Always, in my Intro to Shakespeare class, some of the performance projects go real well, and some, a lot less well. Today we had, side by side, what will probably turn out to be the best performance (Othello 5.2) and the least best (MSND 3.2).
Everything lined up for the Othello group – a skilled director, lots of acting talent, a harmonious group, all members able to give the project their full care. Things didn’t line up so well for the Midsummer Night’sDream group. Their performance was postponed because Oberon – also their director – caught pneumonia; and it turned out she’d only attended rehearsals fitfully. The student who took over directing also had, as Puck, the most lines to memorize, and didn’t fully. And the group as a whole just didn’t cohere.
Group projects are great, and suck, for about the same reasons. Here’s the e-mail to the Midsummer group I’ve spent this evening writing and rewriting – maybe I try too hard to get these things right. But I hope they’ll find in the dross of their experience today something shining, worth more, Rumi says, than money or power.
Hello Group 6,
I wanted to follow up about today’s performance, and your portfolio. It wasn’t hard to see you were disappointed by how the performance turned out. Our conversation afterward may also have been discouraging. But I hope this project can still be meaningful for you – worth having done, maybe even rewarding.
Group projects are great in a lot of ways, but they can be unfair. Some people might end up doing a lot more work than others. And if one person in the group withdraws, the rest can be left scrambling to fill the hole the one who’s departed has left.
Life after college is going to deal you similar situations: unexpected, unfair, undoable. And in life after college, if you don’t respond skillfully, you might lose a job, a house, a relationship. Right now, in a class, you’re quite protected. The most you can lose here is the good grade your own individual work might have earned you.
So I hope you’ll approach the rest of this project – preparing your portfolio – as practice. Practice, specifically, in what to do when you’re dealt a crappy hand.
I’ve already suggested that in preparing your individual statements, you explain how the withdrawal of one member required you to redistribute responsibilities. Please don’t cast blame – we don’t know that one member’s circumstances, and aren’t in a position to judge. Instead, give a realistic appraisal of a difficult situation, and measures you took to cope with it, and which measures worked, and which didn’t.
If it helps, imagine you’re a team in a corporation. You were given a project. Because of problems with planning and execution – some thanks to circumstances beyond your control, and some to mistakes your team made – things didn’t go the way you, or your bosses, wanted. Now you’re writing the report that explains how and why.
You don’t want to be defensive, or make excuses, or blame everything on external factors – you need to take responsibility. But also, you had difficult circumstances to work with, and you should identify and describe them clearly. No special pleading; no falling on swords. Help your reader see you as fully human beings, earnest, fallible.
A point of comparison. Sometimes a class goes south on me. I try this, I try that, and it fails anyway. My first impulse is to make excuses: I’m blameless, there was something wrong with the students, or my department was stupid to give me the course in the first place. But even if there’s some truth to that, I can’t write it that way. I need, rather, to take responsibility for my misjudgements; also, to describe conditions outside my control, without making excuses; and to highlight what I’ve learned, so you can see I’m committed to learning and growing as a teacher. Nowhere do I falsify – nor would I suggest you falsify. I just describe, as honestly as I can, the conditions I was working with, as I highlight my openness to learning from the experience.
You will, I promise you, face like situations in your life: unkind, unfair, unwanted. If this class can help prepare you for that, well damn, that would be a fine thing. Then we could say, of all the groups in this class, yours had gotten the most out of this project. The rest learned how to read, act, direct. You learned how to live in difficulty.
I do wish that for you. If you want to talk about how to shape your portfolio, just let me know. You have my admiration.
I don’t lecture much. Boring to do, boring to be done to. Conversation’s far more fun. But two or one times a quarter I talk for around ten minutes from prepared notes. (Which in practice takes most of an hour because we break to chat.) Here’s one such set I range from, on why what seems odd in Shakespeare’s plays, ain’t half so strange as stuff we take for bread and butter. And why artmaking is worldfashioning.
My notes are kind of telegraphic, but I’ll try to flesh out, and put interpolations in
and texts we go to in
To start, we read Twelfth Night 2.4.79-124. Viola, a young woman recently shipwrecked, has disguised herself as a young man, Cesario, and entered the service of one Count Orsino, with whom she has fallen in love. Orsino, however, is infatuated with Olivia, whom he sends Cesario to woo on his behalf.
