Sunday, August 15, 2010

to BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUEST ion

I don't think that reading Shakespeare in strict iambic stress patterns is really the best way to communicate his language. -- post on a web forum.

Sorry to harp on this, but it's sticking in my craw. Which is because I'm a Shakespeare geek. Here's what I think is true: lecturing people (e.g. in a class) about iambic pentameter is not (generally) the best way to make people (especially newbies) like Shakespeare. By God, there's so much more accessible stuff! Sex, violence, amazing characters, exciting plots, beautiful words and phrases...

But I utterly reject this idea that if you speak the verse using the rhythmic plans Elizabethan poets used and intended, it sounds stilted an unnatural. I claim the exact opposite. So this may be a technical point, only worthwhile for actors and orators to think about, but it's true nonetheless. If you've heard stilted performances (who hasn't?), that's not because the actors were being too metrical. It's because they were doing something else wrong.

Sticking to the meter doesn't mean POUNDING it. We all stress certain syllables when we speak and leave others relatively unstressed. But that DOESn't MEAN we SPEAK like THIS. We don't say everything like Alec Baldwin in "Glen Gary Glenn Ross" when he says "PUT the COFFee cup DOWN." But we still stress some syllables more than others.

I just scanned the famous "to be or not to be" speech. I did it by the book. You'll see my attempt below. (Note: in that attempted, i DID use CAPS like THIS, which SEEMS like GOing OVerBOARD. But that's just because I have to somehow indicate stress here using typed characters alone. What I'm trying to convey is SLIGHT differences -- not pounded, shouted ones. For instance, if you say "always" using a standard American accent, you say ALways and never allWAYS.)

Here's what's interesting. After scanning the text for stressed and unstressed syllables, I watched David Tennant perform it.

I hope you agree with me that, whether or not you like his performance, that he doesn't sound stilted. If you're not looking for it, or if you're not trained in it, you probably can't even tell he's speaking metered verse. He sounds very natural -- just like he's talking using whatever rhythm he wants.

He's not. He's being ABSOLUTELY technically accurate. I was surprised and pleased to find that his interpretation matched mine EXACTLY! But I shouldn't have been surprised, because that IS the natural way to speak the verse.

Again, I would suggest he sounds natural and unstilted BECAUSE he's sticking to the blank-verse rhythm. If he tried to play against it, he would sound really odd. This isn't always the case. There are lines here and there you can play with without anyone (except a scholar) noticing. But if you stray too far from the rhythm, I promise you it will sound odd. It will sound like singing notes off key. When you don't notice it, that means it's working.

Here are a few notes for people who are new to blank-verse (a.k.a. iambic pentameter).

Standard blank verse is made up of five pairs of two syllable words, e.g.

In sooth I know not why I am so sad. (Opening line of "Merchant of Venice.")

1. In sooth
2. I know
3. not why
4. I am
5. so sad

in sooth | i know | not why | i am | so sad

Each two-syllable pair is called a "foot," so a standard line has five feet.

Standard feet stress the second syllable more than the first:

in SOOTH | i KNOWN | not WHY | i AM | so SAD

Don't try to force it. Just say the line naturally, and, if you're like most people, you'll find that without trying, you naturally stress it that way (remember, my caps are just meant to illustrate SLIGHT differences in stress -- not that you should shout or pound every other syllable.)

That's the basic rhythm, and it's sometimes called tee-TUM, tee-TUM, tee-TUM, tee-TUM, tee-TUM.

A main part of the fun is that Shakespeare and his contemporaries set up that rhythm and then vary from it. They stray away from it and then circle back to it, like jazz musicians flirting and improvising around a melody. And they generally don't stray from it any old way. They stray from it in very specific, formalized ways.

The most common stray is the "feminine ending," which adds and extra (unstressed) syllable onto the end of the line. E.g.

1. In sooth
2. I know
3. not why
4. I am
5. so sad
6. now

in SOOTH | i KNOWN | not WHY | i AM | so SAD | now

In fact, the opening line of the "Hamlet" speech -- and many of the subsequent lines in that speech -- have feminine endings:

1. to be
2. or not
3. to be
4. that is
5. the quest
6. ion

Actors often interpret feminine endings as less confident or more ruminative than masculine ones (sorry, sounds sexist -- don't shoot the messenger). This certainly makes sense in a speech like this, in which Hamlet is trying to work out something really complicated and painful. It's not an easy, confident speech for him.

