The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0350 Wednesday, 11 June 2008
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.."
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?
Lady Macbeth: Now.
Macbeth: As I descended?
Lady Macbeth: Aye.
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
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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