ORSINO Once more, Cesario,
Get thee to yond same sovereign cruelty:
Tell her, my love, more noble than the world,
Prizes not quantity of dirty lands;
The parts that fortune hath bestow’d upon her,
Tell her, I hold as giddily as fortune;
But ’tis that miracle and queen of gems
That nature pranks her in attracts my soul.
VIOLA But if she cannot love you, sir?
ORSINO I cannot be so answer’d.
VIOLA Sooth, but you must.
Say that some lady, as perhaps there is,
Hath for your love a great a pang of heart
As you have for Olivia: you cannot love her;
You tell her so; must she not then be answer’d?
ORSINO There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention
Alas, their love may be call’d appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffer surfeit, cloyment and revolt;
But mine is all as hungry as the sea,
And can digest as much: make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.
VIOLA Ay, but I know—
ORSINO What dost thou know?
VIOLA Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.
ORSINO And what’s her history?
VIOLA A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more: but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.
ORSINO But died thy sister of her love, my boy?
VIOLA I am all the daughters of my father’s house,
And all the brothers too: and yet I know not.
Sir, shall I to this lady?
ORSINO Ay, that’s the theme.
To her in haste; give her this jewel; say,
My love can give no place, bide no denay.
Viola’s love for Orsino is clear. But on the page, is Orsino in love with Viola, yet?
We decide he’s not. Maybe dawning interest, and maybe hesitation in “Ay, that’s the theme,” but on the page, that’s about it.
So what do we make of it, that in Act 5, as soon as she’s revealed to be a she, he falls for her, asks her to marry him? Unrealistic, right?
This group had a ready explanation: Orsino’s actually gay, and was attracted to “him” all along, but couldn’t express that or admit it, till the “boy” was revealed to be the woman.
That reading anticipates Trevor Nunn’s in his production – not “Orsino is gay,” but, desire for a man that leaves him confused and divided. This clip will do for illustration:
So there’s one way to make the speed of Orsino’s love for Viola psychologically plausible: it wasn’t fast, it was slow, and held secret. Here’s another way, in SparkNotes:
[T]he play repeatedly raises the question of whether romantic love has more to do with the person who is loved or with the lover’s own imagination—whether love is real or merely something that the human mind creates for the sake of entertainment and delight. In the case of Orsino, the latter seems to be true, as he is less in love with Olivia herself than he is with the idea of being in love with Olivia. He claims to be devastated because she will not have him, but as the audience watches him wallow in his seeming misery, it is difficult to escape the impression that he is enjoying himself—flopping about on rose-covered beds, listening to music, and waxing eloquent about Olivia’s beauty to his servants. The genuineness of Orsino’s emotions comes into question even further when he later switches his affections from Olivia to Viola without a second thought; the audience then suspects that he does not care whom he is in love with, as long as he can be in love.
What do you think?
They generally like it. This is a setup. I’m a bastard.
So, two ways to explain something that looks wildly unrealistic. One says, seems sudden but isn’t sudden, he was falling in love over a period of time, we just didn’t see it.
Other says, he’s in love not with a person, but with an idea. When he switches from Olivia to Viola, the love object stays the same. Only the occasion, the excuse, changes.
Notice, with both, we’re trying to make the change psychologically realistic, and to resolve an unease that way. Here’s a third way of addressing the question, one that doesn’t try for psychological plausibility, and that may not resolve our unease.
It means appealing to literary convention. A shared understanding of what’s plausible within the imaginal world of the text – the play or novel or poem or movie – even if it’s unrealistic outside that imaginal world.
A literary convention of the 19th century novel – a minor one – is that no one ever goes to the bathroom. For over a hundred years everyone held it in. Unrealistic? Sure. Does it bother you? Probably not. Reading Jane Eyre or Middlemarch, you probably don’t even notice it.
A literary convention of science fiction movies – again, a minor one – is that sound travels in the vacuum of space. Another is that faster-than-light drive is possible. Another, that all the species of the galaxy speak middle-American English, or can be got to easily. Not all science fiction movies hold to all of these, but when one departs from one of them, it’s noteworthy, as an exception.
You can check your own adherence to a literary convention by whether you notice it or not. If you read the whole of Jane Eyre and never notice that no one once goes to the bathroom – you’ve probably bought into the conventions of the 19th century novel.