Other recognized variations are "trochees" and "pyrrhic feet." A trochee is the exact opposite of a normal iambic foot. Instead of tee-TUM, it's TEE-tum. Instead of unstressed-STRESSED, it's STRESSED-unstressed. You most often find trochees, when you find them, as the first foot of a line:

Now is the winter of our discontent. (Opening line of "Richard |||")

It's more natural to start with "NOW is" than "now IS," right? Try saying it (the whole line) a few times and see if you agree.

Pyrrhic feet are feet where both syllables are unstressed:

My father is a man who loves to cook. (I made that one up. Like it?)

my FA | ther is | a MAN | who LOVES | to COOK.

Probably, most speakers won't stress either word more than the other in that second foot ("ther is").

Let me be really clear and say that there isn't a RIGHT way to scan a line. There are ways that most people (who have experience scanning) will feel are more right than others. Pretty much no one is going to accept "IN sooth *I* know NOT why *I* am SO sad." I find that hard to even say.

Other lines are open to debate -- and different actors will stress different syllables without breaking the meter. But it's a matter of degree. Those actors (if they are skilled and if they sound natural) are not totally dispensing of the meter, and they are not straying far from it. And they UNDERSTAND the meter, so when they choose to stray from it, they are making an informed, bold, conscious choice.

Finally, I'll mention that a trained classical actor scans all his lines, makes sure he understands the meter, talks over any difficult rhythms with his director or fellow actors, makes decisions about how to scan ambiguous lines... and then lets it go.

No one (if they want to sound natural) counts out the syllables as he's speaking them on stage. That's stuff for homework -- for early in rehearsal. By the time the play opens, the rhythm is in the actor's gut (hopefully), and he can just think about the juicy character/emotional stuff and feel totally confident that his preparation will make the rhythm take care of itself -- and that they rhythm, WHILE it takes care of itself, will HELP him sound natural and help him find the emotional power of the verse.

(And, by the way, almost every actor I've ever met has said that scanning greatly helps him learn his lines, and that verse plays are much easier to memorize than prose ones.)

Here's my scan. Try reading it once by yourself and then reading it while listening to Tennant.

to BE | or NOT | to BE | that IS | the QUEST | ion: [feminine ending]
WHETH er [trochee]| 'tis NOB | ler in [pyrrhic ]| the MIND | to SUF | fer [fem end]
the SLINGS | and ARR | ows of [pyrrhic] | out RAGE | 'ous FOR | tune, [fem end]
or to [pyrrhic] | take ARMS agAINST | a SEA | of TROUB | les [fem end]
and, by [pyrrhic] | op POS | ing, END | them. [beat] | to DIE | to SLEEP
no MORE | and by [pyrrhic] | a SLEEP | to SAY | we END
the HEART | ache and [pyrrhic] | the THOUS | and NAT| [chral] ["natural" pronounced as two syllables.] SHOCKS
that FLESH | is HEIR | to – ‘TIS | a CON | sum MAT | ion [fem ending]
de VOUT | ly to [pyrrhic] | be WISHED. | to DIE, | to SLEEP
to SLEEP,| per CHANCE | to DREAM. | ay, THERE'S | the RUB,
for in [pyrrhic]| that SLEEP | of DEATH | what DREAMS | may COME,
when WE | have SHUFF | led OFF this MOR | tal COIL,
must GIVE | us PAUSE. | [ beat] [beat] | THERE'S the [trochee] | re SPECT [difficult like -- just a guess/metrical interpretation]
that MAKES | ca LAM | i TY | of SO | long LIFE.


Duane said...

Hi There.

Just stopping by to introduce myself, since you call yourself a Shakespeare geek, because I run a site of my own called where you'd probably have a grand old time :).

Have you by chance seen Playing Shakespeare (with John Barton) yet? I think you'd quite enjoy it. Imagine an entire segment where a young Ian McKellan does your "I know not why I am so sad" line a dozen different times for his director, each time to a different emotional response. It's quite an amazing demonstration of how you can simultaneously respect the verse and still have the freedom to interpret the line in as many ways as you can imagine.

More recently we've been discussing the third season of Slings and Arrows, where their Lear goes off on an absolutely beautiful rant about how the younger actors are unable to respect to verse in the way that he wants them to. Must see tv.

Marcus said...

Thanks for letting me know about your site, Duane. I will definitely check it out. Sounds right up my alley.

I am a big fan of both "Playing Shakespeare" and "Slings and Arrows."

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