Welcome to Episode #35 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare's plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.

William Shakespeare is almost synonymous with iambic pentameter, his famous plays making this popular rhyme scheme famous as well. From Chaucer to King James I and Edmund Spenser, iambic pentameter flowed through English classical verse and the stages of The Globe and Blackfriars, prolifically dominating the spoken word in performances all over England. Iambic Pentameter was a major player in theater, performance, and the arts, along with several other metric rhythms that were popularly used in vocal and theatrical performances throughout the 15 and 16th centuries.

Remaining the key frustration of many a student studying Shakespeare, iambic pentameter gets taught as Shakespeare’s most prominent meter, and we are told it is important. But why is iambic pentameter so historical? Why does it matter to the degree that every major course on Shakespeare considers it essential? With other rhyme schemes available, why did Shakespeare use this one in particular? What makes iambic pentameter so useful for stage performance, and why did Shakespeare choose to “break the iamb” and go with a different meter at key moments within a play?

Here to help us unravel the poetic strands of Shakespeare’s history is our guest this week, author and poetry expert: Susan Dalzell.


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Susan Dalzell is the author of Poetry 101: From Shakespeare and Rupi Kaur to Iambic Pentameter and Blank Verse, Everything You Need to Know about Poetry. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, CASE’s Currents Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, Metropolis (Tokyo), and The Columbus Dispatch, among several others.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Susan about :

  • Is there a correct way to speak Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter in the theater?
  • Was this rhyme scheme standard for playwrights in the 17th century?
  • Did the rhythm of the spoken word on stage dictate the action of the players?

    …and more!

Why Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter – David T. Freeman and Gregory Taylor View Original on youTube here.

Iambic Pentameter

If I pronounce words in a funny way, you'll recognize what a stressed syllable means. For example, if I say “poe-TIC me-Ter” instead of “Po-EH-tic ME-Ter” it sounds different. If you alter where you place the stress in your pronunciation too dramatically, you can create unintelligible communication without changing the letters, words, or even language that you're speaking. When I change the way I say something, it alters what you hear, and what you understand about what is going on around you.

In performance art, like Shakespeare's plays, it becomes paramount for us as an audience centuries removed from the local pronunciation, dialect, and phrases of the 17th century,  to explore and understand both the historical and artistic context of the language being spoken so that we understand the stories, and words, as Shakespeare intended them.

Understanding iambic pentameter is not just a cool word to be able to say at parties, it is an essential part of making sure the famous lines from Shakespeare's plays hit their mark, and carry the significance they need through their sound when spoken, in order to advance the plot of the rest of the production.

One of the most famous examples of iambic pentameter from Shakespeare's plays include the lines from Hamlet's soliloquy where he says :

To beor not to be- that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

Hamlet III.1

The significance of learning about iambic pentameter and the correct way to pronounce the lines, as well as the difference change ups can cause for how you as an audience receive the words themselves from the stage is very humorously demonstrated by this video from the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. Source

Geoffrey Chaucer is believed to be one of the first writers to use iambic pentameter in English poetry. Shakespeare is considered a great fan of Chaucer, and would have studied his works in school, so it makes sense Shakespeare would nod to the format of Chaucer. However, more than just a personal appreciation for the work of an artist he admired, Shakespeare likely used iambic pentameter because it was culturally significant to the time. Iambic pentameter was thought to be the format for true artists, and as advancing his station and reputation was at the forefront of Shakespeare's mind and work, he likely turned to iambic pentameter more as the industry standard he needed to follow in order to make his mark professionally as a playwright, more so than other reasons.

Chaucer's meter depended on the pronunciation of final e's that by his time he was writing, people no longer pronounced in spoken word. Later students of Chaucer would forget that the e's needed to be pronounced (since modern language no longer used them). As a result, there were many who studied his work and found it hard to read or like it did not make sense because the language was too foreign to the way they spoke in modernity (Sound like any particular bard you know?) Well, it turns out that Scotland has a pretty rough version of English themselves, so in the 16th century, Scottish fans of Chaucer like King James I, understood the language and one Scottish poet, William Dunbar adopted the iambic pentameter for his poetry as a result.

A portrait from the Welsh Portrait Collection at the National Library of Wales. Public Domain Image.

Dance the Iambic Pentameter

There's some debate over this fact, but a few historians believe that one reason Shakespeare's plays seem to lack any abundance of stage directions is that the language, and how the words are pronounced in particular, directs the action of the play. Whether or not that's ultimately accurate, we can say pretty definitively that the way words are pronounced does influence the action. There's not a much better demonstration of how that works, or what it looks like to use it on stage, than in this iambic pentameter tap dance from Kenneth Branagh. Some professors even use this clip to teach iambic pentameter.

Get out your dancing shoes, lads, and tap your way to understanding Shakespeare history!

 

Books & Resources Susan Recommends:

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