But if you go to The Force Awakens and can’t get past the fact that the laser canons of the star destroyers can be heard across the vacuum of space – “that’s just not realistic!” – then you haven’t bought into the conventions of the contemporary science fiction movie.
Note that The Last Jedi intervened in that convention …
The ensuing conversation got to some of what’s in the notes following.
Shakespeare’s plays depend on literary conventions also. One convention of his romantic comedies – a major one – is that characters fall in and out of love with remarkable speed and ease.
Characters falling in and out of love with each other makes romantic comedies work. In the same way that faster-than-light drive makes science fiction movies work. You can do a lot more fun stuff on stage if characters keep changing love interests. You can do a lot more cool stuff on different planets if characters can actually get to different planets. By the same token, space explosions are more cool if they make noise – until they’re not.
So it’s not surprising that these became conventions of their genres. Unrealistic, implausible, outside their fictive worlds, but taken as givens within those worlds.
Watching science fiction, if you buy into the world, you stop thinking about faster-than-light-drive – or the sound explosions make in space, or the convenient fact that everyone speaks English.
Watching a romantic comedy, if you buy into the world, you stop thinking about how fast people fall into and out of love. Within that world it’s perfectly realistic.
Here’s the thing though. Genre conventions evolve. So what was perfectly realistic 350 years ago, within these fictive worlds, now seems implausible. We still have romantic comedies, sure, and they still have genre conventions, absolutely, but they’re somewhat different than those Shakespeare worked with.
The small change from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi is a moment of such evolution. Someone said, what happens if we do silent space explosions, and make that cool?
One thing that happens is, folks think the theatre has effed up. Can’t find a bootleg clip of the scene itself, but here’s an account of the confusion the moment – a ship colliding with another – caused by not being usual.
Many fans will report hearing gasps during this moment (that’s how effective the smash cut to silence is), but apparently some fans have been complaining and blaming the theater for a sound issue. Complains were apparently so consistent that an AMC Theater decided to print out and post signs warning fans in advance about the moment, saying the silence is very much an intentional creative decision made by director Rian Johnson. (Insider)
I’m curious whether the director’s intervention will stick, and how the genre will alter. It struck me as the one original moment in the movie.
Coming back to our first two accounts for why Orsino falls in love so fast.
When we hit Shakespearean conventions that are over with, we kind of go for them, and we kind of don’t. To the extent that we don’t, we try to resolve the dissonance in terms of the conventions we have on hand. Which are generally those of psychological realism – conventions established by movies and TV.
A plausible theory that psychological realism can produce: he’s been falling for her for quite some time (Nunn).
A bullshit theory that psychological realism can produce: he’s just “in love with love” (SparkNotes)
Why bullshit? Because it smushes every lover in every romantic comedy Shakespeare wrote into an undifferentiated porridge. You can say that of all of them. It’s just part of Shakespeare’s vision of romantic love that love loves to love itself. You can take it as a starting point, but if that’s as far as you can get with psychological realism, psychological realism is about worthless. Especially since said realism is about individuality, and with that outcome, it’s totally failed to individuate anyone.
Too, the theory fails to notice that Sebastian and Olivia (twice) fall in love with equal speed and for equally shallow reasons. The only ones who’ve been nursing love for an “appropriately” long duration are Orsino and – Malvolio. Yeah, ugh.
Must also note my ulterior motive, steer them away from SparkNotes, at least one of them, maybe forever. So bad, terrible, that these pre-digested sources are so readily available. Their readings may be rougher but they are smarter. The questions they’ve been asking! V. good.
So, to sum up, three ways of accounting for the speed with which Orsino falls for Viola once she’s revealed as Viola. (1) It wasn’t fast, he was falling for her all along (Nunn). (2) He’s not falling for her, he’s just “in love with love” (SparkNotes). (3) It’s realistic within the conventions of Shakespearean romantic comedy, because quick moves in and out of love are, for these plays, a condition of the real.
The first is quite reasonable though it denatures, modernizes, Shakespeare’s play somewhat. The second is unfortunate – it pounds all the romantic comedies into a homogeneous love-mush Shakespeare would ne’er recognize. The third is easy to ignore because to stand there means discomfort; we have to abide in understandings of the text, which in turn are understandings of the world, that are not ours, though they underwrite ours.
