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Why did Shakespeare write in iambic pentameter if the performance isnt in a meter

  1. Jun 28, 2012 #1
    I watched some performances of midsummer nights dream on utube sort of expecting to hear this meter, but instead the actors seem to only adhere to the periods and commas in the text. The rest of the vatiation seems to just depend on the actor.

    I was told that one of the reasons for iambic pentameter was that it approximates the average length of an (elizabethan) sentence, (?) but if the actors only adhere to periods and commas during the performance, then the sentences are alot longer than 10 syllables, arent they? I know this isnt physics, but if someone could explain this would be awesome,;/..thanks someone
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 28, 2012 #2
    There are two schools of thought about Shakespeare. One is that he is literature, the other that he was a playwright. Those who receive him as literature would render the iambic pentameter as poetry. Those who consider him a playwright render what he wrote as "lines", that is lines of dialog.

    Just about all people involved in actually performing Shakespeare take the latter stand, that his plays are performance scores, not poetry readings. They speak the lines resisting the unnatural sounding meter and try to make them more like natural, unrhymed speech.

    No one knows how this issue was tackled by Shakespeare himself, how he directed his plays to be performed at the Globe. A lot of the dialog isn't in verse, so there may have been a switching back and forth from natural speech to frank verse. The modern tack has been to pretend none of it is in verse because to recite it that way would interrupt the audience in suspending their disbelief. A play only works because of the unspoken "suspension of disbelief" an audience agrees to. They have to pretend they aren't in a theater, that the actors are really the characters they play, etc in order to be drawn into the drama and be moved by it. In Shakespeare's time it may well have been that suspension of disbelief was extended to the players suddenly shifting to verse. Modern performers and directors don't think an audience will accept that.
  4. Jun 28, 2012 #3
    It was felt, at the time of Shakespeare, that iambic pentameter was close to the rhythm of natural speech. But you should also notice that only speech by nobles is in strict iambic pentameter. Speech by non-nobility is not. I don’t suppose, even at the time, anyone thought that real nobility always spoke in poetic tones, but it was supposed to convey something of the dignity of those people. The philosophies of those days were somewhat different to today’s view, of course!
  5. Jun 28, 2012 #4
    Nobles and Clergymen also, at least. Here's a particularly rhyme-y speech by Friar Lawrence I wrestled with in acting class:

    The gray-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
    Checkering the eastern clouds with streaks of light,
    And fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels
    From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels.
    Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye,
    The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry,
    I must upfill this osier cage of ours
    With baleful weeds and precious-juicèd flowers.
    The earth, that’s nature’s mother, is her tomb.
    What is her burying, grave that is her womb...

    Extremely hard to deliver this as if it weren't in verse.
  6. Jun 28, 2012 #5
    How do you know if the lines were written in iambic pentameter or if the reader is simply imposing that structure onto the text?
    I noticed this problem even in the example you provided:
    (btw, Heres how im understanding I.P. I voice it like this:
    deDUM deDUM deDUM deDUM deDUM (got this from WIKI) )

    But in your friar lawrence text i would have to read the word "checkering" as one iamb even though it is 3 syllables in order to make the whole line have 5 iambs like this:


    or also in the word "burying" , ..it normally is 3 syllables but "bury" is voiced as one to make it fit:

    What IS her BURYing, GRAVE that IS her WOMB...

    so it fits the meter if "bury" is pronounced like "bare" (one syllable)

    The reason im asking this is because the only way i can tell if something is in IP (or any meter) is by comparing 3 or 4 subsequent verses, and i would like to know if this is what everyone else does or if there is some other giveaway that says , oh ok this has to be metered because such and such...

    for eg: (from MSND)
    My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou rememberest
    Since once I sat upon a promontory
    And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
    Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath

    The only way the 1st and 4th lines qualify as IP is if you ackwardly impose that structure onto the text, even though the 2nd and 3rd lines fit nicely.
  7. Jun 28, 2012 #6
    oh and thanks zoobyshoe for answering my pm re: david young
  8. Jun 29, 2012 #7


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    Verse does not always fit written words. As a songwriter and performer, I have had to work around this. It is not enough to have your lyrics contain rhyming words - that alone is not enough to make a good song.

    You can get around that fiction with some work and some shifting of accent in the cadence of the verse, but that's what's song-writing is about. I once wrote a song about coming home to a lady via a dirt-road by-way, and could never make it work properly, and never performed it live. If it doesn't work, sometimes, years of effort won't help.
  9. Jun 29, 2012 #8
    Yeah, I think you’re missing the point, Tomishere. The sonnets are also in strict iambic pentameter, imagine voicing it like this…

    Shall I com-PARE thee TO a SUMM-er’s DAY?
    Thou ART more LOV-ely AND more TEM-per-ATE.

