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Good to Verse

There are, of course, a million different ways of playing Shakespeare for an audience, and not all of them are wrong. What I’m on about at the moment is the verse.

I assume that y’all know what I mean when I talk about Shakespearean verse. Perhaps I shouldn’t. Essentially, Shakespeare wrote big chunks of his plays in a highly rhythmic style, not much like common speech. This is separate from the language—Shakespeare has a largish vocabulary containing a fair number of words that you won’t come across very often, and very very often uses words you know in ways you don’t, but I think that’s exaggerated in people’s minds. The thing about the verse is that the demands of its rhythmic structure (among other things) push the structure of Shakespeare’s sentences well out of what we expect. This is not a problem unique to Shakespeare, or unique to iambic pentameter; David Mamet, f’r’ex, and Martin McDonagh f’r’another’ex, bend grammatical syntax to their rhythmic demands. But with Shakespeare, which has a reputation for unintelligibility, it’s something that requires real and serious thought.

There are two major schools of thought: some people emphasize the verse, other people play against the verse. If you figure that Shakespeare’s intent in writing in verse in the first place should be a high priority, you focus on the beats and play them up. If you figure that the verse is a problem for audiences, you focus on the beats and break them up.

Let’s take a look, shall we, at one of Buckingham’s most famous speeches. It’s not terribly long. Seven lines. Buckingham and Richard are preparing for a photo-op with the Lord Mayor and a crowd of Citizens, during which Richard will be formally offered the Crown and will accept it.

The mayor is here at hand: intend some fear;
Be not you spoke with, but by mighty suit:
And look you get a prayer-book in your hand,
And stand betwixt two churchmen, good my lord;
For on that ground I’ll build a holy descant:
And be not easily won to our request:
Play the maid’s part, still answer nay, and take it.

First of all, it’s written here as verse. As a clue to which school I am in, here’s how I formatted it in my sides for the scene:

The mayor is here at hand. Intend some fear; be not you spoke with, but by mighty suit. And look you get a prayer-book in your hand, and stand betwixt two churchmen, good my lord, for on that ground I’ll build a holy descant. And be not easily won to our request: play the maid’s part—still answer nay, and take it.

What’s odd to me is that on the whole my instinct is for stylised acting, rather than naturalism. I don’t have a problem in theory with the idea of verse; it doesn’t bother me at all that people don’t talk like that. But when I see a passage like this one, my first idea is to see where I can break up the verse.

Perhaps some noise will help. Here is YHB reading the thing with an eye to keeping the verse. I’m trying not to exaggerate. Emphasizing verse is not just going rumpty-tumpty-tumpty-tum. More than anything, it’s finding those places where the verse is not regular. Now, having said that, R3 is very rumpty-tumpty compared with later plays, and this is a pretty rumpty-tumpty passage. All seven lines have all their feet; there are two lines that have an extra soft syllable at the end. There are a few more beats that have an extra soft syllable in them, barely. The last line is the furthest off, with no introductory soft syllable and that double off-syllable in the middle. You could think of it as two trochees at the beginning, followed by three iambs, or you could think of it as the first two iambs of five being busted. Whichever it is, it’s clearly a break, there.

OK, now here’s the other way, where I look for ways to break up the verse and emphasize the meaning rather than the rhythm. I again am trying not to exaggerate. The way I do this is to treat the speech as if Buckingham is making it up as he goes along. Say the first bit, get a reaction, decide what to say next. It’s actually perfectly plausible that Buckingham would have had the idea about the churchmen and the prayerbook while walking back from the hall, but what the hell, it’s more exciting if he comes up with it on the spur of the moment. I’m also trying to play up the connection between the two, where they are working together on this project, and Richard is for the moment at least pretending to take his cousin’s advice.

The second version is a few seconds longer. That may not seem like a lot, but with thousands of lines of verse, adding a second to each line can add up to a very long time indeed over the course of the play. On the other hand, if the only way to get through your text in a reasonable time is to gabble it at tremendous speed, perhaps you need to cut some more.

The real issue, though, is that the two instincts don’t work very well together—if Richard is emphasizing the verse, and Buckingham is breaking it up, they sound like they are in two different plays, working against each other. And I think my Richard likes him some verse. And given his lines, who could blame him?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


The audio clips are neat.

I feel like most Shakespeare I've seen (which is not a ton, but some) has been done more versically than not, but maybe somewhere in between those things: The first clip sounds like you're reading a poem, while the second sounds like (as you say) you're making it up as you go. Is there a middle ground, where what you're saying sounds like a speech, but not so much like a poem?

Some initial reactions:

Like irilyth, I'd like to hear a middle ground.

I'd suggest that the middle ground involves using the some of the pauses you've included in the second version with the smoother delivery employed in the first. Verse admits pauses; in fact, Shakespeare's prose moves a lot faster than his verse, so by taking pauses, even of different lengths, you won't find you are playing against the verse but bringing out another aspect of its rhythm.

It seems to me that the construction of Buckingham's thought doesn't admit of the kind of hesitating, looking-for-direction pause that you put in before the prayerbook reference: Buckingham's "for on that ground I'll build a holy descant" makes it pretty clear he's explaining his reasons, rather than improvising. "And be not easily won" could be more readily played as a new thought, a kind of comic afterthought that develops into a bawdy joke in the final line. I think there's a lot more potential in this line

Rhythmically, I'd say that the final line opens with a trochee followed by a spondee: putting weight on "maid" and "part" brings out the bawdy a bit more.

Last thought: I'd guess that the action of the scene will enable you to vary the pacing of the lines as well: there's probably a moment for a gesture to reinforce the caesura in "And look you get [grabs or tosses or passes or gestures to] a prayerbook in your hand" and likewise in "And stand betwixt [gesture] two churchmen, [or gesture] good my lord." Pauses of this kind could enable you to convey a sense of developing thought, of improvisation, even, without disrupting the rhythm of the verse.

Imbedded sound files are indeed neat!

Hmmm. Perhaps I was exaggerating more than I meant to. Difficult not to, when illustrating the point... I will try another go at these lines at some point. With luck, I will get permission to record it at a rehearsal once we are off-book and happy, so you will hear it something closer to how it will sound in person.

As for the pauses, verse certainly admits pauses, but it determines where the pauses should go. Well, not absolutely determines, but it narrows the ranges. Take that “and be not easily won” line. If it weren't verse, my instinct would be to use and as an attention-getter, with Richard having already started to move off with the prayerbook. That cuts it off from the rest of the line, which begins once I have his attention again. The idea there is to keep the thing from seeming like a list: First do this, and do this, and do that, and is Buckingham ever going to shut up? That's only one way to do the line, of course, but it's my instinct. And then you have the emphasis on and, rather than be, as the verse seems to dictate.

As for pausing to gesture, again my inclination here is to gesture during the words, and to remain still during the pauses—or, rather, generally to gesture all the time. Specifically, y'all couldn't see the gesture I was making with between two churchmen, which was a sort of dismissive back-and-forth wrist wave. We don't need to mime the churchmen, as we are going to see them in a few minutes, but we need to have an expression of Buckingham's contempt for them (if you are playing that, which I am, unless the director tells me to stop it). There is a tendency (which if I remember correctly G.B.Shaw mocks with a particular viciousness) for actors to do five beats, gesture, do another five beats, gesture again, and so on. Not that you were leaning that way, but I did want to knock down the possible inference in your comment that pauses were for gestures and vice versa...


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