Speech Study: Gower, opening chorus

The play-opening chorus of Pericles, spoken by Gower, runs 42 lines, mostly in iambic tetrameter. Those are four-foot lines, as opposed to the five-foot iambic pentameter we’re used to hearing come from Shakespeare; of course, the historical Gower wrote in tetrameter, so it fits.

The speech in interesting as it introduces the play and Gower…but not Pericles. He’s not mentioned a single time in the speech, one that spends almost its entire length on Antioch and Antiochus.

And that’s not the only weirdness in the speech…

Forty-two lines. It would be nice to say we’re dealing with 21 couplets, but that’s not the case. Clear rhyming couplets don’t begin until lines 7-8. It could be argued that 1-2 and 3-4 are rhymes (sung/come, infirmities/eyes, respectively), but it feels like a stretch; and lines 5-6 aren’t even close (festivals/days).

Then, just as we’re settling into rhyme, lines 9-10 jump out as obvious pentameter. It’s wonderfully stand-alone, in that the two lines comprise a complete sentence on their own. They rhyme, even as the second line is in Latin–roughly translated as “the older a good thing is, the better it is”… could this be something “meta,” with Shakespeare making a commentary about old Gower’s good poetry (of tetrameter), in Shakespeare’s own pentameter? I’d like to say that, but critical opinion is that these first two acts are the work of Wilkins. Honestly, though, I’m waiting for my copy of the New Oxford Shakespeare to arrive…and I’m hoping they’re going to have more granular breakdowns as to who wrote what and where [and I just looked at my account at the Oxford University Press, and they’ve delayed the publication of the Reference Edition AGAIN…now to May; the Authorship Companion, though, is looking like the end of next month…].

We go back to tetrameter couplets, then we get another pentameter couplet at 17-8, only this one isn’t stand-alone, but rather the beginning of a longer sentence; then as if noticing the metrical deviation, we get an awkward rhyme deviation (if it’s one at all) in 19-20 in Syria/say.

Again, we get back to tetrameter couplets, then in line 27, we get a single pentameter line (even though it’s the first of a rhymed couplet, with the second line tetrameter).

And the chorus is capped off with a pentameter couplet in lines 41-2.

The speech is kind of a mess.

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