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TennesseanAn insightful assessment of several of Shakespeare's favorite themes: love, war, ambition and illusion.
— Katherine Royster
Anyone who comes unprepared to Shakespeare's plays in performance will be disconcerted by the fact that the characters do not talk to one another in the familiar patterns of everyday speech. Those new to Shakespeare may well ask how it is possible to enjoy a play when they can't understand half the words being said. They may wonder at the rapt attention of their fellow playgoers, whose eyes are riveted on the stage and can be seen to smile, laugh, or weep at times, then burst into wild applause as the curtain falls. Beginners may well begin to suspect that they may have missed something important along the way.
This initial strangeness arises in part from the fact that the actors and actresses are for the most part speaking in verse, which has rules of its own. A playwright hopes to move an audience, and poetry is the language of emotion. In its rhythms, its rhymes, and its images, it recaptures moments of joy and despair, of fear and longing, that are common to the human experience-the stuff of life. Poetry, in this regard, shares many qualities with music: what words are to a sonnet, notes are to a sonata. Both strive for similar effects: to evoke thought and move emotion. Words may be more effective in sparking thought and notes in arousing emotion, but both draw on the bond between mind and body. Music, because it is the more familiar medium of the two, can help us understand the appeal of poetry.
There can be little doubt of the power of music to arouse the passions. It can send the spirit soaring, recall the sorrow of lost love, or incite anger at injustice. It can set the toe tapping and the feet marching; it can send a chill down the spine, bring a tear to the eye, and propel the body into a wild dance. Poetry, like music, touches a deep core of human sentiment lying beneath the level of the conscious mind, something elemental to our nature. The most memorable of Shakespeare's passages are both moving and profound precisely because their poetry shares with music two of its essential qualities, its rhythm and its sound.
The rhythm of music resonates on the basic pulses of life-the beating of the heart, the pumping of blood through the veins, the intake and release of breath, the measured pace of walking. These are functions that the primitive brain controls, actions that the conscious mind takes little notice of. The beat of music slips past waking thought and appeals directly to these unconscious rhythms of life, throbbing along the thin matrix of nerves that twitch the muscles and excite the blood. Drums have traditionally roused men to battle, there with them in primitive war dances and the measured tread of more modern armies marching to the sound of cannon. If you doubt the power of rhythm, observe the frenzied response of a rock concert audience as the singers shout out some mindless phrase over and over at the close of a number while the band blares the same notes in a rising crescendo of pure, naked BEAT.
In other regards, there is something about rhythm that puts the human spirit in touch with all the reiterate tempos of nature-the rise and setting of the sun, the passage of seasons, the bloom and fading of a flower, the yearly migration of birds, the waves that rise and recede on moonlit shores. The recurrent cadence of music reminds us that we are participants in a vast pattern of events, not as the separate beings our conscious mind would have us, but as one of many, as indistinguishable from all others as the grains of sand upon a beach. That rhythm, then, tells us we are part of a sublime whole, a grand and mysterious entity that pulses through the stem of a rose and circles the stars.
In another respect, music alternates between constancy and change. The repetition of a sequence of notes satisfies expectation; at the same time variations on these same sounds capture the attention and delight the ear. The entire first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is a series of variations on its first four dramatic chords. Folk music can have endless verses, telling a tale of love or loss, alternating with the repetition of the same chorus. Constancy and change, repetition and variety-life swings between them. The routine of a workaday existence is relieved by an occasional holiday; it is enlivened by a new love or a birth, and is unsettled by a death. Constancy comforts the spirit, change animates it. We are not content without the one and cannot be said to live fully without the other. In the same way, music repeats a theme with variations that discover different shades of meaning in the notes. In its repetition and variety, then, it echoes the essential patterns of life.
The lines of Shakespeare's poetry are alive with alternating rhythms, though as with music we are often unaware of their effect upon us. Some knowledge of his meters, however, can enhance our enjoyment of a play's musical qualities.
For the most part, any single line in Shakespeare consists of ten syllables, or five "feet" of two syllables each. It is a measure that students of poetry call "pentameter." Shakespeare does vary the pattern at times, reducing the feet to four in songs or incantations: "Double, double, toil and trouble" (I add stresses here initially to illustrate the meter). The variety is achieved, again for the most part, by stressing one or the other, or both, of the syllables in each foot, providing patterns to which those same students of poetry have given names. In the "iambic" foot, the stress is on the second syllable, as in "about" or "enough." In the "trochaic" it is on the first, as in "over" and "under." And in the "spondaic" it is on both, as in "Don't shoot" or "Keep quiet." There are others, including one in which neither syllable is stressed, but these three-the iambic, the trochaic, and the spondaic-are the dominant meters of Shakespeare's poetry.
Although these distinctions may seem overly academic-with Greek names, no less-they represent in fact the familiar rhythms of everyday speech and writing, particularly those intended to appeal to the emotions, which, as has been noted, is the particular end of poetic expression. The iambic is found in inspirational oratory-for example in Abraham Lincoln's "a nation of the people, by' the people, for the people," or Martin Luther King's, "I have a dream." The trochaic is equally familiar, to be found in an impatient parent's admonition, "Go and clean your room" or "Eat your carrots." The spondaic meter is employed for emphasis and impact, such as the shouting of political slogans, "Down with Jones!" or "Up with Smith!"; the challenge hurled across the barricades of protest during the 1960s, "Hell no, we won't go!"; or the chant of aroused football fans, "We will, we will, rock you!"
