Notes on Iambic Pentameter

(If you are looking for the tutorial – the complete article – on Understanding Iambic Pentameter, click here.
The article in front of you is a quick review for those reading the plays on this site)

To fully appreciate and enjoy the iambic pentameter, it is suggested that you mouth the verse to yourself as you read; this permits you to follow the rise and fall of the stresses clearly. Keep in mind, though, that some authors, like John Ford and Shakespeare, are more careful than others in making sure their words easily fit into the pattern of alternating stresses that is required of iambic pentameter. That is to say, if you simply read their lines exactly as they are written, you will find that most of the lines naturally rise and fall with each syllable without requiring any adjustments.

On the other hand, some authors, like Philip Massinger, require more flexibility from the reader; as such, it is helpful to be aware of the ways such playwrights can technically still be writing in iambic pentameter, even though many of the lines seem to require “fudging” to do so. For example, they will frequently treat two short words as if they were a single unstressed syllable, or treat multi-syllable words as having one fewer syllable than normal. You can learn all the grizzly details about iambic pentameter in the Elizabethan Drama 101 section of this web-site.

Generally, pronounce all past-tense words ending in -ed as you would in modern English, unless it is marked –èd, in which case pronounce the extra syllable; for example, cursèd is two syllables. Similarly, pronounce all words ending in -tion as you would in modern English, unless it is marked tión, in which case pronounce the -tion as two syllables (shee-ón); for example, motión is three syllables.

There will be other occasional words with accents on one of the syllables, where one normally would not occur in modern English. Forward slanting accents (acute) indicate the syllable is to be stressed. For example, the word conscióus should be pronounced as three syllables: CON-sci-OUS. Reverse slanting accents (grave) suggest an extra unstressed syllable: fuèl should be pronounced FU-el.

The following common words are almost always pronounced as one-syllable words: heaven, being, given, even, prayers, power and hour.