Iambic Pentameter

Your Friend, Iambic Pentameter, or…

  duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH!

Overview

Iambic pentameter is the rhythm of Shakespeare; it’s the rhythm in which his sonnets and plays are largely written. You’ll notice that this meter sounds like a heartbeat, with alternating unstressed and stressed syllables — and that this meter equals approximately ten syllables per line.Shakespearean actors need to learn how to use the pentameter to help them act.

Some crucial ideas to remember are the following:

  • The important words in the line — the ones that carry the line’s message — will fall on the stressed syllables. This is not a coincidence. 
  • An actor needs to breathe at the beginning of the line and sustain the breath all the way through until the end. Don’t let the line “drop.”
  • Some lines will end with an unstressed eleventh syllable. This is called a “feminine” ending.  Yes, it’s sexist. Anyway, think of WHY Shakespeare wants to end this line in a “feminine” / weak / unstressed way. What does it convey about the character or about this moment in the text?

Your Turn to Play: Some Iambic Pentameter Lines! 

Try doing the following: 

  • “Scan” the lines (that is, mark a ” / ” over each stressed syllable and a ” –” over each UNstressed syllable. 
  • Now, erase unstressed words.  Keep a word if it has at least one stressed syllable.

Example: If you scan the first lines of Romeo and Juliet, you’d get this.  I’ve capitalized the stressed syllables for e-z readin’!

  two HOUSes BOTH aLIKE in DIGniTY

in FAIR verOna WHERE we LAY our SCENE.

Now, erase all words of only one syllable and you get this — what I heard called “Caveman Shakespeare!”

Houses both alike dignity

Fair Verona where lay scene.

See how you can totally get the core meaning of the sentence — that is, the essential ideas here, that there are two dignified houses in this fair place called Verona?  Pretty cool.  Now you try.

EXAMPLE LINES

1. If music be the food of love, play on.
2. A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!
3. Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!”
4. And live we how we can, yet die we must.
5. Now is the winter of our discontent.
6. If only I had stopped to smell the rose
7. In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
8. To be or not to be, that is the question.
9. I better brook the loss of bitter life.
10. O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth
11. And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep –
12. Familiar in his mouth as household words.
13. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
14. The greatest is behind. Thanks for your pains.
15. Are melted into air, into thin air.
16. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.
17. The quality of mercy is not strained.
18. Why, I can smile, and murder while I smile
19. Poor lady, she would better love a dream.
20. I shall have share in this most happy wreck.

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