THE CRAFT  UNDER CONSTRUCTION  Published in Back Stage September 4, 2008

When Shakespeare Rambles

Whoa, put down that club! I know that Shakespeare doesn't "ramble." Every word he puts on the page is to the point, and actors and directors ignore that at their peril. I do think that in The Two Noble Kinsmen, which the world agrees he wrote in collaboration with John Fletcher at the end of his career, you can occasionally feel Shakespeare marking time, writing very lovely verse which doesn't go anywhere. In I.1 of that play, it takes Theseus 225 lines to make up his mind, and in almost identical circumstances in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it takes him only 126 lines. But Shakespeare can't drive the plot forward—he has to move at Fletcher's pace. This is one of the reasons why The Two Noble Kinsmen, isn't as popular as, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

But I ramble. The topic is lines that have too many syllables in them to be iambic pentameter. Regular iambic pentameter has ten syllables, an unstressed followed by a stressed, repeated five times. A good example is Orsino's first line in Twelfth Night:
If music be the food of love, play on. (TN I.1.1)
With the stresses marked, it looks like this:
if MU-sic BE the FOOD of LOVE, play ON
--and you don't have to exaggerate the stresses as shown above. If you merely say the line, clever Mr. Shakespeare has so arranged the words that the meter comes through.

So if that's the model, how is an actor to deal with these sprawling freaks in Romeo and Juliet?
Alive in triumph, and Mercutio slain?
Away to heaven respective lenity, (11 syllables)
And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!
Now, Tybalt, take the 'villain' back again
That late thou gavest me; for Mercutio's soul (11 syllables)
Is but a little way above our heads,
Staying for thine to keep him company.
Either thou or I, or both, must go with him. (11 syllables) (Rom., III.1.120-7)
In King Lear, faced with mistakes they've made, the characters, sooner than admit to those mistakes, will get sidetracked or go crazy or even drop dead. Here's Gloucester after he's been blinded, getting sidetracked:

I' th' last night's storm I such a fellow saw, ("I' th' "means "In the" and should
          probably be pronounced that way)

Which made me think a man a worm. My son
Came then into my mind, and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him. I have heard more since. (11 syllables)
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods:
They kill us for their sport. (Lr., IV.1.32-7)
Gloucester is on the edge of realizing that he made a mistake in driving his son Edgar away and then trying to have him caught and hanged. He can't think the thought. Line 35 is not only too long, it ceases to be verse and degenerates into prose. Gloucester speaks slowly because he's grappling ineffectually with a very unpleasant idea. We all like the poetry of the "flies/gods" lines (36-7). But their source is Gloucester's attempt to avoid any responsibility for his actions by blaming everything on the gods.

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