    Clearly, nobody talks like that, nor does it add anything to the beauty of the words. Try just saying it naturally.

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

    The iambic rhythm is there quite naturally and five iambs per line seems to fit the natural flow of human thought. That’s all there is to it.
  10. Jun 29, 2012 #9
    The wiki article on iambic pentameter has a section called "Rhythmic Variation" which, as far as I can tell, is basically saying any verse with ten (or even eleven) syllable lines can be regarded as iambic pentameter. It looks to me that any deviation from strict iambs can be called a "variation", even though they say there are rules to the variations.


    I can't hear the rules when I recite, for example, the "To be or not to be" monolog. If the variations are consistent and structured, it escapes my ear. I'd say it's a prose poem if anything. A more dedicated analyst than me is needed to uncover any important structure there.

    He certainly qualifies as an expert. You could email him to see if he recommends anyone as the monstrous expert of all experts on Shakespeare.
  11. Jun 29, 2012 #10


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    I think Turbo has the key to this.

    Study Elizabethan vocal music, and you soon discover that 21st century English (or American) speech rhythms don't bear much relation to how Shakespeare's contemporaries thought the words should "go".

    For eaxmple look at something like Ravenscroft's Psalter, where his versification of the psalms mostly looks like doggerel in ballad meter - page after page of

    di dum di dum di dum di dum
    di dum di dum di dum;
    di dum di dum di dum di dum
    di dum di dum di dum.

    Then see how the tunes change that rhythm into something more complex, for example

    Daah dee dee dum di dum di daah
    daah dum di dee di daah;
    (and many other variations)

    Then try to get yoru head around secular songs by composers like Dowland, Morley, etc.

    Of course you could argue that the musical rhythms don't "mean what it says on the page" either, but when song tunes turn up arranged as dance music, it gets hard to sustain that argument.
  12. Jul 1, 2012 #11
    Thanks for all the answers. I have different question: Does anyone know of an example of really really bad poet/playwright/author from the same era as shakespeare? I realize of course that if they were that bad, then they would be forgotten almost as quickly as their work appeared, but there must be something from elizabethan era that people are as uniformly agreed it is terrible, as they are about shakespeare's genius, no? idk, maybe not much survives from that era at all, and its just the cream that rises to the top of history, but there must be something like this isnt there? maybe my question should be more like "how much written work has survived from that era?"
    fyi, the reason im asking is this: ive noticed that many authors say 2 things about WS:
    1. he understood and accurately portrayed the human condition, and
    2. Because of this understanding, his plays are universally applicable to any point in history.. that is , they transcent the fashions or zeitgeists of any age.

    So i would like to read some poet that was known as a complete f-tard. really horrible writing...is this possible??
    (as an analogy, here is what i mean in a musical terms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_jenkins ..note that she is celebrated for her complete lack of singing ability, this is sort of what im looking for, like the rebecca black of the 16th century. Is this possible? thanks for any help.
  13. Jul 2, 2012 #12
    Googling, " bad elizabethan poets" I came up with Anthony Chute:


    Hard to say if he was really that bad. All that's left seems to be this one long poem, Shore's Wife or Beauty Betrayed:

    Sigh, sad musde accents, of my funerall verse,
    In lamentable grones, (wrought from true pietie)
    Sing you the wept song, on her wronged hearce,
    Is gratefull obsequie to her mortall deitie
    Sighe ô, sing Actuallie the bewtie pained,
    With bewties wonder honorablie stained.
    Bleed pen in blacke teares, dombe, yet pittie mouing
    The weeping Elegies to the worthiest faire
    Weepe pen in warme bloud, to the world approuing
    How faire, how good, how deare, old age did way her.
    Bleed tearès weepe bloud, pen, sing, sighe on her hearce
    Her gratefull obsequies in a funerall verse...


    It certainly reminds me a lot of the "rude mechanicals" verse in their rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe, without being quite as ridiculous:

    O grim-look'd night! O night with hue so black!
    O night, which ever art when day is not!
    O night, O night! alack, alack, alack,
    I fear my Thisby's promise is forgot!
    And thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
    That stand'st between her father's ground and mine!
    Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
    Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne!

    Thanks, courteous wall: Jove shield thee well for this!
    But what see I? No Thisby do I see.
    O wicked wall, through whom I see no bliss!
    Cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me!
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2012
  14. Jul 2, 2012 #13
    wow i cant believe i didnt think of rude mechanicals. this is play im going through.
    its perfect
  15. Jul 2, 2012 #14
    Ever seen this performance?

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