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An iamb is a metrical unit (a "foot") consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the word "beyond". (We say be-YOND not BE-yond.) Stress might be defined as "increased effort" or "extra loudness" on a syllable. To locate the stressed syllable in a polysyllabic word (a word of two or more syllables, like "beyond"), try placing extra emphasis (or "loudness") on each syllable in turn. The syllable that "sounds right" when you emphasize it, is the one which naturally contains stress. Lines composed predominately in iambs are, by far, the most common type of verse in English.
Pentameter is a line of verse consisting of five "feet" (ten syllables total). Lines of iambic pentameter are the most common of all lines of verse in English and, certainly, the most common verse form in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. A line of iambic pentameter consists of five iambs and, traditionally, would be described as sounding something like this: da DUM/ da DUM/ da DUM/ da DUM/ da DUM ("from FAIR/-est CREAT/-ures WE/ de-SIRE/ in-CREASE").
Several successive lines of iambic pentameter which do not rhyme with each other are often referred to as "blank verse"
If you are a high school student, the above is probably all you need to know. University students may be required to recognize certain variations that typically occur in a line of iambic pentameter.
In scanning a line of verse, it is fairly easy to identify which syllable(s) in a polysyllabic word is stressed. Monosyllabic words are a little trickier. Among monosyllabic words, certain types of words are "strong" (such as nouns, adjectives, main verbs, some adverbs) and some are "weak" (such as conjunctions, prepositions, auxiliary verbs). In a line of verse, it is usually the "strong" monosyllabic words that are stressed. Such words are said to carry "lexical stress".
It will be immediately apparent to anyone with any sensitivity to the rhythmic patterns of verse, that the da DUM/ da DUM/ da DUM/ da DUM/ da DUM pattern is not consistent. Stress is often inverted (or reversed) as in: "SPEAK-ing/ of WORTH,/ what WORTH/ in YOU/ doth GROW". Inversion of stress in the first foot is the most common. Inversion of stress in the fifth foot does not occur. Two inversions in a row do not occur. There are many similar constraints on the placement of stressed and unstressed syllables - too many to explain in this summary. Suffice it to say that the lines do not go da DUM da DUM like a metronome. That would be impossible for a writer to sustain and tedious to listen to, even if it could be achieved.
Some lines appear to have too many syllables. Remember, a line of iambic pentameter should have five iambs or ten syllables total. The most common variation is an eleventh unstressed syllable at the end of a line, as in: "To be or not to be: that is the question". Remember, stress is never inverted in the fifth foot. Invariably, when a line of iambic pentameter ends with the unstressed syllable of a polysyllabic word - that syllable is "extra" or extra-metrical. Often, this is referred to as the "feminine ending". That denotation is misleading, however, because the extra-metrical syllable may also occur somewhere in the middle of the line, as in: "But how of Caw[dor]? The Thane of Cawdor lives." This line has eleven syllables. The syllable in brackets - Caw[dor] - is extra-metrical. An extra-metrical syllable usually occurs immediately before a syntactic break, such as a period, comma, or a conjunction.
Sometimes, the presence of an extra-metrical syllable cannot explain the unusual length of some lines, such as: "Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless, villain". At first glance, this line has thirteen syllables. Now, we know the final unstressed syllable in "villain" is extra-metrical. That accounts for one. The other two syllables must be accounted for in some manner. In such instances, we are usually dealing with an "elidible". An elidible is an unstressed syllable that, for various reasons, is not included in the scansion. In the line above, the second syllables of "treacherous" and "lecherous" are elided - "treach’rous" and "lech’rous". Thus the line scans "re-MORSE/ -less, TREACH[er]/ -ous, LECH [er]/ -ous, KIND/ -less, VILL/ - [ain]".
Students attempting to scan iambic pentameter should be aware that a single line of verse may be shared by two or more characters. Modern editors will often edit such lines in this manner:
Did not you speak?
Lady Macbeth Now.
Macbeth As I descended?
The above exchange would not appear like this in the Folio, but it is a typical arrangement for an editor to choose. Occasionally, as well, one may encounter lines that appear too short to be pentameter. They will be missing one or more "feet". In such instances, it is likely Shakespeare is indicating a pause to permit some stage business or, perhaps, to prompt the actor that some emotion (such as weeping) might be appropriate.
Serious students of verse should be aware that this summary is, necessarily, a gross simplification. Notwithstanding this, if you have understood the basics outlined here, you probably know more about iambic pentameter than your high school teacher, and about as much as your average English professor. Those with a scholarly interest, I would direct to Strange Music: The Metre of the English Heroic Line by Peter L. Groves.
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