So they are uncanny, intimate to us, unknown to us. At a wonderful dinner last night with friends, Lunar New Year, we touched briefly on the profundity and/or banality of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”:
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
Ironic the know-it-all missed the fourth category, the unknown known, the uncanny.
Be careful about projecting 21st century expectations – psychological realism – onto 17th century plays. Our literary conventions have descended from Shakespeare’s, he’s had a major part in creating the conventions we hold to, but also they’ve changed over time. Don’t be too quick to erase the strangeness of these that ours came from, their uncanniness.
Addendum. I’m writing this up a couple weeks after the fact – and am v. glad to report, they’re putting this convention notion to work. I asked, last class, how we could make sense of Iago’s evil, when it seems to far exceed all its possible grounds. (It may be as much a problem for Othello as Hamlet’s boundless nausea is, by Eliot’s account, for Hamlet.) Here the bullshit psychological realist accounts are internal to the play, offered by Iago himself. The Moor slept with my wife, or I’ve heard maybe he did, and I’ll take it for hard fact, and burn him down. The Moor passed me over for promotion, and for that I’ll burn him down, and all he loves. Yeah, whatever it is, it ain’t that.
There’s a plausible psychological story, that he’s a sociopath, and it works to account for him, but at the cost of a modern imposition, smothering the mystery he poses. There are also plausible sociological accounts – that Iago is the diffused racism of Venetian society, or Shakespeare’s English imagination of it, concentrated to a dagger point. We touched on all these and did good work with them. But the point that delighted me the most, in a class that delights me lots and often, not because it’s more right than the others but because it’s harder to get to, and it shows they’re thinking and feeling the plays as formally deliberately made things, with their own felt conditions arranged in a coherence, is that Iago is as evil as the play needs him to be. The play needs a villain sufficient to its hero if it’s to be a tragedy. The plot and the moral balance of the play make Iago what he is. In other words, literary convention, as it belongs to genre, form, and ethos. These kids, they doing it.
A handout for my Shakespeare students, late in the game, after we’ve teased a lot of it out in conversation. Trying to draw it together into a sort of whole, without making our thought boxes too rigid.
Toward a Theory of Comedy
In our discussions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, we speculated that for something (a line, a conversation, a play as a whole) to be funny, three things need to be true:
There needs to be incongruity – two meanings of a word that clash (a pun), or two conflicting desires in a character, or a situation in which we know something a character doesn’t (dramatic irony). An incongruity can be as small as a word or as big as the whole play.
We need to feel that things will turn out okay. We can tell no one is going to die, and no one we like will end up worse than they started. A play can give us this feeling by invoking certain genre conventions of comedy. For instance, presented with lovers thwarted by a controlling father, we know we’re in a plot typical of romantic comedy. And when the lovers marry at the end, ideally as part of a multiple wedding (wild erotic possibilities set loose in the play, some of them quite transgressive, are here put back in their cages, or on their leashes) that plot structure is completed, and the genre confirmed.
Our sense of fair play needs to be satisfied – characters will get about what they deserve. Again, genre conventions reassure us here, even when things are going badly for the good guys, and well for the bad.
Interestingly, tragedy differs from comedy mostly on the second point. Tragedy is full of incongruities, and the downfall of the tragic hero feels harsh to us, but not unjust (fair play). But we have a sense of large hidden forces arrayed against the hero and driving the action inexorably forward. This won’t end well and we know it from the first line or two. So the incongruities are mostly not funny, and the justness of the hero’s fate prompts sadness and seriousness, not exuberant good cheer.
Genre Conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy
The major conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy (adapted from Debora Schwartz’s page for ENG 339 at California Polytechnic State):
The main action is about love.
The would-be lovers must overcome obstacles and misunderstandings before being united in harmonious union. The ending frequently involves a parade of couples to the altar and a festive mood or actual celebration (expressed in dance, song, feast, etc.).
Often it contains elements of the improbable, the fantastic, the supernatural, or the miraculous, e.g., unbelievable coincidences, improbable scenes of recognition/lack of recognition, willful disregard of the social order (nobles marrying commoners, beggars changed to lords), enchanted or idealized settings, supernatural beings (witches, fairies, gods and goddesses). The happy ending may be brought about through supernatural or divine intervention or may merely involve improbable turns of events.
