Shakespeare · Word of the week

Word of the week: iamb

Iamb: it’s a “metrical foot”. This is nothing to do with imperial measurements involving distance, it’s about meter in poems, or how syllables are used in a line of poetry. An iamb is a 2-syllable “metrical foot”, a short or unstressed syllable followed by a long or stressed syllable: da-DUM. Examples include the words “remark” (pronounced re-MARK) or “today” (pronounced to-DAY, unless it’s the opening word of “Wonderwall” by Oasis, where both syllables are stressed equally; that makes it a spondee, a 2-syllable metrical foot where both syllables are long or stressed).

Like other terms from English literature (synecdoche, zeugma) this is the kind of word I looked up many times over the years and could never remember. I have come across the word “spondee”, mentioned in parentheses in that last paragraph, many times in the last 30 years, in crossword clues. The clue will include the word “foot” and might refer to a body of water. There was one last month in the Independent, quoted here: “Foot of water in bishop’s office (7)”, which breaks down as “pond” (water) inside the word “see” (bishop’s office), and meaning a “foot”. Other examples of spondee include wigwam and girlfriend.

The adjective formed from the noun iamb is “iambic”, as in “iambic pentameter”. This is what made me look up the word last year. An iambic pentameter has five iambs, or five 2-syllable “metrical feet” (ten syllables in all), so at its simplest it would sound like this:

da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM

Most people come across iambic pentameters when reading or studying Shakespeare: they form the basis of the poetry in his plays. (The prose sections in his plays have no meter, there is no underlying rhythm to the words.) But if every non-prose line of dialogue sounded exactly like the example above, the characters would sound like they were reciting nursery rhymes. The speeches are more subtle than that. Iambic pentameter is the basis for the poetry, but the stresses don’t simply follow the pattern of five iambs in a row, line after line. And some of the most famous lines deviate even further: “To be or not to be, that is the question” has eleven syllables rather than the usual ten.

As noted elsewhere, around a year ago I set out to read every Shakespeare play, aiming at one per week. It took a few weeks longer than planned, but by 1 February this year I had read all the plays, many of them for the first time. Some people can learn whole speeches from Shakespeare plays but I set my sights much lower than that. I wanted to find at least one memorable example of an iambic pentameter from each play. There’s a strong chance that you know at least one: “If music be the food of love, play on”, the opening line of “Twelfth Night”.

Here are ten other examples that I have managed to commit to memory. You’ll recognize some of them. It’ll be a long time before I can quote a whole soliloquy.

“A little more than kin and less than kind” (Hamlet’s first line, though not the first line in the play)

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (Macbeth’s first line, though not the first line in the play)

“And Brutus is an honourable man” (“Julius Caesar”)

“I wasted time and now doth time waste me” (“Richard II”)

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” (“Richard III”)

“A little touch of Harry in the night” (“Henry V”)

“I am perplexed and know not what to say” (“King John”)

“The course of true love never did run smooth (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)

“Shall we resolve to woo these girls of France?” (“Love’s Labour’s Lost”)

“Now does my project gather to a head” (“The Tempest”)

Now, is there an iamb that I can use to finish this piece in a dramatic way? Yes, how about this: Ta-DAH!



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