8 Tips for Starting Shakespeare (Part 3)

5) Scansion.

Scansion deserves a book all its own. If the phrase “iambic pentameter” turns you off, it shouldn’t. It’s where the magic happens, and it’s all about breaking the rules. During Shakespeare’s life there were a pretty decent amount of rules in theater and poetry, and iambic pentameter was the name of the game. For instance, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (1587) is almost exclusively written in i.p. Furthermore, the sonnet form (12 alternately rhyming lines of i.p. followed by a rhyming heroic couplet at the end) was the rage in the Italian-influenced and Platonic-philosophy- filled courtly love tradition.

Shakespeare broke the scaffolding. Nothing was wrong with it, but he found a way to increase drama by manipulating the scansion of the lines (see: form and content). If he breaks i.p., PAY ATTENTION! Either something big just happened or whoever did it is feeling something powerful. Breaking i.p. is how Shakespeare’s characters created or responded to conflict, which is the basis of any plot worth reading. When Henry V says “We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us” (HV 1.2), he’s speaking in trochaic pentameter–which goes against the grain and flow of the entire play. His words say “I’ll show self-control because I’m a king,” but his tone (and subsequent monologue) says…well, think of any unstoppable good guy from your favorite movie who is about to wreck shop on the opposition (*trying my best to keep it PG here). That line starts a war, and the scansion mimics such a purpose.

Anyway, Shakespeare’s plays are built on the paradox of breaking the building mechanics of contemporary plays. If a character switches rhythm (something you’ll start to catch if you know to look/listen for it), look out–and enjoy figuring out how it affects the drama of the scene.

6) Sorry Juliet: It’s all in the name.

Back to the idea that people in the English Renaissance saw language as entertainment. Because people expected so much more from language, things like names had a lot more meaning. This can be used to your advantage. Take a glance at the Dramatis Personae; if two characters have similar names, either they’ll be opposite foils of each other or one will replace the other. E.g. Macbeth has more “M’s” than a McDonalds, and they’re all essential characters. Similarly, Richard III’s two main rivals share a prefix. This is just for starters. Look up the etymology of characters with unusual names–you might be surprised.

Another great example of the name game is “Othello.” People who saw the first playbills for the production only needed to see the name to know 1) it’s a tragedy, 2) the main character dies of his own volition (see: “Shakespearean tragedy”),  3) his death would have divine and infernal undertones, and 4) he’d cry and curse the whole time. How did they know these things? The name is also a phrase: “O, t’hell, O!” They knew somebody would not only die, but that they would die in anguish, almost welcoming the death. The undertones of hell and heaven pulling at Othello’s soul can be respectively seen in the man’s oscillation between Iago and Desdemona. His confusion is exacerbated by her name meaning “the demons.” Seriously, her father and mother hated her. As for the “O’s,” whenever Shakespeare writes “Oh,” or “Ah,” or any other vowel unconstrained by the mind through consonants, his character is projecting raw emotion. All those one or two syllable words Othello keeps yelling at the end? Yeah. Cussing up a storm, that one. (Original credit for seeing how the title “Othello” would make a play attractive to contemporary audiences goes to professor David Tolley at Oxford, who mentioned it as an example while discussing the general topic of names in Shakespeare).

The names Shakespeare uses can give you a great prep when starting a play. The subject becomes even more interesting when one realizes Shakespeare was not writing in a cultural or political vacuum. If he references someone in a name, it’s probably intentional (e.g. “Iago” is Italian for “Jacob”–the Scottish/English king of the time, after whom the KJV Bible is named. Significance?).

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

3 thoughts on “8 Tips for Starting Shakespeare (Part 3)”

  1. For the line from Henry V you only need to glide together the two opening words: ‘We_are’. Shakespeare did this all the time. If you were to interpret this as a trochaic line, it would be a hexameter. I have a blog page commited to studying meter in Shakespeare’s work: versemeter.wordpress.com


    1. Thank you very much for the tip! Yes, the extra foot would be problematic for my argument. This line is definitely not the same meter as Lear’s trochaic pent “Never…” line, which Shakespeare/ Lear uses for a completely different thematic purpose. Your post on double trochees and hexametric lines is excellent and very easy to read–I’d be good to emulate it. In fact, your identification of the hexametric line in Richard II debunks my calling that play a perfectly iambic pentameter play (I guess that one professor was incorrect–wish I’d caught it sooner!). Thank you very much for commenting and checking me on the subject!

      Liked by 1 person

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