I am currently receiving training from my college-level conservatory about playing Shakespeare (as in opposed to reading Shakespeare--meaning I am taking an acting class rather than a literature class, just FYI).
Basically: HELP. There is a major logic leap our intructor is making between truly understanding how the poetry "works" and "owning it" theatrically. The words still just look like a sea of thees and thous.
Truly, Madly, Sincerely,
Ya know, sometimes we get find ourselves in a class where the teacher assumes we know the basics. That stinks. (This has happened to me countless times as a student as well as in life, and that is why as a teacher, I always teach things that seem mind-numbingly obvious, but actually are not--How to Actually Read a Play, How to Rehearse, How to fill out your Tax forms, etc.)
Reader: do not freak the eff out: I GOT YOU.
Chances are, if you graduated from high school, you've probably had one of Shakespeare's plays in your hot little hands at some point in time.
- Ya know the one about the rich-horny-teen-couple-whose-parents-super-duper-hate-eachother?
- Or the one about the camping trip with a double-date-gone-wrong? Plus psychedelic drugs. And fairies. And a donkey-man-person?
- Or about the emo-collge-drop-out-ghost-hunter from Denmark who is faced with a moral dilemma. He's crazy, but harmless (because nothing says "un-threatening" like "visibly deranged."). Oh! and his uncle killed his father so he could be king. And bang his mom.
Hell, if you were brave, you may even have cracked the spine open and, ya know, read a couple pages, sifting through those "thee"s and "thou"s like you were some kind of FBI codebreaker.
Ah Billy Shakes.
He was cool.
Widely regarded as the greatest writer in the history of the English language. - Whatevs.
His collective works consisted of 38 plays and 154 sonnets. - Casual.
And he never even attended university. (Take that, guidance counselors everywhere!) - No bigs.
Plus he married a woman named Anne Hathaway. - Seriously.
And was the original purveyor of The Dick Joke. - For reals.
He used big words. - Cool.
And he invented a gazillion words when there didn't seem to be enough. - Super cool.
But actually, once you figure out what the hell is going on, it's not only quite straightforward but it is readable; not to mention profoundly, bone-marrow-chillingly, genius. And reader, that is where we begin this lesson: let us assume that William Shakespeare was a Great Poet. That'll help prevent us from second-guessing him. Or, critically, ourselves.
Just in case you've never had the absolute basics on poetry read on, anon...
I give you: [drum roll]
The 'Al Silbs' Shakespearience:
A Basic Guide to Scansion for The Perplexed.
[::: balloon drop! :::]
So. What the hell is it?
SCANSION: Describing the rhythms of poetry by dividing the lines into feet, marking the locations of stressed and unstressed syllables, and counting the syllables.
Take note that we do so much writing nowadays on the internet, in which we are trying to convey our natural speaking styles. We are used to putting. periods. after. words. to indicate all those words have equal stress, or using italics or CAPS or bold to indicate stressed words. (I am guilty of loving this style myself). We see this all the time in modern scripts, essays, blogs and even on television. Shakespeare's scripts are only unusual to our eyes today because he did not utilize these "Interpretive Reading For Dummies" method—instead he utilized audible cues and clues inside blank verse, placing his stresses in the rhythm and meter.
Let's define those.
1. RHYTHM: the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. The rhythm of the line is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables over the course of the line or passage. It may be regular or irregular, which usually conveys information about the speaker and their feelings or motivations.
2. METER: the number of feet in a line.
Thus, when we describe the rhythm of a poem, we “scan” the poem and mark:
• the “stresses” indicated by a ( / )Then, we suss out the meter by counting the number of feet. And what are poetic “feet?” Simply,
• and absences of stress known as “un-stress” ( ^ )
a foot is a group of syllables.
- The purpose of all of this is to try to determine the regularity and irregularities of the iambic pentamenter, because even though 'iambic pentamenter' (I'll explain exactly what this means in detail in the next post) is the standard poetic structure, it is designed to be "broken" (from slightly to hugely) for artistic and theatrically practical reasons.
What you should do first:
- Speak the line like a normal human person, pronouncing words as you normally would.
- Mark your script to indicate which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed (this should be obvious: it is pronounced goodBYE and not GOODbye, right? Don't freak out).
- The marks over the syllables in your script (in pencil please) should look like this:^ = unstressed/ = stressed
- Try to determine what all of this indicates about the character's personality/emotional state.
Things to keep in mind:
- Remember to put a mark over every syllable.
- If you are having "trouble" with a line, go to proper names first and then any polysyllabic words and play around with pronunciation, see if you missed something.
- Keep in mind that by pronouncing a word differently, you may find different numbers of syllables in it, as in “diff-rent-ly” and “diff-er-ent-ly.” (I'll go into more detail about what is called elision and expansion in the next post). This is particularly true of proper names ("Hermia" can be "HER-mi-ah" or "HERM-ya").
This is art not science so try not to have a stroke about it.
Next up: Rhythm.