English 431B: Advanced Shakespeare

A survey of the works from the second half of William Shakespeare's career

Notes from Jan. 19, 2012

The way Shakespeare’s characters speak on stage

• His language is in verse/poetry written in meter

* Meter: Recurrence in a line of poetry of a regular rhythmic unit

• Stressed vs. unstressed

* i.e. constitution |ˌkänstəˈt(y)oō sh ən|

• Poetic feet:

* u      ´      u          ´        u         ´       u       ´  u        ´
It     is    the    show   and   seal   of   nature’s truth (Act 1, Scene 3)

  • Iambic pentameter, unstressed/unaccented syllable followed by stressed/accented syllable
  • Iamb – a poetic foot
  • Pentameter – five feet

Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter in ALL of his plays, but not all language in plays are not iambic pentameter.

All plays are in iambic pentameter because first playwright who wrote in iambic pentameter, Christopher Marlowe, (Tamburlaine the Great,” 1587) was a huge success. He also shortened the length of the feet in a line.

Prior to this, couplets and rhyming was most typical style.

Shakespeare primarily uses blank verse – or unrhymed language.

14 syllables were used before Shakespeare, which made it hard for actors to get out their lines. 10 syllables were much easier to speak, so they took president.

Blank verse establishes a norm in the script and therefore on the stage.

Not every line in Shakespeare is a 10 syllables long, some are shorter.

Act 1, Scene 3; Line 251

Helena: “By such a day, an hour” (six syllables)

Countess: “Dost thou believe’t?” (four syllables)

Dividing of 10 syllables is meant for one speech to not be followed by a significant pause of another person.

Plays ran shorter in Shakespeare’s day, and today they drag it out because audiences may have trouble with the language.

• Act 1 Scene 2, line 51 +

• Act 1 Scene 3, line 130 +

End-stopped lines: when the actor gets to the end of a line, the thought that’s being expressed is complete.

Semicolon: Indicative a very short pause on the part of an actor

Enjambment: a run-on line, actor/reader has to read onto the next line to get the meaning of the thought.

Shakespeare chooses enjambed vs. end-stopped for different effects.

Punctuation exist within a line, can and often do signify a brief pause. The length of the pause depends on the punctuation marks.

Caesura: pause within a line, as opposed to at the end of a line

Shakespeare writes mostly in meter

In 1590s he writes exclusively in meter. Later on he begins to experiment by using more prose.

• Act 1 Scene 1, Line 160 +

Remembrance of dead count, sadness of Helena losing her father, and sadness over Bertram leaving for France.

Parolles’ character signals a shift in “gears” mood…

Prose: the is no capitalization of every line

Poetry: the first letter of every line will be capitalized

Shakespeare shifts from prose to poetry typically with a purpose

Dramatic pause: at a clause and the end of a sentence

Actors often view verse/blank verse as a “threat.” But it is full of hints, stage direction in short-hand.

Shakespeare was an actor and his verse is to help his fellow actors.

Several members of the Royal Shakespeare Co. say verse makes acting easier.

Helena’s speech (1.1 line 85 +) focuses on hopeless of her love, not passion

Even speaking soliloquies, she is guarded in her speech.

Helena (1.1 Line 223 +) use of couplets helps create a pithy quality to her speech

Sound like axioms, proverbs/wise sayings

Beneath those sayings, there is an emotional turmoil

Is Helena trying to distance herself from sexual desire?

Helena uses an unusually large amount of negative words/phrases

Helena doesn’t want the countess to call her “daughter” because she wants to marry him. Her speech to the countess that indicates the possibility of a future marriage between Helena and Bertram.

Helena defines herself based on the process of exclusion, she lists all she cannot do. (Negative Nancy or rather Hopeless Helena).

Consistent rhymes i.e. 2.1 line 150 + should raise red-flags, five couplets. Why is Shakespeare using rhyme so closely together in this speech. Many people believe in divine intervention (presuming God’s providence).

Major theme: Divide between human free-will and supernatural power.

Boccaccio: “Decameron” is not interested in divinity – Shakespeare is.

Helena’s speech content v. style (content very complex, style very neat). Helena is confident enough to make things happen, but is also subject to reservations like Hamlet.

Never mentions physical passion in soliloquies.

Language is character in Shakespeare and vice versa, inextricably connected.


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