Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0619. Friday, 15 July 1994.
(1) From: Harry Hill <HILHAR@CONU2.BITNET>
Date: Thursday, 14 Jul 1994 21:58:32 -0500 (EST)
Subj: "Metrics"? The Thing Itself!
(2) From: Paul Hawkins <HAWK@CONU2.BITNET>
Date: Thursday, 14 Jul 1994 22:32:58 -0500 (EST)
From: Harry Hill <HILHAR@CONU2.BITNET>
Date: Thursday, 14 Jul 1994 21:58:32 -0500 (EST)
Subject: "Metrics"? The Thing Itself!
It is with amazement and pleasure in this time of post- colonial criticism
following hard upon a time of psychological interpretation that resulted from
new social perspectives, that I see posters speaking about actual lines, actual
readings, and what Hopkins might have called their gear, tackle, and trim:
their metres and rhythms, the life in them that makes them spring to explosive
This finest of Renaissance playwrights has passed the tests of greatness and
usefulness posited and refined by Horace and Longinus, has lasted and is still
discussed, read and played, not just because he retold good stories, created
and embellished memorable people, wrote some of the best poetry of his age,
addressed implicity, specifically, ambiguously or directly political issues of
the highest import, themes of domestic, spiritual, sexual and universal
magnitude and consequence, but because he did all of this almost every time he
wrote a play. Even from his start in the theatre.
The question that has been raised on SHAKSPER in roughly this way, "how strict
can we be when presented as an actor or an internal reader with lines the
structures of which have been written -- possibly corruptly transmitted as many
may be -- in unmistakably poetic/directorial/phonetic/rhythmical ways?"is a
question of most exciting and enlightening significance and worth.
I myself, as an actor, have had various experiences which have led me to
conclude that the richest and most spiritually useful thing we can do is to
absorb the lines as an interpreter of Brahms, Mozart, Stravinski, Scott Joplin
absorbs and consumes the exact rhythms, beats, textures and dynamic markings
either marked or implied and encouraged by those composers before he sits down
or stands up to play or sing them. Verse plays are not written to spoken by
prose actors. Those who would interpret them in the study or on the stage as if
they were prose translations --among such readers are the thematic critics, of
course, and often the political ones as well as the image-hunters,
indispensable and thoughtful though they frequently are -- are simply not
talking about the plays at all; certainly not as artistic artifacts, as they
may like to call them. It is as if, listening to Debussy's "Nuages", they were
to talk about cloud formations. It's gossip, talk, not criticism at its most
useful, which in my perhaps limited view is writing that helps us to read.
A distinguished colleague of mine has classed me as one who "whines about
anapests" rather than espouse causes. I admire this colleague a great deal
precisely because in his first book he showed, as he always does in
conversation, a fine knowledge of prosody and the effects great writing has on
the bone, or the back as Nabokov would have it. From the bones, from the
tingling in the spine, the effect works its way in the receptive reader or
audience out into the patterns of the heart in human behaviour. In Shakespeare,
indeed in all the fabulously successful playwrights, this effect begins in the
way the story is told by the people who experience it and express in the feel
of their words a "music" that makes us experience it too.
I think I told a story two months ago about the days when I could not afford to
turn a part down, and was acting with a touring Shakespeare company on the West
Coast of Canada, got to the first rehearsal ready to play Burgundy in Henry V
and was given the typed-out script. I hadn't read the play for a few years, got
to my bit, and found myself pausing in peculiar places and giving emphases that
were not indicated on the page. "Wait a minute!" I said. "Doesn't that line end
here?" "Look, Harry," said the director, "play for the feeling! Think of the
situation!" .....the very sad point is that the play had been typed out in
prose to save space and paper, and the director didn't care. At all. The care
with which the lines are shaped is not an obsession with interior decoration.
The words are not ornamental, but organic.
If we "go for the sense", "go for the feeling", we are going for an utterly
different sense and for a selfish and newly invented feeling. It is leftover
children of the sixties who read these plays as if they were written by
Macaulay or Enid Blyton. There is a disappointing dearth of plain poetic
sensibility around, and it's been around for so many years now that like the
new, like, use of "hopefully" it's become, like, part of our treatment of
language to ignore the most basic facts about the rhetorical and poetic
tradition in which these plays are firmly, loosely, humanely, beautifully
Yeah for those who are writing in on this thread while the thin spun life of
the plays is still with us.
