/of her/she saw/a hand/some sól/dier
In front/of her/she saw/the man/quite cléar/ly
These lines from Shakespeare have more than ten syllables. Which syllables are slurred in order to maintain the iambic rhythm? Which lines have feminine endings?
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo.
(It has a feminine ending. The slurred syllables are underlined.)
Answers to Exercise 5
These lines contain major punctuation breaks. Which ones have an epic caesura? Which syllable is ignored in the count?
Answers to Exercise 6
Numbers 2 and 4 have an epic caesura.
2. And by/ oppos/ing, end/ them. To die,/ to sleep./
4. Wake Dun/can with/ thy knock/ing! I would/ thou couldst./
The strikethrough lines are spoken but ignored when counting syllables.
In this section, we will see how Shakespeare worked other types of feet into a blank verse line and yet maintained the sense that a rhythm was developing.
Review the table listing types of feet. Then study the underlined foot in each line. Is it a trochaic, spondaic, or pyrrhic?