Monday, 2 July 2012

Why Doesn’t Shakespeare Always Use Iambic Pentameter?

Why doesn't Shakespeare use iambic
pentameter throughout his plays?
In response to my last post on what iambic pentameter is and how to recognise it in its various forms, I was asked, ‘why doesn’t Shakespeare use iambic pentameter all the way through his plays?’

Well, that’s a fabulous question. So, let’s take a look at some of the instances when Shakespeare has chosen not to use iambic pentameter, shall we?

Which Shakespearean Characters Speak in Prose?

You will find that there are some characters in Shakespeare’s plays who never speak in verse. Typically, these will be the ‘commoners’. For example, take a look at the beginning of Julius Caesar.

Flavius enters and rails against the “idle creatures” in verse:

“Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
Is this a holiday? what! know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?”

However, in complete contrast, the dialogue of the carpenter and the cobbler is written in prose:

“Truly, sir, in respect of a fine workman, I am but, as you would say, a cobbler.”

“Nay, I beseech you, sir, be not out with me: yet, if you be out, sir, I can mend you.”

The Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream do
not speak in iambic pentameter.
(1937 production of the play at The Old Vic Theatre)
Similarly, you’ll notice that the rude mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream all speak in prose, until, of course, it comes to performing their ridiculous rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe.

So, what is Shakespeare trying to achieve? Is he saying that ‘commoners’ are less sophisticated? Perhaps, but this does not always mean that they are less intelligent. After all, the commoners in the first scene of Julius Caesar run verbal rings around their ‘betters’.

However, the difference in dialogue certainly marks the disparity in class, which has long been a preoccupation with the English.

The Difference Between Poetic Dialogue and an Argument

Pattern of speech alters when characters are
arguing, like Richard Burton and
Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of The Shrew
There are, of course, other instances where Shakespeare does not use iambic pentameter. These occasions have less to do with class and more to do with directing the rhythm of the dialogue and, by extension, the pace of the scene. What do I mean? Well, let’s take a little look at The Taming of The Shrew.

Although some of the lines between Petruchio and Katharina do conform to iambic pentameter, there are those that don’t:

Katharina: There is, there is.
Petruchio: Then show it me.
Katharina: Had I a glass, I would.
Petruchio: What, you mean my face?
Katharina: Well aim’d of such a young one.

Kenneth Branagh and Julie Christire
in Hamlet (1996)
This is a much more staccato rhythm, which tells us, without needing to hear the lines spoken, that the witty back-and-forth is rapid and relentless. We see this in other places, too. For example, the beginning of Hamlet, which is not an argument, as such, but is intended to be a dramatic ‘bam’ of an opener. And, then, of course, there is the fraught tête à tête between Hamlet and his mother.

Gertrude: Why, how now, Hamlet!
Hamlet: What’s the matter now?
Gertrude: Have you forgot me?

We can see that in, these instances, Shakespeare’s choosing not to use iambic pentameter as a dramatic device. We can assume, without needing to watch the scene in performance, that this passage, like that between Petruchio and Katharina above, is quick, angry and full of venom.

So, there are a few reasons that Shakespeare doesn’t always use iambic pentameter. What you can be sure of is that whatever choice he made, it was a very deliberate one; designed to reveal something about the scene, the dialogue and/or the character speaking it.

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