From: Paul Hawkins <HAWK@CONU2.BITNET>
Date: Thursday, 14 Jul 1994 22:32:58 -0500 (EST)
When one suggests as part of a reading the placing of a stress, a part of the
argument in favour of the reading should, I think, involve metre and rhythm,
since they are the aspects of the text directly related to stress and its
placement. At the very least, one cannot be surprised when one's reading is
questioned in the light of the line's metre. I realize that the suggestion of
"I love *thee* not" was peripheral to Douglas Lanier's comments on
"woo'd/wood". But there it was, and I thought the problem raised some
interesting issues, like the above, about the importance of metre as an
Of course, Harry Hill was the first to make the point. Kurt Daw stated in his
excellent post that, metrically, many readings go but some don't. "What things
go and why" remains, to some extent, an open question.
I don't think metre prescribes *one* reading (my post suggested four distinct
possibilities--and they are not exhaustive), but I do think it eliminates some.
About interpretation generally, I suspect that any interpretation, even when it
does not directly posit a delivery of a line, presupposes one, and that that
delivery, as a rhythmic thing, has to be defensible in rhythmic terms. Metre
is only one determinant of rhythm, but it's the main one, and in fact is a
prime determinant of the meaning of a metrical verse poem or play, since it
shapes the relationships of the words that are there. Likewise, a rhythmic
interpretation has to be defensible in semantic terms, as do political,
historical, physchological interpretations. Whatever interpretative strategy
one employs, the reading generated can be countered by the application of other
Rhythm and metre open up multiple readings. Of the four readings of the line
that I suggested, I favour one for the reasons given, but entertain the others
as possible. No one has spoken about the middle foot of the line
("therefore"), which can be treated as a primary stress, a secondary stress, or
a pyrrhic iamb. Add those variations to the 4 readings, and one has 12
distinct readings--and we haven't even spoken about *other* aspects of the
sound of the line, the phonemes and ways of treating them. But just as rhythm
and metre open some readings up, they close others down. I don't think that
what I'm asserting about metre is different than what anyone would assert about
other aspects of the text--they can be read in many ways, but not in some.
This discussion strikes me as a little strange, because in Shakespeare as in
other poets there are abundant metrical ambiguities, such as one of Rick
Jones's examples, "that is the question": regularity or trochaic inversion of
the first foot quoted can both be effectively defended; "that is" could be
delivered as a spondee; and probably someone has unstressed *both* words and
said, "that is THE QUESTion." I can hear them all. And even the example from
MND is metrically ambiguous in that there are ranges of reading possible, but
not, I say, the stressing of "thee" and or "me" at the expense of the two
verbs. It violates utterly the sense of the line and all known norms of
metrical decency and rhythmic felicity.
Yes, it's a matter of taste; please let's not say, "it's all a matter of taste"
and end the discussion. Conflicting tastes should be disputed hotly. Without
passionate commitment to those things that one feels are essential to
passionate response to art, what on earth's a heaven for? Leaving personal
pronouns unstressed except for a particular reason, which this example doesn't
involve, is to me (pathetic as it sounds) one of those things.
But of course, the larger question is, do we feel constrained by metrical
verse, and so abandon it, asserting that stresses can at any time fall where we
want them to, metre and sense be damned, and so effectively rewrite Shakespeare
as prose--because when at any time we ignore the metre we turn the verse into
prose, whether or not the right margins remain jagged--or do we celebrate and
revel in the constraints, and through them find the freedom to mean and to be?
My earlier arguments in favour of *one* reading--a metrically regular one--of
the line are just that, arguments, not the last word. My argument against
*one* reading I don't think can be disputed (please prove me wrong if I am).
If critics cannot agree that metre does sometimes preclude *some* readings, and
most of the time guides a range of readings that can be "played within" by
critics minds and pens on the inner ear and by actors' voices on the audience's
ears, then metrical discussion is bound to be more difficult than I had earlier
imagined--and more vital a task for criticism.