I want to let you know how I teach Iambic Pentameter, in the hope that:
- You can tell me how to improve my teaching of Iambic Pentameter
- It provides you with some ideas as to how you might want to teach Iambic Pentameter
Before I explain how I teach Iambic Pentameter, it’s first useful to explain what iambic pentameter is, and why I teach it.
Iambic Pentameter is a line of poetry made up of 5 iambs. An iamb is a metrical foot made up of two syllables of which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. Therefore, a line of iambic pentameter is a line of poetry consisting of 10 syllables following the pattern:
Unstressed (u) Stressed (/) Unstressed Stressed Unstressed Stressed Unstressed Stressed Unstressed Stressed
U \ U \ U \ U \ U \
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Why do I teach it?
I teach iambic pentameter for two reasons. Primarily, I think an understanding of iambic pentameter enables students to better analyse Shakespeare. Secondly, I think an understanding of iambic pentameter can lead to a greater appreciation of the poetry or verse as a construct- something thought about and built, rather than something that magically appears.
How do I teach it
I begin by explaining to students that what we’re about to learn is difficult. And that, finding this difficult is not only natural, but an indicator that they’re learning something. I also tell them that it is my responsibility, as much as theirs, to revisit this throughout the weeks that follow, so as to ensure full understanding.
I begin by explaining the concept of syllables. I will use phrases such as , ‘The English Language is syllabic. This means that its words are made up of syllables.’ The definition of ‘syllable’ is a tricky one and I don’t get too hung up on this. I go for a student-friendly definition which is a little abstract, but works with examples: ‘A syllable is a beat in a word. “Matthew” for example, has two beats: “Math” and “Hew”. At this point I’ll ask students to work out how many syllables are in their full names. I’ll also ask them to work out the number of syllables in words such as ‘Universal’, ‘Swimming’, and ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism’.
Once students know what syllables are, I write the following word on the board:
I’ll ask students to pronounce it, and they’ll generally all pronounce the noun version of the word (REB-el). Then, I’ll ask students what rebels do, and point at the word on the board as I do so. They’ll then give me the verb version of the word (re-BEL). I’ll repeat this process for the word ‘Present’ (gift) and ‘Present’ (show, provide). Once I’ve done this, I’ll explain that although the words are the same, the thing that changes the meaning, is the stress we put on syllables: ‘In the noun version of the word “Rebel”, we put greater stress on the first syllable. “Reb”-“El”.’ As I do this, I’ll raise my hand for the stressed first syllable, and lower it as I pronounce the second. I’ll reverse the process for the verb version, and do the same again for ‘Present’.
I’ll then pick a student with a two-syllable first name in the class and I’ll ask the whole class where the stress falls. Generally, in western names, the stressed syllable is always the initial one. I’ll explain that if it wasn’t, we’d start to sound like French. I’d do a mock French accent as I explain the differences between ‘Amy’ and ‘Ai-MEE’.
At this stage, the kids should know a) that the English language is syllabic and b) that syllables are either stressed or unstressed.
Next, I tell kids what an iamb is. I’ll explain that an iamb is what’s known as a foot. I’ll explain that an iamb has two points (like the pad and heel of a foot). Normally, I stand on a table at this point and watch everybody see my the soft tread of my heel hitting the table’s surface, followed by the rest of my weight following through as my pad (?) hits the table. I’m careful to make the second hit more forceful than the first. I then tell kids that an iamb is:
- A unit of two syllables…
- Of which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed.
I’ll provide examples of iambic words such as:
Then, I’ll say these words with the reversed stress pattern. It helps the kids get it, I find.
Then, I’ll write the beginnings of a famous line of Shakespeare and explain that it is iambic:
To be or not to be? That is the question.
I’ll say this aloud, emphasising the unstressed and stressed beats as I do so, by adjusting the volume of my voice: louder for stressed beats; quieter for unstressed. I will then explain that many actors, because they don’t have a grasp of iambic pentameter. They’ll deliver the line thusly:
To be or not to be? That is the question.
I’ll explain that actually iambic pentameter means that it should be pronounced like this:
To be or not to be? That is the question?
I’ll also show them this clip to help further explain the importance of stressed and unstressed beats:
I’ll ask students to tell me who they think has it pronounced most correctly, according to the ‘rules’ of iambic pentameter (I think it’s Prince Charles).
Right, now, I’ll ask students to look at the phrase IAMBIC PENTAMETER. We’ll analyse it and I’ll break it down into:
- IAMBIC (containing iambs)
- PENT (5)
- METER (Rhythm)
That is, a rhythm containing 5 iambs. I’ll ask them how many syllables there are then, in one line of iambic pentameter. This is the stage at which you realise who has got it and who hasn’t. Most won’t have it. So repeat some stuff.
I’ll explain that iambic pentameter is a type of poetry. It’s poetry, even if it doesn’t rhyme, because it follows a metrical structure.
Now, it’s the time to explain why Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter. I discuss a number of theories:
- It mimics ordinary human speech
- It resonates with us because it mimics the beat of life – our heartbeats
I explain that I think these explanations are rubbish, even though I might be wrong. I explain that lines of iambic pentameter are just nice to listen to. The fact that they begin with a nice soft, unstressed beat, is soothing and less aggressive than if someone spoke to us (or the audience, or a loved one) beginning always with stressed beats.
Then I explain the most important thing about iambic pentameter:
Iambic Pentameter isn’t interesting when it’s there. It’s more interesting when it’s not there.
Allow me to explain: generally, it’s characters of high status or power who speak in iambic pentameter. Lady Macbeth, for example, speaks in iambic pentameter. Characters of low status or power, such as servants, nurses and porters, speak in prose.
At this point I’ll illustrate the differences between prose and verse by asking students to look at the differences themselves. I’ll normally direct them to the Porter’s speech in Macbeth, and ask them to compare it with verse spoken by the Macbeths in the previous scene.
Once students know what prose is, I’ll direct them to the sleepwalking scene. Lady Macbeth, now insane with guilt over her part in Duncan’s’ death, now speaks in prose. I’ll ask students why they think that is: it’s because Lady Macbeth has fallen from grace. Shakespeare now deprives her of the eloquence her power used to grant her. It’s his way of showing us that Lady Macbeth is now powerless. She can no longer boast of ‘the valour of [her] tongue’; instead she must be content with monosyllabic splutterings of ‘O! O! O!’
Finally, one more thing. I like this from Macbeth:
Stars hide your fires. Let not light see my black and deep desires.
I like the emphasis. I like the fact that black is stressed and light isn’t. I’ll encourage students to see the same.
Thanks for reading.