You know when you hear a series of lines, and they have a rhythm? Lines that have that flowing bounce that makes you want to read it out loud to someone and sweeps you off your feet? Well, chances are, those lines were written in iambic pentameter. Shakespearean sonnets, John Donne, Richard III, and lots of poetry and verse follow this example.
Yes, that thing you may have learned briefly about in high school is back. And this time, you should pay attention. Iambic pentameter really gets to the heart of poetry. It's what draws us in and adds to our connections with the words.
But what is iambic pentameter? What does it mean? And what are some examples of it in literature, film, and television?
Today, we're going to define it, explore it, and get to the root of this literary device.
Sound good? Let's get going.
What Is Iambic Pentameter? (Definition and Examples)
It's easy to push aside literary terms when it comes to film and television, but there are a lot of crossovers when it comes to things like this rhythmic term. There's a lot to explore here.
Iambic Pentameter Definition
In order to define iambic pentameter, we have to break down both words. Pentameter starts with the prefix "pent," which means five, and ends with "meter," which means to measure. So that means pentameter is a line with five beats.
Iambic is a metrical foot in poetry, where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable.
Iambic pentameter is a beat or foot that uses 10 syllables in every line. It is a rhythmic pattern comprising five iambs in each line. These iambs are called the five heartbeats because they sound like "da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM." That's one unstressed, one stressed word.
Take this line from Shakespeare's 12th Night—"If music be the food of love, play on"—da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. It's all in the way you say it and feel it, unstressed and stressed syllables in a line of poetry.
The History of Iambic Pentameter
It's commonly accepted that since Latin poems all have 10 syllables each, iambic pentameter springs from there. These older Latin poems found their way to inspire 10-syllable lines of old French chansons de geste. After that, they moved from Old French to Italian, where poets also copied that style.
It was first introduced into English by Chaucer in the 14th century on the basis of French and Italian models. Once it hit English, it became the most common style of meter in English poetry. It was easily malleable to poetic forms.
English writer John Milton used iambic pentameter in Paradise Lost. And the most famous English writer of all time used iambic pentameter almost exclusively.
Here's a brief timeline of its usage.
- Origins: The iambic pentameter has roots in classical poetry but became prominent in English poetic tradition during the Renaissance period.
- Early English Use: Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the first English poets to make extensive use of iambic pentameter, especially in his work "The Canterbury Tales".
- Shakespearean Era: William Shakespeare popularized iambic pentameter in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It became the dominant meter in English poetry thanks to his plays and sonnets.
- Metrical Regularity: Initially, the use of iambic pentameter was strict, with poets adhering closely to the metrical pattern. Over time, poets began to experiment with variations to add rhythmical flexibility and emphasis.
- 17th and 18th Centuries: The strict use of iambic pentameter continued with poets like John Milton and Alexander Pope. Milton's "Paradise Lost" is a prime example of the use of unrhymed (blank) iambic pentameter, also known as heroic verse.
- Romantic Period: Poets like William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley adapted iambic pentameter to suit their own stylistic preferences, often using it in conjunction with other metrical patterns.
- Modern Usage: In the 20th century, poets like W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot used iambic pentameter, though they often did so in more free-form and less strict ways.
- Contemporary Use: Today, iambic pentameter is still used by poets, though often in innovative forms that break from the traditional pattern to create varied rhythmic effects.
In essence, iambic pentameter is a metrical foot in poetry that consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, repeated five times per line.
This rhythm mirrors natural speech patterns, which is partly why it has been so popular in English poetry. Its history shows a progression from strict adherence to more experimental and varied uses, reflecting the changing tastes and styles of poetry through the ages.
Iambic Pentameter in William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare famously used iambic pentameter in his plays and sonnets. In fact, they're probably the most accessible way to learn this technique. Take Shakespeare's Sonnet 12—"When I do count the clock that tells the time..." Say it out loud and hear the "da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM."
- Or how about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18? "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?"
- Let's break it down together.
Shall I | compARE | thee TO | a SUM | mers DAY?
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM
Are you getting the hang of it? Okay, let's move on from sonnets and look at one of his plays. This monologue from Hamlet is written in iambic pentameter. And it's one of the most famous monologues of all time. It's the "To be or not to be" speech. Read it with your da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. See how it just sounds better?
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life…
Iambic Pentameter in Literature
'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead'
Of course, other people than Shakespeare write in iambic pentameter. Another hugely famous work done in this style was John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos…
Another of my favorite works done in this style is W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming. It's written in blank verse, but it still has the rhythm we've discussed. You can see how malleable this is to design the story inside the poem.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Finally, let's look at John Donne's Breathe Shine and Seek. This is a love poem, but hidden inside a prayer. It's like a lusty attempt at talking about God. It's a really complicated and interesting take on religion.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Iambic Pentameter for Filmmakers
Can you write an entire movie in iambic pentameter? Totally. The imitable Tom Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in iambic pentameter. It's a really funny and beautiful work of art.
But what I would suggest is not totally copying him unless it makes sense in your story. Instead, think of the great writers and directors who work with rhythm. That Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino dialogue. The rhythm of shots in something from an auteur.
Andrei Tarkovsky stated the following about shooting with rhythm: “It is above all through sense of time, through rhythm, that the director reveals his individuality. Rhythm colors a work with stylistic marks. It is not thought up, not composed on an arbitrary, theoretical basis, but comes into being spontaneously in a film, in response to the director’s innate awareness of life, his ‘search for Time.’”
The rhythmic timing in your story does not have to be as rigid as Shakespeare, but it should have a heart that beats on its own. It should feel alive and accessible. Welcoming people into sharing. whether it's the chaos of Uncut Gems, or the lull of The Piano, where Jane Campion lets us in slowly, steeping us in a new world.
Follow the greats and execute your vision.
Summing Up "What Is Iambic Pentameter?
Whether reading a Shakespearean sonnet or just writing dialogue for your next movie or TV show, think about how the words come out and lay on the page. You do not have to write in iambic pentameter, but think about how the dialogue sounds.
Read it out loud. Does it have a flow? Does it sound strong? Natural? Like it's stylized right for the kind of movie or TV show you're making?
The same goes for your action lines. Make them have a pulse, a feeling. Study great poetry. Great writing. And let that inspire your work.
Now get back to writing!
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