When it comes to learning about William Shakespeare and his plays, the trickiest part to figure out (aside from the language) is the meter, or rhythm, of his writing. Shakespeare is most famous for using a meter called iambic pentameter.
Because each iamb has two syllables, and because there are five iambs in a line of iambic pentameter, each line has a total of ten syllables.
One of the most famous examples of iambic pentameter occurs in the prologue of the play Romeo and Juliet. Let’s look at the iambic pentameter in the first four lines:
Why do we analyze the meter?
Why is it useful to look for the meter? How can it help a reader? One way it helps readers is to give clues about important ideas in the play or scene. This can be achieved by focusing on the stressed (/) syllables. Some of the words that are stressed in these lines of the prologue include house, dignity, grudge, mutiny, civil, and blood. If you know anything about Romeo and Juliet, you know that it tells the story of two star-crossed teens from feuding families, and because of the fighting between the families, the play ends in bloodshed. Shakespeare is already emphasizing those ideas with his use of stresses in these lines of iambic pentameter.
Why did Shakespeare Use Iambic Pentameter?
Shakespeare did not write solely in iambic pentameter, but he did use it frequently throughout his work. So why did he do this? One possible reason is that it is well suited to the English language. The rhythm flows with how speakers naturally talk, and the ten syllable lines are easy for actors to remember, especially when combined with rhyming.
Another possible reason, as noted above, is that the rhythm of iambic pentameter mirrors the rhythm of the human heart. This is important because Shakespeare’s characters tend to use iambic pentameter when they are talking about their feelings; the fact that the meter in their speeches matches the rhythm of their heart beats underscores the intensity of their feelings—and Shakespeare’s characters had BIG feelings!
Want to learn more about the different kinds of meters Shakespeare used? Watch this helpful video from TED-Ed.
Want to dive further into Shakespeare’s use of language in Romeo and Juliet? Check out these helpful teaching resources! All teaching resources are sold through Teachers Pay Teachers.