Why Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter – David T. Freeman and Gregory Taylor

Why Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter – David T. Freeman and Gregory Taylor


To someone first encountering
the works of William Shakespeare, the language may seem strange. But there is a secret to appreciating it. Although he was famous for his plays,
Shakespeare was first and foremost a poet. One of the most important things
in Shakespeare’s language is his use of stress. Not that kind of stress, but the way we emphasize certain
syllables in words more than others. We’re so used to doing this
that we may not notice it at first. But if you say the word slowly,
you can easily identify them. Playwright, computer, telephone. Poets are very aware of these stresses, having long experimented with the number and order of stressed
and unstressed syllables, and combined them in different ways
to create rhythm in their poems. Like songwriters, poets often express their ideas through
a recognizable repetition of these rhythms or poetic meter. And like music, poetry has its own set of terms
for describing this. In a line of verse, a foot is a certain number
of stressed and unstressed syllables forming a distinct unit, just as a musical measure
consists of a certain number of beats. One line of verse is usually made
up of several feet. For example, a dactyl is a metrical
foot of three syllables with the first stressed, and the second
and third unstressed. Dactyls can create lines
that move swiftly and gather force, as in Robert Browning’s poem,
“The Lost Leader.” “Just for a handful of silver he left us.
Just for a rib and to stick in his coat.” Another kind of foot
is the two-syllable long trochee, a stressed syllable
followed by an unstressed one. The trochees in these lines
from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” lend an ominous and spooky tone
to the witches’ chant. “Double, double, toil and trouble;
fire burn and cauldron bubble.” But with Shakespeare,
it’s all about the iamb. This two-syllable foot
is like a reverse trochee, so the first syllable is unstressed
and the second is stressed, as in, “To be, or not to be.” Shakespeare’s favorite meter,
in particular, was iambic pentameter, where each line of verse
is made up of five two-syllable iambs, for a total of ten syllables. And it’s used for many
of Shakespeare’s most famous lines: “Shall I compare thee
to a summer’s day?” “Arise fair sun,
and kill the envious moon.” Notice how the iambs cut across
both punctuation and word separation. Meter is all about sound, not spelling. Iambic pentameter may sound technical, but there’s an easy way
to remember what it means. The word iamb is pronounced
just like the phrase, “I am.” Now, let’s expand that to a sentence that just happens
to be in iambic pentameter. “I am a pirate with a wooden leg.” The pirate can only walk in iambs, a living reminder
of Shakespeare’s favorite meter. Iambic pentameter
is when he takes ten steps. Our pirate friend can even help us
remember how to properly mark it if we image the footprints he leaves
walking along a deserted island beach: A curve for unstressed syllables,
and a shoe outline for stressed ones. “If music be the food of love, play on.” Of course, most lines
of Shakespeare’s plays are written in regular prose. But if you read carefully, you’ll notice that Shakespeare’s
characters turn to poetry, and iambic pentameter in particular, for many of the same reasons
that we look to poetry in our own lives. Feeling passionate, introspective,
or momentous. Whether it’s Hamlet pondering
his existence, or Romeo professing his love, the characters switch to iambic pentameter
when speaking about their emotions and their place in the world. Which leaves just one last question. Why did Shakespeare choose
iambic pentameter for these moments, rather than, say, trochaic hexameter
or dactylic tetrameter? It’s been said that iambic pentameter
was easy for his actors to memorize and for the audience to understand because it’s naturally suited
to the English language. But there might be another reason. The next time you’re in a heightened
emotional situation, like the ones that make
Shakespeare’s characters burst into verse, put your hand over
the left side of your chest. What do you feel? That’s your heart beating in iambs. Da duhm, da duhm,
da duhm, da duhm, da duhm. Shakespeare’s most poetic lines don’t just
talk about matters of the heart. They follow its rhythm.

100 thoughts on “Why Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter – David T. Freeman and Gregory Taylor

  1. Now every time I tell a tale, to children yet unlearned, Iambic prose will surely build a healthy, lifelong interest. And interest in the works of him whose words spans age to age, shall yield for those young little minds a passion for the stage.

  2. She: "is that the sound of the night owl, or the morning cock?"

    Me: "More like the second option…."

  3. I like iambic pentameter and iambic tetrameter. I often write couplets and quatrains in them.

    O Prophets, tell us what your words have done
    The words of love and wisdom heard by none.
    The scriptures ask to help the poor in need
    And yet this world is rife with senseless greed.

    O Prophets, tell us why believers kill
    When God hath said it's all against His will.
    Behold the world with all its dreadful pain
    You must admit your words are all in vain.

