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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: December ::
Re: Iambic Pentameter
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.2233  Tuesday, 5 December 2000

[1]     From:   David Lindley <
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        Date:   Monday, 4 Dec 2000 17:01:01 GMT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

[2]     From:   Ronald Dwelle <
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        Date:   Monday, 4 Dec 2000 13:36:31 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

[3]     From:   Robert Peters <
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        Date:   Monday, 04 Dec 2000 19:40:57 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

[4]     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Monday, 04 Dec 2000 10:48:21 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

[5]     From:   Charles Weinstein <
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        Date:   Monday, 4 Dec 2000 21:07:51 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

[6]     From:   Peter Groves <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 5 Dec 2000 17:03:05 +1100
        Subj:   Re SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Lindley <
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Date:           Monday, 4 Dec 2000 17:01:01 GMT
Subject: 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

I personally still think that Derek Attridge, in The Rhythms of English
Poetry, did us all a service by suggesting that counting feet is not the
only, nor necessarily the best way of thinking about English verse.

David Lindley

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ronald Dwelle <
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Date:           Monday, 4 Dec 2000 13:36:31 -0500
Subject: 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

I don't think it's a "listener" thing but rather an "actor-listener"
thing.  If the actor can perform the blank verse, the audience will hear
it. If--as so often happens--the actor is only semi-competent at
delivering the blank verse in a natural way, it's unlikely any listener
will make the kind of distinctions you are talking about.

Ron Dwelle

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Peters <
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Date:           Monday, 04 Dec 2000 19:40:57 +0100
Subject: 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

I think when listening our ability to hear verses depends highly on the
ability of the actors and actresses to speak verses - an ability which
seems doomed to be extinct soon.

Have a Schubert kind of day,
Robert Peters

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[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Monday, 04 Dec 2000 10:48:21 +0000
Subject: 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

Dear Werner Bronniman,

This is a very interesting question. I think that iambic pentameter
arose originally when the English poets were struggling to find a meter
appropriate to English in the same way that the hexameter was
appropriate to Latin. Gabriel Harvey and others tried to bring the
hexameter over from Latin, but it wasn't appropriate. I am interested to
hear from others on who, besides Shakespeare, helped to solidify iambic
pentameter as the best meter?

I have seen young people, when rehearsing Shakespeare, sometimes fall
into iambic pentameter while speaking to each other in what would
otherwise be ordinary conversation, much to their delight.

We have also been able to take the business and personal letters of a
poet from the period and, by arranging the sentences according to the
stresses, turn them into iambic pentameter. It seems that this poet may
have conditioned himself to writing in pentameter and carried it into
his less exalted correspondence, perhaps even into his conversation.

Did this meter emerge from the nature of the English language? Or did
the poets of the English Renaissance force it on the language?

Stephanie Hughes

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Charles Weinstein <
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Date:           Monday, 4 Dec 2000 21:07:51 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

I've been waiting for a sane, skeptical comment on the value of iambic
pentameter in the theater, and Mr. Bronnimaman's post provides one.  I
am a Shakespearean actor, director and dramaturg. I graduated from
Harvard with a degree in English literature, where I concentrated on
Elizabethan poetry (my thesis was on Spenser).  During the past thirty
years, I've seen more Shakespearean productions on both sides of the
Atlantic than I can easily tally.  I collect Shakespearean recordings
and videos: I've directed Hamlet and The Winter's Tale: I've played
(among others) Jaques, Proteus, Puck, Polonius and the Duke in Measure
for Measure; I revere Gielgud, Olivier et al----and I think that iambic
pentameter is all but inoperative in the acting and auditing of
Shakespearean drama. You can't hear it; it doesn't exist; not even as a
submerged or ghostly undertone that the audience supposedly registers
viscerally.

Let's start with a simple proposition.  There is no such thing as
aurally-discernible pentameter unless the actor pauses audibly at the
end of every line, even where the syntax requires enjambment.
Unfortunately, the aesthetic results of such end-stopping are invariably
deleterious.  Listen to any Peter Hall production and you'll know what I
mean.  The enforced end-stopping results either in staccato jerkiness,
or in an even, stately tempo that destroys propulsion, energy,
variation, dynamics.  I could go on and on about the disasters wrought
by actors who fail to enjamb when Shakespeare does; but perhaps an
appeal to acting authority will serve to prove my point. Gielgud is, by
common consent, the greatest Shakespearean verse-actor of this century.
Yet Gielgud never end-stopped--that is, he never paused audibly at the
end of a pentameter line unless the syntax and sense required it.  By
his own acknowledgement he phrased, not by the line, but but the larger
grammatical units of sentences and clauses. If the syntax poured, flowed
or rushed  into the next line, Gielgud poured, flowed and rushed with
it. You simply cannot make out where a line begins and ends when
listening to Gielgud:  from his lips a single breath or phrase may have
an innumerable number of beats, which will not match the number of beats
in the previous or succeeding breath or phrase. What that means, of
course, is that pentameter cannot be discerned in Gielgud's delivery.
(And If our greatest speaker of Shakespeare did not end-stop, who are
pedagogues like Peter Hall to tell contemporary actors that they must do
so?)

Well then, is a steady iambic cadence audible?  Forget for a moment that
the mature Shakespeare wrote blank verse of such astonishing freedom
that it often doesn't read like blank verse even on the page.  Take a
perfectly regular iambic line.  In my experience the variations in
speed, pitch and tone and the naturally different time-values given to
individual "notes" or decibels--all the normal things that occur in
performing (as opposed to reciting) a line-- so affect the metrical
cadence that one simply cannot hear a steady iambic pulse.  It would be
easier to demonstrate this with an audio recording, and resorting to
transcriptions of the "Da-DUM Da-DUM" kind would be risible.  I will
simply say, for the moment, that so much happens when a line is voiced
and acted that any hope of preserving audible iambic regularity is
destroyed.  Again and again we are told by academic prosodists that it
must be there.  But it isn't.

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Peter Groves <
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Date:           Tuesday, 5 Dec 2000 17:03:05 +1100
Subject: 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter
Comment:        Re SHK 11.2229 Iambic Pentameter

Werner Br

 

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