Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard by Ben Crystal

Book: Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard by Ben Crystal Read Free Book Online
Authors: Ben Crystal
close to being prose-less.
    At the other end of the spectrum, none of his surviving plays is written entirely in prose.
    The Merry Wives of Windsor
has the greatest amount of prose, at 87 per cent, with
Much Ado About Nothing
and
Twelfth Night
next in line – but even 38 per cent of
Twelfth Night
is verse.
    Verse seemed to bake Shakespeare’s (and, it would seem, his audience’s) cake more than prose …
    ----

Scene 3
    A cardiac unit
    U nless it’s written down, it can be quite hard for us to tell the difference between verse and prose, and an Elizabethan audience might not have been able to notice the difference either, for a couple of very good reasons.
    One, as I said earlier, they’d probably never have read the texts beforehand, so they wouldn’t be able to see that what they were listening to was written in poetry – and as I’ve just shown, it’s very easy to spot when written down.
    And two, the beauty of iambic pentameter is that it’s the style of poetry that most closely resembles English speech.
    I think that’s brilliant. At a time when the English language (as we know it today) was relatively new and exciting, the most popular style of poetry imitated its natural rhythm when spoken out loud. What’s even more exciting is that Shakespeare used this very human-sounding poetry to explore what it is to be human.
    Shakespeare’s audience watched actors pretending to be people they weren’t, in situations that they’d probably never get to experience, wearing unusual clothes, often saying quite extraordinary things,
but even when they were pretending to be kings, still sounding like you and me
.
    I said earlier that verse is a type of poetry that has a particular rhythm. Your heartbeat has a particular rhythm, too – a (hopefully!) regular
weak-strong, weak-strong
pulse. The natural rhythm of the English language is very similar to that – an alternating contrast between strong-sounding syllables and weak-sounding syllables. It should come as no surprise, then, that a lot of poetry written in English has this heartbeat-like rhythm to it. Prose also reflects the rhythm of everyday English speech but, unlike poetry, it doesn’t have regular rhythmical units, and there aren’t structured rules for the number of syllables per line, as we’re about to see.
    Rhythm in poetry is known as
metre
; poetry with a steady, regular rhythm is known as
metrical poetry
. Here’s a classic example of such a thing:
    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
    (Sonnet 18, opening line)
    When asking questions about a piece of metrical poetry, there are two things you need to find out:
    — What
kind
of rhythm does it have?
    —
How many
beats are there?
    Now. The phrase
iambic pentameter
is a fancy way of answering these questions, and is actually saying a verysimple thing: it’s telling you, in a complicated way, the kind of rhythm, and how many beats (or units of rhythm) there should be in the line.
    The word
meter
in
pentameter
is the same word as
metre
, and it has the same meaning – it’s talking about a rhythmical line of poetry – but it unhelpfully has a different spelling.
    The other half of the word –
penta
– is Greek and means
five
, so we know that in this rhythmical line of poetry there will be five things.
    When people look at lines of poetry written in metre, they count in units of rhythm. A unit of rhythm is known as a
foot
– so they count in
metrical feet
. Usually, a pair of syllables makes up one metrical
foot
. It follows then that a line of verse that has ten syllables in it, as ours does, has
five feet
(which, as my mother would say, makes it difficult to buy shoes for):

    A line of poetry with ten rhythmically ordered syllables (five metrical feet) is a line of
pentameter
. A line of poetry with four metrical feet is called
tetrameter
, three metrical feet
trimeter
, and so on.
    Back to the two questions – we know how many beats there are (five), so what kind of rhythm is it?
    We

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