Introduction to Blank Verse or Iambic Pentameter

Blank verse is unrhymed verse, for our purposes usually iambic pentameter, which is verse made of lines of 5 iambic feet. An iambic foot, or iamb, has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed, like: ka-BOOM. Here is a line of iambic pentameter:

          Ka-BOOM, ka-BOOM, ka-BOOM, ka-BOOM, ka-BOOM!

Fortunately Shakespeare's verse is generally more interesting than this example. Shakespeare's plays are mostly in verse, and iambic pentameter is the verse form he uses most often. Here are some lines of iambic pentameter by Shakespeare.

           If music be the food of love, play on.     (Twelfth Night, Act I Scene 1 Line 1)

If we wanted to make the rhythm grotesquely obvious, we could say the line and punch the stressed syllables:

          if MU-  |  sic BE  |  the FOOD  |  of LOVE,  |  play ON.

On the page (or screen) you can see that each of the five feet has an unstressed and a stressed syllable. But even if you don't accent the stressed syllables, you should be able to feel that the line has a rhythm.

Here are examples from Hamlet: try saying them stressed and then like a human being.

          For this relief much thanks: 'tis bitter cold       (I.1.8)

          And let us once again assail your ears      (I.1.34)

          But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.      (I.2.159)

The best way to approach Shakespeare's texts is to assume that he knew what he was doing, that he could write about any event in iambic pentameter, and that, when the meter varies from iambic pentameter, Shakespeare is using the variation to make a point. Hamlet's "To be or not to be" contains several different kinds of variation from iambic pentameter.

©  Deloss Brown 1999
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