There is frequently a philosophical aspect involving weightier issues and themes: personal identity; the importance of love in human existence; the power of language to help or hinder communication; the transforming power of poetry and art; the disjunction between appearance and reality; the power of dreams and illusions.
Suspension of Disbelief
Right in front of you, a general named Othello is throttling his wife, Desdemona. Why don’t you call 911? Because you know it’s not real. But if you know it’s not real, why do you feel anything? Check your heart rate, your breathing, your muscle tension – you do feel something.
Drama depends on a suspension of disbelief. We believe and don’t believe that what’s happening is real. We know it’s real and we know it’s not real. We suspend our disbelief but our disbelief is still there. All dramatic forms depend on this paradox to work, but the paradox comes especially clear with tragedy, because the stakes are so high, and because in a theatre, there’s no screen to distance you from the action – only an invisible fourth wall some characters (e.g., Puck, Feste, Hamlet, Iago) may break.
Aristotle on Tragedy
Aristotle asked, why do we like to see things on stage, for instance King Oedipus turned to a beggar with his eyes gouged out, we wouldn’t want to see for real? In his Poetics he suggests two theories –
Pedagogic. It gives us pleasure to learn, especially when we can learn about misfortune without suffering misfortune. Watching Othello, we can say, “ah, that’s what happens when you give in to jealousy,” or “so, that’s how it goes when you don’t listen to your suspicions about an underling,” or, “okay, that’s what eventually happens to someone from a marginalized group, no matter how well he fulfills the dominant culture’s demands of him.” By this theory, we know more about what it is to be alive, without having had to suffer (much) for the lesson.
Cathartic. Catharsis means purgation. Tragedy arouses pity and fear in us through the action of the play and then discharges it through the resolution. What we see makes us sadder and wiser, but we also feel a kind of quiet and release. The Greek word katharsis had both a medical sense – purging, i.e., vomiting up something toxic – and a sacral sense, purification, i.e., being cleansed of impurities. Did Aristotle mean we’re purged of pity and fear the way a patient is purged of a poison, or we’re purified of pity and fear the way a religious observant is cleansed of obstructive emotions?
Aristotle said some conditions apply to tragedy, if learning or catharsis is to happen. We’ll leave aside most of them. The two we’ll make use of: the hero of the tragedy needs to be larger than life (“better than ordinary men”) but have a tragic flaw. He needs to be larger than life so we identify with and idealize him. (Catharsis only happens if we see ourselves in him.) He needs to have a tragic flaw so we can feel his downfall is just. (We can only learn from what we see if what we see is rational and understandable.) (It’s always, BTW, for Aristotle, a him, Antigone notwithstanding.)
I’m not saying Othello is an Aristotelian tragedy. I’m asking whether it is one. Is Othello a tragic hero? Is he larger than life? Is he brought down by a tragic flaw? (If you say societal forces outside him – “institutional racism” – are ultimately to blame, then no. If you say that that racism, internalized, is to blame, then – oh, an interesting edge we’re on, there.) Does the play raise pity and fear and then purge them? How are you left feeling at the end of a production of it? Does how you feel depend on the character of the production?
III. Some Notes on Romance
Our final play, The Tempest, is now called a romance, but that term wasn’t in use when the play was written and first performed. It was first published as a comedy. The rest of this section is adapted from Schwartz.
The modern term “romance” refers to a hybrid of comic and tragic elements. Because they combine both tragic and comic elements, John Fletcher called them “tragi-comedies.” According to Fletcher, a tragi-comedy “wants [lacks] deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it [death], which is enough to make it no comedy.” Like comedy, romance includes a love-intrigue and culminates in a happy ending. Like tragedy, romance has a serious plot-line (betrayals, tyrants, usurpers of thrones) and treats serious themes; it is darker in tone (more serious) than comedy. While tragedy emphasizes evil, and comedy minimizes it, romance acknowledges evil – the reality of human suffering.
Romance and Tragedy
Tragedy involves irreversible choices made in a world where time leads inexorably to the tragic conclusion. In romance, time seems to be “reversible”; there are second chances and fresh starts. As a result, categories such as cause and effect, beginning and end, are displaced by a sense of simultaneity and harmony.
