Iambic Pentameter in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Examples & Meaning

Instructor: Monica Sedore

Monica holds a master's degree and teaches 11th grade English. Previously, she has taught first-year writing at the collegiate level and worked extensively in writing centers.

This lesson will talk about the use of iambic pentameter in William Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' We'll also cover iambic dimeter and iambic trimeter and help you understand what you're reading so it's not so intimidating.

Decoding Iambic Pentameter

Though the phrase iambic pentameter sounds intimidating, this poetic meter used by Shakespeare in his comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream is easy to understand once you unpack its basic elements. Let's start with the first half of the phrase: 'iambic.'

An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Several examples of iambs, depending on your pronunciation, would be 'uphold,' 'beneath,' and 'invent.' The first syllable of these words is pronounced less forcefully than the second syllable. If we were to emphasize the stress using capital letters, the words might look like this: upHOLD, beNEATH, and inVENT. In poetic lines (also known as verse), 'iambic' just means that words in the line follow the pattern of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables.

Now let's look at the word pentameter. Penta- is a prefix that means 'five.' A pentagon and a pentagram both have five points. In poetry, pentameter means that the line has five feet, or five groups of syllables. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the feet are individual iambs. So when we are reading lines written in iambic pentameter, it means that each line has five iambs. Let's take a look at some examples from the play.

Iambic Pentameter in Action

There are plenty of examples of iambic pentameter in A Midsummer Night's Dream, so let's look at one that comes from Hermia at the end of Act I, Scene I. She and Lysander have just agreed to run away to the woods together.

The stressed syllables are written in all capital letters to make the rhythm of the lines easier to hear. Additionally, vertical lines have been added between each iamb so you can see that there are five iambic feet in each line, which makes the meter of this selection iambic pentameter.

And IN | the WOOD, | where OF|ten YOU | and I
UpON | faint PRIM|rose-BEDS | were wont | to LIE,
EmpTYING | our BOS|oms OF | their COUN|sel SWEET,
There MY | LySAN|der AND | mySELF | shall MEET;
And THENCE | from ATH|ens TURN | aWAY | our EYES,
To SEEK | new FRIENDS | and STRAN|ger COM|panIES.
FareWELL, | sweet PLAY|fellOW: | pray THOU | for US;
And GOOD | luck GRANT | thee THY | DeME|triUS!
Keep WORD, | LySAN|der: WE | must STARVE | our SIGHT
From LO|vers' FOOD | till MOR|row DEEP | midNIGHT.

As you can see, each line is made up of a total of ten syllables. The first syllables is always unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable. This pattern continues to the end of the line, which always ends in a stressed syllable. The reason Shakespeare chose this particular meter is because it sounds the most like normal speech patterns. And because he was writing a play where the characters spoke to one another, iambic pentameter made the most sense.

Other Uses of the Iamb

Though it may sound surprising, the entirety of A Midsummer Night's Dream is not written in iambic pentameter. While Shakespeare always uses iambs, each line does not necessarily have five feet. The selection below comes from Pyramus, one of the ill-fated lovers in the play within a play.

Sweet MOON, | I THANK | thee FOR | thy SUN|ny BEAMS;
I THANK | thee, MOON, | for SHIN|ing NOW | so BRIGHT;
For, BY | thy GRA|cious, GOL|den, GLITT|ering GLEAMS,
I TRUST | to TAKE | of TRU|est THIS|by SIGHT.
But MARK, | poor KNIGHT,
What DREAD|ful DOLE | is HERE!
Eyes, DO | you SEE?
How CAN | it BE?
Thy MAN|tle GOD,
What, STAIN'D | with BLOOD!
O FATES|, come, COME,
Quail, CRUSH, | conCLUDE, | and QUELL!

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