At my school, we spend a lot of time teaching students, across both key stages, about the intricacies of poetic meter. A large amount of this time is concentrated specifically on Iambic Pentameter, the understanding of which is tested in all end of year exams, from year 8 onwards. (In Year 7 we only ask that students know the difference between verse and prose.) Increasingly, I am presented with evidence that this focus is paying off.
This week, a Year 10 student wrote this:
The audience would feel surprised at the witches’ aggressiveness. Unlike other characters in the play that speak in dignified iambic pentameter, the witches speak in trochaic trimeter with a masculine ending. The stressed beat that opens the witches’ chant makes them seem immediately violent…
Rearing its head alongside these moments of impressive sophistication is a misconception that I’ve only recently become aware of. This misconception is the idea that in Elizabethan or Jacobean England, everybody spoke like the characters in Shakespeare plays. That is to say, I have come across students who think that the poetic lexicon of Othello, Orsino, and Ophelia reflects the language of the farmers, merchants, thieves and vagabonds of 16th and 17th Century England.
In the blog that follows I have included some scripted analogies I used in an English lesson today in which I tried to dismantle this misconception and improve students’ understanding of not only the power of poetry, but also their understanding of Shakespeare as performance. (Warning: These analogies do make reference to rap music. I promise you, this is not done in an attempt to be down with the kids. Hopefully, that will become clear.)
So, today I told students:
In Shakespeare’s day, people that visited Shakespeare’s plays, did not speak like the actors on the stage. It’s like when I go to the cinema on a Thursday evening. I might watch a Hollywood action movie, but I don’t come in on Friday and teach all my lessons speaking in an American accent, using one-liners. Can you imagine? (The following is spoken in an American grizzle, Bruce Willis style)“Hey kids. Get out your books. Or…die.”
I then explained:
In fact, many people in Shakespeare’s audience would have had no better grasp of the language and words used by the actors on stage than you or I. The extent to which they understood would have depended, like it does with us today, on the individual’s level of education, vocabulary, and cultural awareness. Many people in Shakespeare’s audiences would have been far less educated than us, so actually it was likely the case that not only did the people in Shakespeare’s time not speak like Shakespeare’s characters, but they wouldn’t have understood it either.
Naturally, I went on:
However, although they may not have grasped all the words, they would have grasped some of them, just as you or I would. Also, they may well have been attuned to the rhythms of speech on stage. Changes of rhythm may have struck them as unusual, or as signifying an emotional change. Let me give you an example. Who knows the Eminem song, ‘Rap God’? Well, you know the ‘fast bit’ of that song? Where Eminem raps at rapid speed? (This can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbGs_qK2PQA at 4.26. Do not show to students) Well, when I listen to that song, I cannot hear the words Eminem is saying. But, I can clearly recognise a change in rhythm. A change in what has gone before, not only in that song, but in most of Eminem’s other work. And that change arrests my attention. It captivates me and it speaks to me. It tells me something. So, when the audience is watching a play that is written mostly in iambic pentameter, and then, all of a sudden, three old women come on stage speaking in trochaic tetrameter, that would capture the audience’s attention. It would mark these women out as different, otherworldly, aggressive or malevolent.
At this point a student asked me:
“So, you’re saying that people went to the theatre, just to hear the rhythm and not the actual words?”
Not fully. Of course, an understanding of words helps. But the rhythm counts for a lot too. It’s like when you hear a song for the first time and love it. What immediately arrests you is the rhythm. The way the song sounds. It’s only after this that you listen out for the words. You might not get all the words or phrasing, but you enjoy the song. Also, I don’t think you can underestimate the power of rhythm. Two of my favourite rappers are Notorious BIG and Tupac. However, if I could choose to listen to only one of them for the rest of my life, it would always be BIG, because I love the slow, lilting rhythm of his rap. (At this point I did a cringe-worthy rendition of one of the only swear-free verses I know of Biggie’s.)
I’m aware these scripted analogies are linked haphazardly here, but I’ve included them all as perhaps they could be used individually, as analogies to illuminate your own students’ understanding of the nuance of poetic meter on the Shakespeare stage.
Update: I asked the renowned Shakespearean actor and expert, Ben Crystal to read this blog and let me know how accurate I was in my assertions. This is his reply: