The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.070 Monday, 29 February 2016
Date: Monday, 29 February 2016
Subject: SBReview_26: Shakespeare’s Verse: A User’s Manual
[Editor’s Note: All SBReviews are peer-reviewed and are archived at the SHAKSPER web site’s Scholarly Resources section: http://shaksper.net/scholarly-resources/book-reviews in book-quality PDF files.]
Roger Gross. Shakespeare’s Verse: A User’s Manual. Fayetteville, AR: Pen-L Publishing, 2015. Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1942428220, paperback ISBN-13 978-1942428046. xix + 189 pp. $32.95/22.95 US.
Reviewed by Annalisa Castaldo
There have been, of course, books about Shakespeare’s verse, most notably George Wright’s 1991 Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. But Gross’s book is both unique and indispensable. It is unique because it is exactly what the subtitle promises—a true user’s manual. It is indispensable because it is a well-tested, comprehensive, and above all clear user’s handbook. It takes anyone—student, actor, director, scholar, or casual reader—from the very basics of the blank verse line to the complex nuances of late Shakespearean experiments with verse, and it does all this with copious examples and practice opportunities.
Gross begins his text talking about how, when he was the Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Festival, he would receive raves from critics, except they always accused him of “massacring the verse” but they could never explain what exactly “respecting the verse” meant. So he set about trying to figure this out for himself. He then spent forty years reading modern and early modern sources about verse speaking, scanning every line Shakespeare wrote, testing the understanding of verse in productions, and listening to the verse in range of context (among other things). Gross is therefore uniquely qualified to not only explain the nuances of speaking Shakespeare’s lines as verse, but to providing practical, tested examples for students, actors, and directors to study and practice.
The book moves from the very basics—a definition of iambic pentameter—to variations to the basic form, to thoughtful engagement with how changes in pronunciation often lead accidentally change the rhythm. Gross has, for example, an entire section on “modern speech quirks” such as always wanting to emphasize (or as he puts it “kick the hell out of”) the word “not” wherever it shows up, or the fact that “able” words in Shakespeare are often pronounced differently than our normal speech patterns, so that we say “MIZ-uhr-uh-bull” for miserable when Shakespeare wrote it expecting the actor to say “MIZ-uh-RUH-bull.” Gross covers caesura and enjambment, dialect and even a bit of rhetoric, providing a complete course in verse speaking. Throughout he asks us to trust Shakespeare, to do the work of scanning any line we plan to speak and then speaking it in a way that honors the pattern of the line, even if it goes against modern American speech patterns. Doing this, he promises, will result in clearer, faster, more interesting productions.
Some scholars may find the relative lack of jargon to be off-putting: Gross goes so far as to rename certain poetic forms, such as calling the trochee followed by an iamb a “swoop” for example, and some of his terms seem, at first, overly cute (calling the modern habit of tossing away some syllables by compressing them “the diddley menace”). But his purpose in these moments is clear; he is trying to help actors and directors, especially, understand how changes to a regular (or “stock” as he calls it) line of iambic pentameter should sound on stage and how they will, if delivered correctly, engage the audience. Knowing that an inverted iamb is called a trochee is less important to Gross than knowing that it results in a specific burst of energy “Think of the inversion not as one reversed foot but as a four syllable movement which starts high, plunges down into the depths, and Swoops back up to the heights again” (27). Even if that imagery doesn’t end up working for the reader in the end, it clearly expresses how the verse moves in that moment.
Finally, Gross expands the discussion beyond the bounds of the book; he ends with an invitation for everyone to visit www.ShakespearesVerse-UsersManual.com where he plans to have demos, coaching, clarification of some points that are hard to convey in text alone and, most importantly, an ongoing conversation about verse speaking. The website is basic at the moment—just information about the book, the author, and a way to contact him, but hopefully soon there will be many discussions about the finer points of the verse. This website is a wonderful addition to the book itself, especially if the promised demos show up, as hearing a variety of lines spoken with correct rhythm would be a powerful teaching tool and a very useful addition for actors (and even scholars) who learn better from hearing or doing than from reading.