  4. If any of you have trouble with the stressed and unstressed syllables. You can go to a dictionary like marriam webster and find the word in its syllables which should look like this: sək-ˈses and bi-ˈhīnd The ( ' ) part is placed right before the stressed syllable. On dictionary.com the stressed part is marked with a deeper and fatter color.

  5. The ending made me fall in love with the iambic pentameter even more than Halo got me interested in it.

    "Child of my enemy, why have you come? I offer no forgiveness, a father's sin passed to his son."

  6. As a big fan of iambic pentameter here's a sonnet based on Sonnet 18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dj1qUWYlBWI&t=14s
    What do you think?

  7. 3 interesting things:
    1. how he creates verses as if it was music
    2.how he uses foots and how it adds emphasis and dramatic elements
    3.how he uses the iambic pentameter and how the punctuation is use

  8. The animators at 4:24 got the Trochaic Haxameter illustration WRONG. If the pirates foot represents a stressed syllable and a slur is silent then the Trochaic would start with a foot followed by a slur, and repeats this pattern 6 times. Other than that minor error it was beautifully illustrated and thanks for an interesting, clear wonderful explanation of these useful poetry concepts.

  9. Is it that a poem should mostly (but not necessarily always) follow a certain metre to be called a poem in that metre? Or does it absolutely HAVE to follow, say, iambic pentameter, all throughout to be called a poem in iambic pentameter?

  10. The heart beats in 5/4? You are a special kind of moron. I hope that this specialness eases the burden of your stupidity in daily life.

  11. There is so much beyond this video and dumbstruck by the comments on the so called 'ta Dum' meter 😶

  12. Idk if someone already posted it, but in question 4, the first line is iambic, not trochaic, but the second one is correct. My English teacher rather gleefully pointed it out since this is a Ted Talk, and is a rather silly mistake.

  13. 4:06 "Question" is more than one syllable which means the "tion" should be unstressed which makes it a feminine ending.

  14. The thing that bothers me is how many people completely misread Hamlet's famous "to be" speech. He is NOT suicidal (that is early on in the play) he is not questioning HIS existence, but rather marvelling how people find the strength to move on "to dream, to sleep; to sleep, to dream -ay, there is the rub" (working off memory, sorry if exact words are off). Basically he is saying that were it not for our hopes and dreams who wouldn't want to die. It's an incredibly powerful piece of writing that is sadly mis-interpreted.

  15. Seamlessly my hand flows a fast flash flood
    For the space most high, my mind places thee.
    Volcanic heart, bursts lava, writes with blood:
    Thou hath given inspiration to me.

    My love, my joy full of life, providing
    The faith I trace to only the divine.
    For no nature, no leaf bush handwriting
    Could make thee so perfectly to be mine.

    Though my flesh fails to know thine face so fair,
    It drys and cracks and smiles, for its love.
    My mind aches and my eyes, so distant, stare
    To meet thee again, though never enough.

    And one can only hope to find a way
    To wait for the date that whispers: someday.

    I wrote this sonnet and it’s about a girl I like a lot and I can’t share it with anyone so I thought I’d put it here.

  16. Beats Per Minute/tempo in music is also based on the human heartbeat, from what I understand. Our base heartbeat determines what tempos are felt as slow or fast.

  17. thank you this was so helpful i am in year 7 and my english teacher said this is supposed to be taught in yr 9 help me

  18. Amazing,this is the new chance to redefine the man Shakespeare, I always can’t figure out what’s inside his poems,now,I see.

  19. We Need to Share that which b'Longs to All

    or our Biggest Problems Soon will Bring our Fall.

    Healthy society:
    https://gaiabrain.blogspot.com/2018/11/we-need-to-make-healthy-society.html

  20. Doesn't "question" have two syllables? If it does, wouldn't that make the ending of "to be or not be, that is question" not in iamb?

  21. i still can't completely get iambic pentameter. i do get most of it, but for example, in "to be or not to be, that, is the question" i've always stressed "that " not is, even though it seems fine the other way too, so in some cases, isn't the iambic pentameter how you choose the pronounce the words rather than how they naturally are? because both stresses sound fine.

  22. Please stop connecting "To be or not to be…" with the skull. It's like if in years to come people thought "I'm the king of the world!" was a line said by a guy drowning.

  23. I have an English final on Monday, and this was rather helpful to understand Iambic Pentameter so thanks!

  24. This is my narration of sonnet no 67 , which I like much
    https://youtu.be/k0VflIyb6fk
    I hope I narrated it well . I really need to know your opinion people.

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