Sunday, 24 June 2012

What is Iambic Pentameter? And How Did Shakespeare Use it?

What is Iambic Pentameter?
Iambic pentameter is the metre (or rhythm) that most of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the blank verse of his plays conform to.

But what is iambic pentameter in all its splendour and what does it sound like?


The Basic Form of Iambic Pentameter


In its simplest from, iambic pentameter is a line containing ten syllables, or five pairs of syllables (a pair known as an iambus).

These pairs each contain an unstressed and stressed beat, which can be illustrated in the sound of a clock, ‘tick-tock’ or is often referred to as ‘de-dum’ - the ‘de’ being the unstressed beat and the ‘dum’ being stressed. So a line of iambic pentameter follows this rhythm:


de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de DUM

Shakespeare put it a little more eloquently when he wrote:

a HORSE - a HORSE - my KING - dom FOR - a HORSE

Whether we realise it or not, English speakers are naturally inclined to this pattern. It is, of course, in most cases, a subtler version thereof, but it is present nonetheless. Unlike French, for example, which tends to have a more consistent pattern of stressed beats, ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da’ (a little like the sound of a machine gun), English leans towards the up and down of iambic pentameter.

However, there is much more to iambic pentameter than meets the eye, and Shakespeare was no stranger to mixing things up a bit.

What is Iambic Pentameter With a Feminine Ending?


Shakespeare found that there were times when ten syllables just weren’t enough. This is where iambic pentameter with a feminine ending comes in, because it has an additional unstressed beat tacked on at the end of the line. In other words, it sounds like this:

What is Iambic Pentameter With a Weak or
Feminine Ending?
de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de

And if you’re wondering where Shakespeare used this, the answer lies in the most famous Shakespearean quote of all:

to BE - or NOT - to BE - THAT is - the QUEST - ion

This is also sometimes called a ‘weak ending’, finishing, as it does, on an unstressed beat. Presumably, this notion of it being ‘weak’ is the reason for naming it ‘feminine’, but let’s try not to take it to heart, girls.

Now, you may have noticed that in Hamlet’s quote above, ‘be’ and ‘that’ are both stressed, when ‘that’ should really be unstressed. Well, that brings us neatly onto the other variation of iambic pentameter.

What is Inversion?


Inversion is, as its very title suggests, inverting the beats. In other words, where there should be a stressed beat, it becomes an unstressed beat and vice versa. This can, in the case of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”, occur in just one iambus, but it can also be used on more than one or, indeed, be used throughout the line.

So, what’s that all about then? Well, quite simple it places emphasis on specific words. Shakespeare wants an actor to stress Hamlet’s ‘that’, because THAT is the question.

And, because Shakespeare was such a rebel, sometimes he’d just rip the rulebook up altogether and have two stressed syllables in the same iambus. As is the case in Richard III:

Understanding Shakespeare's Iambic Pentameter
NOW is - the WIN - ter of - OUR DIS - con TENT

The ‘now’ is inverted, so the emphasis is very much on the present. In other words, what’s happening, is happening NOW. And, of course, in the fourth iambus, he wants to stress that the discontent is OURS.

Is Iambic Pentameter Important When Reading Shakespeare?


Yes. We’ve got to remember that Shakespeare wanted particular words or syllables stressed for a reason. And, especially when it comes to performing Shakespeare, if you trust that he knew what he was doing, you can’t go far wrong.

However, there is a fine line between following the rhythm and sounding like a demented (but admittedly well-educated) cuckoo. Therefore, I think it’s important to find a balance between a natural pattern of speech and the metre that Shakespeare put down.

From the point of view of studying and understanding the work, I believe that following the rhythm of the words can be immeasurably helpful.

If you’d like to learn more about Shakespeare’s work, words, and rhythms, take a look at What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon on Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and all European Amazon outlets.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Should Shakespeare be Taught in Schools?


This week, Simon Schama has made his opinion on the ‘Shakespeare in schools’ debate known. And he makes a very good case against those who believe that Shakespeare is not accessible, “
I think it's incredibly patronising of anybody to suppose that is true of Shakespeare.”

But do those who want to reduce the amount of Shakespeare on the curriculum have a point?

This is actually a matter I’m deeply divided over. On the one hand, I believe Shakespeare to be fundamental to, quite frankly, the world’s culture and particularly key to England’s literary and theatrical heritage.

On the other hand, however, I know many adults who refuse to touch Shakespeare with a barge pole, because they were scarred by their experiences of being taught his work at school.

Why Does School Put People off Shakespeare?


Now, I don’t for one moment condone the notion that Shakespeare isn’t accessible. Like Professor Schama, I find that patronising and ridiculous in the extreme. I also believe that Shakespeare’s work is a gift that everybody should be made aware of and every school-age child should have a right to access. However, forcing it on them doesn’t appear to work, because many emerge at the other end with a deep loathing for all things Shakespeare related. So, what’s the solution?

Well, I think the problem is not the fact that Shakespeare IS taught in schools, but HOW he is taught in schools.

When I was thirteen or fourteen and studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream, our lessons on the play consisted of us sitting at our desks, a handful of us being assigned parts and reading those lines aloud. Even to me, that was mind numbingly boring. We never went to the theatre to see a production, we never even got to watch a screen-adapted version - let alone get up and act some of it ourselves.

