Bards rejoice, it’s time to get lyrical — everybody else, we’re here to review the mystery of iambic pentameter. At one point or another, we’ve all asked the question: what is iambic pentameter? If you’ve found the answer to be elusive, that’s because iambic pentameter is a relic of rhythm’s past… or is it?
We’re going to break down iambic pentameter, with examples from Shakespeare, The Meyerowitz Stories, and some of hip-hop’s most iconic artists, so that you can apply different writing “foots” to your cinema dialogue in new, and exciting ways. But before we jump into some iambic pentameter examples, let’s review what makes iambic pentameter, iambic pentameter.
Iambic Pentameter Literary Definition
First, let’s define iambic pentameter
To understand the iambic pentameter literary definition, we have to first understand its individual parts.
Iamb: An iamb is a metrical unit that combines an unstressed syllable, and a stressed (emphasized) syllable.
Iamb examples: a-BOVE, at-TEMPT, in-LOVE.
Penta: Greek word for “five.”
Meter: Rhythm structure that’s used to keep a pace.
Pentameter: A rhythm structure that’s used to keep a pace of five.
Now let’s combine it all together for our iambic pentameter definition:
IAMBIC PENTAMETER DEFINITION
What is iambic pentameter?
Iambic pentameter is a rhythm structure, used most commonly in poetry, that combines unstressed syllables and stressed syllables in groups of five. Pentameter is the most famous meter for iambic poetry, but it’s not the only one -- there’s dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, etc. William Shakespeare loved using iambic pentameter in his plays and poetry for the flow it created.
Iambic Pentameter Definition Characteristics
- Unstressed and stressed syllables
- Each line contains five pairs, ten total syllables
- Can create a seamless verbal flow
Iambic Pentameter Meaning
What does Iambic pentameter mean?
What is iambic pentameter? For as technical as iambic pentameter may sound, it’s purpose is actually remarkably simple . Think about it this way: iambs mirror the rhythm of a heart beating -- da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM -- one unstressed syllable, one stressed syllable.
Writers have used iambic poetry for thousands of years to keep the most intrinsic of all paces; our heartbeat (in pairs of five). This next video explores why Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter.
There’s a reason Shakespeare is considered by many to be the greatest writer of all time. His works are layered with metaphors, subtext, and incredible flow. Iambic pentameter was one of his favorite writing tools, and an essential part of many of his best works.
Nowadays, we look back on Shakespeare plays in a historical context, largely trying to make sense of the intricacies of his style. Iambs may be something we intrinsically understand, but they’re not always easy to articulate. Take Hamlet’s famous quote, “to BE, or NOT, to BE” for example. Let’s watch James Franco as Tommy Wiseau try to properly nail syllabic emphasis.
The full quote “to BE, or NOT to BE, that IS the QUES-tion” contains eleven syllables -- one too many to be considered an example of iambic pentameter. However, many falsely ascribe the quote as an example of iambic pentameter. The iambs work perfectly in the first part -- think da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM -- but there’s just one too many in the second part.
What is Iambic Pentameter in Literature?
Iambs all around us
You may be thinking that iambic pentameter is a relic of poems past, but that isn’t true. Although few modern writers structure their works in iambic pentameter, many sprinkle it in now and again for dramatic effect. Don’t take my word for it, just listen to rapper and Shakespeare scholar Akala explain below:
Some of hip-hop’s most iconic artists, like Jay-Z, Eminem, and Wu-Tang Clan, have used iambs to structure bars. It’s something we all do in conversation to match emphasis to emotion. Think about asking the question: who IS pre-SENT? and how we use linguistic emphasis towards a communicative end. The same is true in writing and rapping.
Remember, iambic poetryis the perfect tool for keeping the rhythm of a heartbeat -- ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM. This next video explores the various technical aspects of iambic pentameter in further detail.
We’ve gone over how iambs are used by writers, but perhaps it might be useful to consider their opposites. The opposite of an iamb is a troche -- iambs are defined by an unstressed syllable leading directly into a stressed syllable, trochees are defined by a stressed syllable leading into an unstressed syllable. For example:
Iamb: “a DIME a DOZ-en”
Trochee: “DOUB-le, DOUB-le, TOIL and TROUB-le”
Whereas iambs are emphasized on the second beat, trochees are emphasized on the first.
Here are some famous iambic pentameter examples:
Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare)
If MU-sic BE the FOOD of LOVE, play ON;
Give ME ex-CESS of IT, that, SURF-ei-TING;
The AP-pe-TITE may SICK-en, AND so DIE.
Paradise Lost (John Milton)
Of MAN’S First DI-so-BE-dience, AND the FRUIT
Of THAT For-BI-dden TREE, whose MOR-tal TASTE
Brought DEATH in-TO the WORLD, and ALL our WOE-
Iambic pentameter isn’t a perfect science -- accents, dialects, and translations all play a part in how syllables are emphasized. Perhaps that’s one reason why iambs aren’t as popular today as they were back in the days of Shakespeare.
But in terms of flow, we still see the influence of iambs in writing today, whether in pentameter or any other meter.
What is Iambic Pentameter Used For Today?
How to write in iambic pentameter
If you’re wondering how to write in iambic pentameter, consider asking this question instead: what’s the purpose of writing in iambic pentameter? Well, the answer to that question is rather simple -- iambic pentameter is an iambic rhythm meter; and its purpose is to keep an “ear-pleasing” rhythm.
Don’t get hung up on pentameter, iambs can be used in a variety of different ways. Using iambic rhythm is something that can help screenwriters keep the pace of dialogue in their movies. One writer who does a masterful job of pacing dialogue is Noah Baumbach. Let’s take a look at a video essay that explores how he does it:
In many ways, the dialogue in The Meyerowitz Stories is antithetic to Shakespeare. It’s crude and unrefined, but it's used for the exact same purpose: to keep rhythm and pace. Iambic rhythm can be a great tool, but it’s not the only one. Consider experimenting with different writing feet; iambic, trochaic, or flat. You never know what might make the most sense for your dialogue.
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