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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: June ::
Verse Speaking
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0350  Wednesday, 11 June 2008

From:       Felix de Villiers <
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Date:       Tuesday, 10 Jun 2008 10:40:01 +0200
Subject:    Verse Speaking

Verse speaking. Its value. Does it matter?

In tune with Shakespeare

"It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get the poems I'm going to read to 
you into verse, and that is why I will not read them as though they were prose," 
said Yeats before a recorded reading of his poems. (Available on Youtube: Yeats. 
Sailing to Byzantium), Before that he tells his audience that they may find his 
way of reading rather strange as he puts a great emphasis on the rhythm. The 
fact that he has to warn the audience shows that disenchantment was well on its 
way under the dictatorship of market values.

Of course Shakespeare cannot be read like Yeats whose poetry belongs to a 
different genre of lyricism. But Shakespeare did write in verse and his prose 
has a poetry of its own. It is the lack of sufficient sensitivity to his 
versification that bothers me in many performances of the plays. I think he 
intended his actors to be quite realistic, but they nevertheless move on another 
plane of reality. His blank verse does take a step in the direction of the 
spoken language, but it is definitely not identical with this. Richard II has 
whole arias in it, some of them rhymed. If I do not hear the pulse of iambic 
pentameter and the music of the words, the play is lost for me. On the other 
hand, over-emphasis would be disastrous. Actors may vary the speed, make pauses, 
but in a subtle way the pulse should always be there.

In this line from the first Sonnet, overemphasis of iambic pentameter would have 
an undesirable effect:

         His tender heir might bear his memory

An emphasis on 'bear' would create an unpleasant rhyme with 'heir,' if these 
words were pronounced as they are today. (May be someone can enlighten me). Here 
G.M. Hopkins' sprung rhythms come into play. Hopkins exploited them to a degree, 
but they are innate in the English language. The problem is solved if the voice 
passes very lightly over 'bear' aiming at 'memory' without losing the 
counterpoint of the underlying pulse. 'Bear' then becomes a light echo of 'heir' 
and the accent on the last y should be light too. Subtle variations in speed and 
rhythm are the glories of English literature for Edith Sitwell: "How faint they 
are, yet how significant - faint as the little air which comes to us from the 
feathers of a swan's wings as he floats upon the lake. How slight and how subtle 
are the changes of speed, or the depth, due to the difference in texture.." 
(Duckworth 1930)

In "A Notebook on William Shakespeare" (Macmillan 1962) Sitwell explores many of 
the poet's subtleties in versification. She describes the long, stately and 
inexorable march of the Macbeths into doom:

Macbeth: I have done the deed: Didst thou not hear a noyse?

Lady Macbeth:    I heard the owle screame and the crickets cry.
                           Did you not speake?

Macbeth:                               When?

Lady Macbeth:                                   Now.

Macbeth:                                                    As I descended?

Lady Macbeth:  Aye.

Macbeth:           Hearke!

These words require a particular emphasis. The 'aye' and the 'hearke' should 
resound in darkness. If passages like this are fluffed over, all is lost.

Shakespeare's plays are like huge Mahlerian Symphonies. Mahler, when conducting, 
worked very hard on every nuance and I think directors of Shakespeare should do 
the same.

I will cite one example of Shakespeare recited to perfection. I have an old Argo 
LP of a recording of Richard II done by the Marlowe Society of Cambridge 
University. The director was George Rylands. Unfortunately it was the policy of 
the Marlowe Society at that time to insist on the anonymity of the actors, so I 
don't know the name of this Richard. He does not lose a syllable of the poetry 
and its expressiveness. His voice is at just the right point between singing and 
speech. He, like Yeats, opens a new world to you, an unforgettable one, that 
goes into your bloodstream.

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