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Have you ever gone to a performance of one of William Shakespeare’s plays and found yourself confused about what an actor is going on about? Take heart. Mort Paterson is a Shakespearean actor and he writes that even he has the same problem sometimes.

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“Even when all the words are audible, the thoughts and images packed into the verse seem to arrive as an intractable jumble,” he writes. “Too often, after hearing a speech on stage or screen, have I turned to my companion and asked ‘What did he/she just say?’—only to receive a shrug of incomprehension.”

It doesn’t help, of course, that the plays’ language is more than 400 years old. But Paterson argues that something else is going on as well. He writes that traditionalists call for Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter to be spoken with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. But, he notes, that tends to sound unnatural. In fact, schoolmasters in Shakespeare’s own day discouraged it as too sing-songy to be appropriately “actorly.” Today, some actors and drama coaches find it’s too difficult to stick with the alternating pattern, though many still advocate it, at least in theory.

Pronouncing Shakespeare’s verse in iambic pentameter may make it difficult for an audience to understand what’s being said, since it naturally leads to stresses on unimportant words. Take a line from Hamlet, written in a traditionalist unstressed-stressed pattern: “Thus CONscience DOTH make COWards OF us ALL.” Our brains interpret the stress on minor words like “doth” and “of” to mark these words as important, which hinders comprehension.

Paterson also argues that some ideas about Shakespearean rhythms, which involve spacing out lines so that each stressed syllable takes up equal time, make for very unnatural speech patterns, even creating slight spaces in the middle of words. It also seems to go against the playwright’s own intentions. Hamlet, for example, encourages the Players to speak their lines “trippingly on the tongue.” And, in Henry IV, Hotspur complains about “mincing” recitation of lines: “’Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag.”

On the other hand, Paterson rejects the idea of speaking Shakespeare’s verse like prose, with no particular rhythm at all. Instead, he suggests that the “beats” of each line should be regular, and should be organized around important words.

This is a sort of idealized version of the way people naturally arrange the rhythms of their words when speaking. Paterson quotes linguist Dwight Bolinger, who argues that “rhythmic regularity is something that speakers unconsciously strive for, though it seldom turns out so neatly.”

Paterson suggests that the performance of Shakespeare’s verse by actors like Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh both conveys the meaning of the words and provides a pleasurable rhythmic cadence.

“It is like really good posture: we rarely see it, but when we do (as in ballet and sports) we admire it,” he writes. “Thus for a performer on stage to speak with the semantic efficiency of rhythmic control indicates a character with whose admirable expressive qualities we can identify.”

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Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Fall 2015), pp. 469-488
The Johns Hopkins University Press