In short, it was an incredibly lazy and uninspired method of teaching and if it was the same for all those who now say they hate Shakespeare, then I can sort of understand their point of view.

How Shakespeare Should be Taught


And herein, I believe, lies the problem. Most teachers (not all I’m sure) seem to forget that Shakespeare's plays are exactly that: plays. They’re not novels, which are meant to be internalised. Instead, they are visual spectacles, with action and violence and, most importantly, excitement.

Not only does experiencing Shakespeare’s work in the way the man himself intended make the plays much less boring, but it also makes them easier to understand, because, suddenly, when put into a context, those more archaic of Shakespearean words begin to make sense.

Even more importantly, Shakespeare needs to be taught in a way that keeps the dynamic, excitement of the plays alive. Sitting in a stuffy classroom, listening to the monotone strains of a fellow pupil awkwardly reciting the ‘to be or not to be’ speech is not the way to incite excitement for Shakespeare’s work.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

FAQs | Things Everybody Wants to Know About Shakespeare


The many faces of William Shakespeare
Recently, I’ve realised that there are some questions, about our friend Bill, which are asked time and time again. So, I thought it might be helpful to lump all of those questions, and the answers to them, in one place. And I have, unimaginatively, titled this FAQs.

When was Shakespeare born?

Well it’s impossible to know exactly, as there is no record of his birth. However, there is a record of his baptism, which took place on 26th of April, 1564. Parents, usually, baptised their children quite quickly, due to the high infant mortality rate. So, it’s guessed that he was born around the 23rd of April. This date is also favoured, because Shakespeare died on the 23rd of April, 1616. So, his birth and death are commemorated on the same day.

Who were Shakespeare’s parents?

Shakespeare was the son of John Shakespeare, a glove maker, and Mary Shakespeare nee Arden, who was the daughter of a wealthy, gentry farmer.

Did Shakespeare have any brother or sisters?

Yes, William Shakespeare was the third of eight children.

Sir Nathaniel Curzon's tracing of what is
believed to be a lost portrait of
Anne Hathaway - although the existence
of said portrait is debated.
Who was Shakespeare’s Wife?

At the age of just 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior (she was pregnant at the time). It’s believed, although no one knows for sure, that she grew up in Shottery, a village on the outskirts of Stratford-Upon-Avon. She was the daughter of a yeoman farmer.

How many children did Shakespeare have?

Three. Susanna, who Anne was pregnant with when the pair wed, and twins Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet tragically died at just 11 years old. The cause of his death remains unknown, but it’s suggested that he may have succumbed to bubonic plague. However, with 1/3 of children under the age of 10 dying during this period, sadly, his death is not unusual for the era.

Are there any living descendants of Shakespeare?

No. Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, Susanna, married a doctor, John Hall, and had one daughter, Elizabeth who was born in 1608. Elizabeth married twice, but never had any children. Shakespeare’s second daughter, Judith, married Thomas Quiney and had three children: Shakespeare, who died within six months of his birth; Richard, who died at the age of 21; and Thomas, who died aged 19. Neither Thomas nor Richard married or had children. So, when Judith died, 23 years after the deaths of her youngest sons, the Shakespeare line ended.

How many plays did Shakespeare write?

There are 37 plays that are known to have been written entirely, or predominantly, by Shakespeare. Click here to find out more about them.

Why is there doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?

Very little is known about Shakespeare. Although it should be pointed out that as much is known about Shakespeare as most people born within the Elizabethan era. Nevertheless, those who doubt that Shakespeare could have written everything that is attributed to him base many arguments on gaps in his history. If you’d like to know more, click here.

Did Shakespeare invent the sonnet?

No. The sonnet form had been a popular choice in Italy and eventually the fashion made its way to England. It was then tweaked by Henry Howard (who did so while Shakespeare was still just a glint in his father’s eye). Shakespeare did, however, become a master at the form and was not above tweaking it further. Find out more here.

What the interior of the Globe looked like
Did Shakespeare own the Globe Theatre?

Yes, Shakespeare was a co-owner of the Globe as well as Blackfriars, which was an indoor theatre. Subsequently, he and the members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men/King’s Men became very wealthy indeed.

Did Shakespeare own his own theatre company?

Yes, but not alone. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which later came to be known as The King’s Men, was a sort of co-op; there were several owners and Shakespeare was one of them.

Is Shakespeare In Love based on Shakespeare’s life?

In a word, ‘no’. Shakespeare In Love is fictional.

What was the deal with Shakespeare’s will?

When Shakespeare died, he was a very wealthy man. He left the bulk of his estate to his eldest daughter, but it wasn’t really for her, as it was to be passed to her first born son - whom she never had. The will barely mentions his wife, Anne, who survived him. This fact has left many to wonder about the state of their marriage. However, at this period, by law she was automatically entitled to 1/3 of his estate. Nevertheless, his decision to bequeath her his ‘second best bed’ has been the subject of much controversy.

Why did Shakespeare leave his wife the ‘second best bed’?

There is no way to know for sure and there are various points of view on this subject. However, it was not uncommon for homes to reserve the best bed for visitors. Consequently, the second best bed may well have been the marital bed, making the gesture a sentimental one, rather than a snub.

If I haven’t answered your burning question, please feel free to get in touch, either with a comment below, a message on the What’s It All About, Shakespeare? Facebook page or tweet me.