Shakespeare is incredibly famous for writing a lot in iambic pentameter.

But why did he choose to write in this specific style of having ten beats and 5 stressed syllables per line? Considering it was not at all a requirement for plays at the time and many poets wrote in a completely different meter?

Wasn't this just making his life unnecessarily difficult considering the quantity of stuff he wrote in such a manner?

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    What do you mean, why? Are you expecting an answer from Shakespeare explaining his choice, or a question more like 'how are the plays improved by being in iambic parameter' (which would probably go over better here)?
    – Mithical
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 19:04
  • @Mithrandir I was more thinking historically, was iambic pentameter simply plucked out of the air? Or was there some reason why he picked that specific meter? Commented May 21, 2017 at 22:23
  • I think iambic pentameter was common in poetry at that time, especially in blank verse
    – CHEESE
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 11:01
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    Who were the "many poets" who were writing plays in a "completely different meter"? Or do you just mean that they were writing lyrics in different meters? So did Shakespeare, when he incorporated lyrics into his plays, e.g., "Who Is Sylvia?" is not in iambic pentameter.
    – user14111
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 3:07

1 Answer 1


Shakespeare wrote iambic pentameter because that was the most common verse meter of the time. He didn't establish it. Edmund Spenser used it in The Faerie Queene:

Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,
For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies° gentle deeds;

And Christopher Marlowe in Dido Queen of Carthage:

Iup. Come gentle Ganimed and play with me,
I loue thee well, say Iuno what she will.

Poets had been using it since at least Middle English, such as Geoffrey Chaucer in Canterbury Tales:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

(The first couple of lines are somewhat loose in the meter, but the second couplet is fairly rigorous, roughly pronounced: and BAH-thed EV'ry VEIN in SWICH li-QUOR/of WHICH vir-TUE en-GEN-dred is the FLOOR [flower]".)

The "why" is simply that it's perceived to fit the natural rhythms of English fairly well. French and Italian frequently use six-foot lines, which correspond to about the same number of words but with more gender-marked endings. English words tend to mix stressed and unstressed syllables, so you get iambs and trochees in speech quite frequently. I don't really know why we picked iambic rather than trochaic verse; for all I know it's arbitrary.

As for why he wrote in verse at all... partly it makes plays easier to memorize. Some kind of structure helps you remember how the words fit together: one sound cues the next. Songs are even more memorable, but blank verse seems to be sufficiently memorable for actors to keep multiple plays going in repertory.

And finally, it just sounds good. Audiences like the sound of verse, going back to antiquity. It can have a hypnotic quality.

Iambic pentameter seems to fit a sweet spot in English of having enough structure to be memorable and enjoyable, without feeling sing-songy. Different languages settled on different forms to meet the common sounds available in those languages.

Shakespeare wrote almost exclusively in verse for his early plays, and got more prosey as he went on, especially for comic characters. Verse carries the power of drama especially well. As he got more comfortable with letting the wordplay alone carry the comedy, he began to write more prose.

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    Your answer is great and pretty comprehensive, although I would add that verse was also associated with characters of higher status or nobility, whereas prose was seen as the form of commoners. Verse therefore demonstrated the allegiance and status of a character as the prosaic, working class antagonist Iago who is contrasted with the iambic heroes of Othello, Cassio and Desdemona demonstrates in Othello.
    – S.Bailey
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 0:28
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    @S.Bailey See also Were all of Shakespeare's plays fully in iambic pentameter?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 9:25
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    Chaucer and Gower are responsible for introducing iambic meters in English, and Chaucer wrote the first great iambic pentameter poetry (The Canterbury Tales).
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 13:03

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