THAT Discussion (or, The King of Repurposing Strikes Again!)

OK, this is a distillation of the presentation I gave to Kyle’s seventh grade English class a couple of years back, entitled “Shakespearean Verse…Scansion: The Audience’s Meaning and the Actor’s Guide”

For Shakespearean study, language is the key.  WHY?

  • No (or very limited) stage sets
  • No (or very few) stage directions in the text
  • No (or very limited) special effects
  • No (or very limited) stage sets
  • No (or very few) stage directions in the text
  • No (or very limited) special effects

All of this information must be conveyed through LANGUAGE

The Shakespearean vocabulary is HUGE!  Depending on your source, Shakespeare used between 17 and 26 THOUSAND different words in his plays and poems, and he is said to have “invented” over 1700 words, including:

  • arouse
  • bet
  • eyeball
  • lonely
  • obscene
  • puking
  • swagger
  • torture

So with all this language (and so few visual items), listening was crucial.  Think about it, Who attends a play? An audience.  What is the root of that word? Latin: audientia… to hear

Now on the other side of the equation from the audience is the actor.  And the actor has a couple of issues:

  • At the deepest level: what am I saying?  and what am I feeling?
  • On the simplest level: How do I remember all those lines?

The character of Hamlet has over 1500 lines, over one-third of the lines in the play.  That’s a lot of lines… is there any easier way?  Let’s look for some help here… Is it easier to remember a paragraph or the words to a song?  (try memorizing the Declaration of Independence… then try memorizing the latest Eminem track, and you’ll get clued into the answer quickly enough).

Songs have rhythm… so do poems.  Reading a poem for its rhythm and meter is called “scansion”

Feet and Meter

A poetic “foot” is a multi-syllable “chunk” of the poetic line that has a particular order of stress

  • iamb: unstressed followed by stressed.
    • Examples: aRISE, aGAINST, reSPECT
  • trochee: stressed followed by unstressed.
    • Examples: WINdow, NOthing, TWINkle, FORtune
  • Other feet: spondee, anapest, dactyl… and more

“Meter” refers to the number of “feet” in a line of poetry.

  • One foot: Monometer
  • Two feet: Dimeter
  • Three feet: Trimeter
  • Four feet: Tetrameter
  • Five feet: Pentameter

Blank Verse

Shakespeare wrote many of his plays in what is called “blank verse”… unrhymed iambic pentameter.  Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter as well, but with a very specific rhyme scheme.

So if iambic pentameter is Shakespeare’s “go to” meter, how many syllables per line?  Ten.

Think of an iambic line as the sound of the human heart: iambic pentameter: five unstressed/stressed feet per line…ten syllables per line
baBUM baBUM baBUM baBUM baBUM

[at this point, I’d call for ten volunteers, five of whom I’d have bring up their chairs… I’d set them up in a line facing the class, alternating between students 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 all seated, and students 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 all standing, so the class could see the visual look of the iambic pentameter line… we first started with just that heart beat sound, with the standing students emphasizing their BUMs after the seated students murmured their BAs…and then we did some examples]

Let’s take a look at two examples, two of the most famous scenes in Shakespeare:

  • The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet
  • Hamlet’s soliloquy (dramatic monologue)

[here, I passed out handouts to the class and the syllable-kids with the two excerpts printed on them, and went over how to mark up the sheets]
Graphic symbols:

~ = an unaccented syllable
\ = an accented syllable
_ = a caesura, or metrical pause

Ex. 1: Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet
, Act II, Scene ii (3-26)

ROMEO
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold, 'tis not to me she speaks:

See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
JULIET                   Ay me!
ROMEO                 She speaks:

Now let’s scan it…

ROMEO
~     \     ~    \      ~     \  ~   \  ~    \
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
\   ~  ~   \     ~   \  ~   \  ~   \
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

That first line is a regular iambic pentameter line.  But look at the second line… it begins not with an unaccented (iambic) syllable, but a stressed one-a trochee foot.  Then take a look at Juliet’s name.  For the meter to work, for there to be the right number of syllables, her name must NOT be pronounced “JU-lee-ET” but rather “JUL-yet” with the last two syllables slurred as one… symbolically, just the thought, the mention of his love’s name speeds up her heart.

Now, look at the stressed words:  they tell the story:
Soft! Light breakseast, Jul (jewel?) is sun.

Let’s continue…

~  \    ~    \    ~   \    ~  \   ~    \
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
\  ~  ~  \  ~  \    ~   \    ~     \
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
~    \   ~   \   ~    \   ~    \     ~   \
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
~  \   ~   \     ~     \  ~  \  ~ \
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
~   \  ~   \  ~  \   ~   \    ~    \
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
~   \    ~   \    ~   \   ~    \   ~  \
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

There’s some cool stuff happening here… in the first line, “envious” is slurred from three to two syllables (not “EN-vee-US” but “EN-vyus”)… that fits the meter, but in the fourth line Shakespeare to keep out the meter regular stretches out the same word to its usual three syllables.  Why? In the first line, Romeo is powering through the verse, but in line four, the word comes at the end of the line, and stretching it out makes the plea fuller, flirtier, sexier.  (don’t overlook what is happening at the end of line one and the trochee beginning of line two, two consecutive stressed syllables, each with a long vowel U sound…ooooooo, very sexy.)

Except for the three-to-two syllable slurring of “livery” in line five, it’s all pretty straight forward iambic pentameter.

OK, let’s take a break for now… we’ll finish this up tomorrow…

————————————————
UPDATE… After listening to the wonder Playing Shakespeare by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s John Barton, I’ve re-examined the scansion, and thus this change:

~   \  ~   \  ~  ~   \   \    ~    \
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
~   \    ~   \    \   ~   ~    \   ~  \
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

The change in that penultimate line makes it jumpier, unsure, as if he’s fighting for words, the right words to convince her… and he’s found it (thus, his “oooo, ooooo” repetition of “fools do” … ooooo, oooo, I’ve got it!

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