Rhythm of Shakespeare: Iambic Pentameter

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13350

Shakespeare's verse has a very clear structure, but his text also sounds natural. Why? Because he writes to the rhythm of the human heartbeat! Find out how actors use rhythm to perform Shakespeare.


Literary Studies, Theatrical Arts

Fine Arts
learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic
personality style
Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Have you ever heard the term iambic pentameter when people talk about Shakespeare's writing?
  • What do you think it means?

Even if you have never heard the term iambic pentameter, you have nothing to worry about! The rhythms of iambic pentameter are literally in your heart!

Iambic pentameter is a type of verse, or poetry, with a very specific structure.

To find out what that structure is, let's break down the term into pieces.

  • What is an iamb?

An iamb is two syllables, the first one unstressed and the second one stressed. Stressed in this context just means emphasized.

The words promote, divide, and respond all create iambs because they are two syllables, but only the second italicized syllable is emphasized or stressed.

Iambs can also be created by two syllables from different words, as long as the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. For example:

I like.

She said.

We thought.

  • What does pentameter mean?

Penta- is a Greek prefix that translates to five in English. Meter in poetry means the basic rhythmic structure. So pentameter means a five-part rhythmic structure.

In the case of iambic pentameter, the five parts are five iambs. So each line of iambic pentameter has five iambs with two syllables each, for a total of 10 syllables.

Let's look at an example that is definitely NOT Shakespeare:

I want to bring my puppy to the park.

Believe it or not, this simple sentence is a line of iambic pentameter! Look at it with the stressed syllables italicized:

I want to bring my puppy to the park.

As you can see, every second syllable is stressed. This makes the line iambic.

Now count the number of iambs. Each iamb is a set of one unstressed and one stressed syllable:

|I want | to bring | my pup|py to | the park.|

There are five, which makes the pentameter. Put those two features together, and you've got iambic pentameter!

Most of Shakespeare's verse, or poetry, is in iambic pentameter.

This meter is great for dialogue in plays because, even though it is structured, it is the poetic meter that most closely imitates human speech patterns. In fact, it even imitates the human heartbeat!

Think about the rhythm: dum DUM dum DUM ...

  • Do you hear the heartbeat?

This meter is so natural that, with good actors, you sometimes can't even tell that the structure is there.

Watch an actress perform one of Juliet's famous speeches from Romeo and Juliet in Joanna Vanderham as Juliet: 'The mask of night is on my face' | Shakespeare Solos from Guardian Culture:

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She doesn't overemphasize the stressed syllables, so it's hard to even hear the iambs. Still, the iambic pentameter structure is what makes the speech balanced and poetic.

Look at the first few lines of the speech written out:

Thou know'st the mask of night is on my face,

Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheeks

For that which thou has heard me speak tonight.

Say these lines, overemphasizing every other syllable as italicized. (Know'st is a one syllable word.) You'll hear that, even though it didn't sound like it when the actress said the lines, this speech is in iambic pentameter!

Move on to the Got It? section to identify some examples of iambic pentameter!

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