Blank Verse in William Shakespeare ' s Plays

At various times throughout my life I have had the good fortune to view, participate in, and even direct plays by William Shakespeare (or whoever wrote them, but that's another topic entirely). These plays have a well known little problem, the language. Early on I thought I had this little problem licked; I decided to read the lines as though they were simply written in prose. In other words, run all the lines together. The rule I made was simple, if you did have to pause anywhere (since actors sometimes do have to breathe), do it anywhere but at the end of one of those lines of verse.

Unfortunately this technique saw me through the performance of a few different plays and the reading of several others.

But often as we get older we start to realize the original way of doing something might actually be the right way, so I studied how to "do verse" when an opportunity to direct "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" came my way.

What I learned about Shakespeare's iambic pentameter lines, also called "blank verse", revolutionized my understanding and appreciation of the form. The metered language isn't even supposed to sound like natural speech, it is heightened language, but here's the kicker, if you let the blank verse do its job and you simply go with the duh-Duh, duh-Duh, duh-Duh, duh-Duh, duh-Duh (or whatever the established pattern may be) the language is actually easier for the listener to understand. I'm not just talking about the meaning of the words, but actually being able to hear what the speaker is saying.

I've been to many performances of Shakespeare where the actors adopted my early methods and tried to speak "naturally". As the listener you're not only struggling with the language but you're also struggling to even understand what words are being spoken. Turns out iambic pentameter carries well through the theatre, much better than the typical blasts and burps of words we often hear at performances of Shakespeare.

Not only that, but if you know you have five feet in a line it's a great memory aid. For example, in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" Proteus can hardly say anything without getting quite wordy. I don't know if I could have ever learned all his lines without an understanding of blank verse.

Antony's famous speech from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" is written in blank verse, with five feet in each line (a foot is one duh-Duh). If you come across a line which seems to have more or less than five, you probably need to adjust your pronunciation. For example, "ambitious" is pronounced with four syllables and not three like we use today, and "interred" has three syllables as well. But if you allow the form to flow, without fighting the rhythms, not only is it easier to hear the lines, but you begin to hear Shakespeare's own acting directions, like which word is stressed and therefore important; often the stresses in a line can change or at least clarify the meaning.

The stress given to the word "ambitious" throughout the speech, both by the number of syllables and the frequency of repetition, is underscored by the rhythm. We see this is a speech about ambition, but not necessarily about the ambition of Caesar. Because it is stressed, and repeated, then followed by "Yet Brutus is an honorable man" we get the idea Antony might actually be saying Brutus was the ambitious one, and not Caesar.

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