These are the rhythms, then, that we often express in our more intense moments. And it is the meters of poetry that capture the intensity of those moments. Some of Shakespeare's most familiar lines reflect the iambic meter (you're on your own now): "Farewell, Othello's occupation's gone!" and Romeo's "What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east / And Juliet is the sun." We recall as well King Lear's lament, "I am more sinned against than sinning." The trochaic simply reverses the stress to achieve the same effect, usually in the first foot of a line, as in Othello's, "Villain, be sure you prove my love a whore," "Impudent strumpet," and "Soft you, a word or two before you go." The two meters, as mentioned, reflect the predominant rhythms of the spoken word. It is interesting to note how many of Shakespeare's prose passages reflect their use as well, as in Prince Hal's iambic insults of Falstaff: "thou claybrained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, greasy tallow-catch." We may not know what a "tallow-catch" is, but we can relish the delicious rhythm.
Shakespeare at times employs the spondaic for a highly dramatic effect, often in a line of repeated words, as in Lear's "Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!" "No, no, no, no! Let's away to prison." and "Howl! Howl! Howl! O, you are men of stones." The poet can soften the effect of such repetitions by varying the meter, as in the trochaic measure of Lear's lament for Cordelia, "Thou'lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never." As a poetic device, however, the spondaic foot can be overdone, and Shakespeare mocks its excessive use in Bottom's comic death as Pyramus in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Now, die, die, die, die, die." As with the trochaic meter, Shakespeare will combine the spondaic with others in a single line to achieve emphasis, as in Lear's "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!" and "Strike flat the thick rotundity o'th'world!"
To achieve poetic variety-constancy and change-Shakespeare will on occasion include all three meters in a single line. As Othello approaches the sleeping Desdemona, he intones a solemn chant: "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!" In the second line, "Let me" is trochaic, the middle feet roughly iambic, and the final "chaste stars!" spondaic.
The need to sustain both the meter and the pentameter line caused Shakespeare at times to take liberties with words: he combined them, omitted them, inverted their normal order, called for them to be pronounced in unfamiliar ways, and punctuated them curiously. This practice accounts in part for the difficulty modern readers and audiences may have with his language. Knowing his devices can help dispel some of our perplexity about what is being said.
In the matter of punctuation, for example, remember that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed on stage, not read in books. His commas, periods, and apostrophes informed actors how he wanted his lines spoken. Indeed, he followed a long tradition in this practice. Punctuation was first introduced into written language by ancient Greek playwrights to indicate where actors should pause in delivering a line. Shakespeare drew attention to the practice by deliberately misplacing punctuation in Peter Quince's muddled prologue to Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream, resulting in such comic distortions as:
We do not come, as minding to content you, Our true intent is. All for your delight, We are not here. That you should here repent you, The actors are at hand....
Readers of the plays find an overabundance of apostrophes in the words, indicating that a letter has been left out, as in the familiar "ne'er" and "o'er," but also in the uncommon verb ending "'d." With "ne'er" and "o'er" he indicates that these normally two syllable words are to be said as one syllable, and on other occasions that two words are to be similarly compressed, as with "i'th" (in the) and "o'th" (of the). At times he will simply leave to our understanding that two words are to be accepted as one, as in the iambic measure of the familiar "To be, or not to be, that is the question," where the words "is the" are slurred together.
The apostrophe, then, will indicate that a syllable commonly pronounced is not to be spoken, as when Polonius says of Hamlet that he has "from his senses fall'n thereon," and Shylock complains that his ducats have been "stol'n by my daughter." The verb ending "ed" is frequently reduced to "'d," even in words where it does not constitute a syllable anyway, as in Richard III's complaint that he was born "deform'd, unfinish'd." But Shakespeare is making a distinction here between when he wants it pronounced and when he doesn't. He preserves the "ed" spelling in words where it is to be spoken even though it is not sounded in common speech. We have, for example, Juliet's lament on hearing of Romeo's sentence, "Tybalt is dead, and Romeo banished. / That 'banished,' that one word 'banished,' / Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts." Again, when the young lovers of The Tempest meet, Ferdinand is immediately smitten by his "Admired Miranda," and Portia advises Shylock that mercy "becomes / The throned monarch better than his crown."
Shakespeare will occasionally omit small words to maintain the meter, leaving it to us to supply them. Ferdinand praises Prospero as "so rare a wond'red father, and a wise," where it would appear he means "wise one"; and in the lament of Claudius that "When sorrows come, they come not single spies, / But in battalions," where we will silently provide an "in" or "as" before "single spies." Shakespeare will also invert the normally expected order of words to produce the poetic effect, as when Othello, gazing on the sleeping Desdemona, vows that he will not "scar that whiter skin of hers than snow." More examples could be cited, but these few will alert playgoers that poetic passages will often depart from the patterns of everyday speech. Again, all of these devices are employed to sustain the meter and the pentameter line.
In a sense, our enjoyment of the rhythm of poetry arises from the seemingly contradictory experience of knowing it's there but remaining largely unaware of it. An actor speaking the lines must take care to avoid drawing attention to the meter by too heavy an emphasis or a singsong, nursery-rhyme delivery. If the rhythm is too obvious, the effect is lost. Ideally it should be felt rather than heard, escaping conscious notice and vibrating on the natural pulses of our being.
Excerpted from HOW TO ENJOY SHAKESPEARE by Robert Thomas Fallon Copyright © 2005 by Robert Thomas Fallon.
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