Verse Speaking

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Photo by Christopher Mueller

Photo by Christoph Manuel Mueller

How should actors speak the verse in Shakespeare’s plays? Are there any reliable rules for doing so? Do the forms in which the plays were first printed offer guidelines in their use of punctuation, capital letters, line division, and layout on the page?  Should actors stress the ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum rhythm of the regular iambic pentameter?  Do modern editors pay too much attention in the way they present the texts to the needs of readers, too little to those of actors?

These are perennial topics of debate, just as complaints that today’s actors are not as good at speaking Shakespeare’s verse as those of previous generations recur with predictable, often tedious frequency from one generation to another. They are relevant to the work of theatre practitioners and academics as well as to audiences. Numerous books discuss the topic in both theoretical and practical terms. Eminent directors such as Peter Hall and John Barton along with voice trainers including Cicely Berry, who has worked mostly with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Patsy Rodenburg, associated especially with the National Theatre, are known to have strong, often divergent views on the subject, and some linguistic scholars have written about it too.

Globe Education, which admirably seeks to bridge gaps and build bridges between those who put on plays and those who go to see them, is running a series of five symposia on various aspects of the speaking of Shakespeare’s verse. The first took place at the Globe itself on 8 September. The others will be held over the next five months in Stratford-upon-Avon, Staunton (Virginia), New York, and Stratford (Ontario). It seems unlikely that many people will be able to attend all of them.

Both leaders of the opening session, chaired by the Globe’s dynamic Director of Education Patrick Spottiswoode, have published books on the topic. Abigail Rokison, actor turned academic, wrote Shakespearean Verse Speaking: Text and Theatre Practice, which won the Shakespeare Globe Book Award in 2010. Giles Block, actor turned director and voice trainer with the title of ‘Master of Words’ (or Verse) at the Globe, has recently published Speaking the Speech: An Actor’s Guide to Shakespeare.

Rokison spoke particularly about whether the layout on the page of shared or short lines of verse in early editions provides, as some practitioners have theorized, a set of clues to the actor as to how the lines should be delivered.  She convincingly demonstrated the fallacy of supposing that early printed texts of Shakespeare’s plays provide access to the author’s intentions by showing that actors in early performances would have had to work not from printed texts at all, but from manuscript scrolls which would have contained only the lines they themselves had to speak prefaced by a brief cue line which would have told them nothing about the verse structure of the speeches.

The matter of what text the modern actor is working from is both crucial and contentious. Giles Block spoke disparagingly and in blanket terms of modern editions, complaining of intrusive punctuation such as a plethora of exclamation marks which suggest that editors go too far in trying to indicate how speeches should be interpreted theatrically. For him, and for some of the teachers who spoke in question time, the Folio is paramount in authority even though half of its plays had already appeared in versions closer to Shakespeare’s manuscripts. But Rokison, projecting on screen a facsimile of the passage from the play of Sir Thomas More which is likely to offer us the closest we can get to the kind of manuscript from which the early quartos and some of the plays in the Folio were printed, had amply demonstrated that all printed texts of the period are likely to differ greatly in incidental features from their written sources, and so that there is no point in supposing that the punctuation, capitalization, and layout on the page of the plays’ early printing give us a hot line to the author’s intentions. The Folio is a mediated text just as modern editions are. It uses conventions of presentation that are of their time and so are liable to be misunderstood by readers who are not trained to understand them. It can mislead rather than help. When Charles Laughton was acting King Lear in Stratford in 1959 his wife, Elsa Lanchester, sat in the stalls with a Folio on her lap with instructions to tell him whenever a word was capitalized so that he could emphasize it. The result was not a success.

Personal taste must play its part in these matters. Giles Block appeared to seek methods of acting that stress psychological reality at the expense of artifice and rhetoric. He spoke disparagingly of actors who take long passages of verse within a single breath, going so far as to say that he found Laurence Olivier and John Wood ‘ridiculous’ when they did so. But to try to speak Shakespeare as if he were concerned primarily with psychological verisimilitude is to deny the range of his styles and the self conscious artifice of his writing in, especially, plays such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet. And actors must be allowed their own creativity. In Twelfth Night, the lines ‘I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too’ are, apart from a reversed opening foot, regular iambic verse. But Judi Dench, by lingering slightly before saying ‘brother’s’, most movingly took our minds back to her lost brother Sebastian. And Shakespeare himself sometimes demands to be spoken against the rules. Any actor who inflected Lear’s ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ with an iambic beat would make a fool of himself.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Amanda

    Anyone who has ever worked with Giles will know that the Actor’s interpretation is not only ‘allowed’ but enthusiastically encouraged! He encourages one to see the verse form as something which inspires – never an obstacle, but also never ignored. I understand from his stance on punctuation that he may feel that too much can restrict the imagination. Punctuation is surely a device to aid understanding while reading? So while studying a ‘part’ the less punctuation – the less temptation to break up the ‘thoughts’? As for doing long passages on one breath – my experience is that the breathing then becomes very apparent. Whilst more, quieter, breaths are less intrusive and far more ‘spontaneous’. I am bewildered as to why an actor should take less breaths than he needs. Shakespeare’s phrasing is unparalleled.

  • willshome

    Theories abound, theatre confounds. You have to be very academically intelligent to put down on paper how Shakespeare *should* be spoken. But any child or newcomer who’s just wandered in off the street understands when it is being spoken well because… well, they just understand, and are moved, or moved to laughter, or moved in any way that draws a thousand people together into one, as the author hoped (not in the specifics, perhaps, but in terms of a successful event, which every playwright desires).

    This can often happen even when the actor who is speaking it well isn’t very academically intelligent either. Theory and training and discussion and instinct and talent and chance all go into it. Some comedians are inspired, some work hard at it, some just have “funny bones” , the best combine all three. The same applies to Shakespearian actors, whether tragical, comical or – as in the best it is – both.

  • Dale

    “Any actor who inflected Lear’s ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ with an iambic beat would make a fool of himself,” is a point made by the late Ian Richardson at a UC Berkeley seminar many years ago. “But I am here to tell you,” he continued, “that the great Charles Laughton did exactly that.”

    actor who inflected Lear’s ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ with an
    iambic beat would make a fool of himself. – See more at:
    actor who inflected Lear’s ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ with an
    iambic beat would make a fool of himself. – See more at:
    actor who inflected Lear’s ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ with an
    iambic beat would make a fool of himself. – See more at:

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