Monday, September 26, 2005

I have drunk and seen the spider

A "Shakespeare Meme" is spreading from blog-to-blog. If you see someone quoting Shakespeare on their blog, you're supposed to follow suit and quote him on yours. So I present the following -- one of my favorite speeches. It's from "The Winter's Tale," Act II, Scene I. The speaker, Leontes, believes that his wife has betrayed him and he is about to seek vengence:

1. How blest am I
2. In my just censure, in my true opinion!
3. Alack, for lesser knowledge! how accursed
4. In being so blest! There may be in the cup
5. A spider steep'd, and one may drink, depart,
6. And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
7. Is not infected: but if one present
8. The abhorr'd ingredient to his eye, make known
9. How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
10. With violent hefts. I have drunk,
11. and seen the spider.

In lines 1 and 2, Leontes notes that if you have to punish someone, it's good to know that you are dishing out fair punishment: How blest am I / in my just censure, in my true opinion!

But then suddenly he wishes he didn't know so many facts about the situation: Alack, for lesser knowledge!

Though he is blessed (in being a just punisher), he knows he is also cursed: how accursed / In being so blest!

Using the great metaphor of the speech, Leontes explains that buried within a cup of wine, there might be a poisonous spider: There may be in a cup / A spider steep'd. This poisonous spider, which is hidden by the murky liquid, is like the poisonous knowledge hidden inside Leontes' brain -- the knowledge that his wife was unfaithful to him. If only he didn't know about it! …and one may drink, depart,/ and yet partake no venom, for his knowledge / Is not infected. What we don't know won't hurt us.

…but if one present / The abhorr'd ingredient to the eye… If you show the drinker the spider, and if you tell him about the poison he has drunk (make known / How he hath drunk), he is doomed. …he cracks his gorge, his sides, / With violent hefts.

Finally, Leontes quits describing a general drinker and makes the metaphor personal: I have drunk, / and seen the spider.

Now, lets have a look at the rhythm. As many people know, Shakespeare's standard is iambic pentameter: ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM (Oh WHAT a ROGUE and PEASant SLAVE am I…) After setting this up, he often breaks from it for effect (to BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUEST… ion). Here's the breakdown for Leontes' speech:


1. How BLEST am I [ta DUM ta DUM ta DUM]
2. In MY just CENsure, IN my TRUE opIN … ion!
3. ALACK, for lesSER knowLEDGE! HOW acCURSED
4. In BEing so BLEST! There MAY be IN the CUP
5. A SPIDder STEEP'D, and ONE may DRINK, dePART, [REGULAR]
6. And YET parTAKE no VENom, FOR his KNOW … ledge
7. Is NOT inFECTed: BUT if ONE preSENT [REGULAR]
8. The abHORR'D inGREDient TO his EYE, make KNOWN
9. How HE hath DRUNK, he CRACKS his GORGE, his SIDES, [REGULAR]
10. With VIolent HEFTS. I have DRUNK, [ta DUM ta DUM]
11. and SEEN the SPIDer. [DUM ta DUM ta DUM]

The speech, like Leontes' broiling mind, is disordered and irregular. But in the middle, it calms somewhat. Leontes is able to collect his thoughts when he comes up with the spider metaphor. Though it doesn’t make his situation better, it makes it a little clearer.

How should this speech be played? When one actor is speaking to another, he is always trying to persuade the other actor to do something. Actors speak of having "goals", "intentions" or "actions," by which they are referring to what their character is trying to convince the other character (or characters) to do: The ghost may be trying to convince Hamlet to avenge his death; Lady Macbeth may be trying to convince her husband to murder the king. Dramatic conflict ensues when these goals are met with obstacles: Hamlet and Macbeth are reluctant to commit murder.

But Leontes is talking to himself. Such speeches are still most affective when tied to an actor. So the actor must try to convince HIMSELF of something. This implies that a part of him isn't (initially) convinced. Which is the obstacle. The actor needs to clarify these two parts of himself (the convincer and the unconvinced) and let them wage war on stage.

=== PERSONALITY A === (Action: convince B that we are blessed)
1. How blest am I
2. In my just censure, in my true opinion!

=== PERSONALITY B === (Obstacle: no, we are cursed!)
3. Alack, for lesser knowledge! how accursed
4. In being so blest!

=== PERSONALITY A === (Explains to B that what you don't know can't hurt you.)
There may be in the cup
5. A spider steep'd, and one may drink, depart,
6. And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
7. Is not infected:

=== PERSONALITY B === (Explains to A that what you DO know CAN hurt you)
but if one present
8. The abhorr'd ingredient to his eye, make known
9. How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
10. With violent hefts.

=== PERSONALITY A == (realizing the awful truth that B is right…)
I have drunk,
11. and seen the spider.

1 comment:

rich, adelaide, australia said...

thank you for your little analysis on this quote i was looking for. the iambic pentameters jumped out at me from a recent movie or tv show but i can no longer recall the exact program. this was far more satisfying to read than simply getting the text from a shakespearian concordance.