Tragedy is governed by a sense of fate (Macbeth, Hamlet) or fortune (King Lear). In romance, the sense of destiny comes instead from Divine Providence. Tragedy depicts alienation and destruction, romance, reconciliation and restoration. In tragedy, characters are destroyed as a result of their own actions and choices; in romance, characters respond to situations and events rather than provoking them. Tragedy tends to be concerned with revenge, romance with forgiveness. Plot structure in romance moves beyond that of tragedy: an event with tragic potential leads not to tragedy but to a providential experience.
While tragedy deals with events leading up to individual deaths, romance emphasizes the cycle of life and death. While tragedy explores characters in depth (emphasis on individual psychology), romance focuses on archetypes, the collective and symbolic patterns of human experience.
Romance and Comedy
The “happy ending” of a romance bears a superficial resemblance to that of a comedy. But while the tone of comedy is genial and exuberant, romance has a muted tone of happiness – joy mixed with sorrow. Like comedies, romances tend to end with weddings, but the focus is less on the personal happiness of bride and groom (the culmination of an individual passion) than on healing rifts within the larger human community. Thus, whereas comedy focuses on youth, romance often has middle-aged and older protagonists in pivotal roles.
Compared to characters in a Shakespearean comedy (or tragedy), romance characters may seem shallow or one-dimensional. But they are not meant to be psychologically credible; their experiences have symbolic significance extending beyond the limits of their own lives and beyond rational comprehension. In romance, the emphasis shifts from individual human nature to Nature.
Other Features of Romance
Romance is unrealistic. Supernatural elements abound, and characters often seem “larger than life” (e.g., Prospero) or one-dimensional (e.g., Miranda and Ferdinand). Plots are not particularly logical. The action, serious in theme, subject matter and tone, seems to be leading to a tragic catastrophe until an unexpected trick brings the conflict to harmonious resolution. The “happy ending” may seem unmotivated or contrived. Realism is not the point. Romance requires us to suspend disbelief in the “unrealistic” nature of the plot and experience it on its own terms.
Given to my Intro to Shakespeare students and now y’all. (Sorry, leaving out the bit where I show how to listen for stresses, and mark them, or show them rather they already know how to listen for stresses, just don’t know they do.)
And here we go. The baseline foot of iambic meter is the iamb: x /
The most common variation in an iambic meter is the trochee: / x
Other common substitutions in an iambic meter are
the anapest x x /
the spondee / /
Occasionally you’ll see the pyrrhic x x and it’s usually paired with the spondee like so x x / / and that’s sometimes also called a double iamb.
Only other foot possible, in English, is the dactyl / x x and you won’t see it in an iambic line. If you do you’ve grouped the stresses wrong. Erase your foot divisions and start over, remembering to maximize the number of iambs.
Similarly, if you come up with this x / xor this / x / as a foot, you’ve gone astray somewhere, unless you’re scanning Greek or Latin verse for quantity, which you ain’t. Back up and start over.
Sometimes at the end of a line you’ll have an extra unstressed syllable, and want to join it to the final iamb to make a foot like this x / x don’t. Leave it there. It’s not lonely, it’s a syllable, not a kitten. If you see a kitten, rescue it.
Moves to watch for, and effects they’re thought to have. An initial trochee
/ x Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
creates emphasis by leaning into the words to come. A mid- or end-line anapest can lend speed, momentum, naturalness –
x x / The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
A spondee creates emphasis a bit differently than the trochee,
/ / No more – and by a sleep to say we end
pounding its fist on the words right at hand. The pyrrhic-spondee pairing (double iamb)
x x / / with a bare bodkin? who would fardels bare?
is an interesting move, softening, yielding, then hitting hard. Take a look at this moment in Hamlet’s monologue; can you discern what the variation does, here? How would you perform it?
Last thing, we sometimes see trochaic meters in these plays – songs and spells, mostly. Trochee world is Bizarro world – English is biased to the iambic, so when you go trochaic, you go to the strange. In a trochaic meter, iambs are the most common substitution, and feel like an unexpected or unaccustomed softening. No anapests here but dactyls have become possible. Spondees and pyrrhics rock on, as before.
To review (and add a little). Feet that make the basis for meters in the plays:
iamb x /
trochee / x
Feet that can be variations in those meters:
anapest x x /
dactyl / x x
spondee / /
pyrrhic x x
How to describe the length of a line
one foot monometer four feet tetrameter
two feet dimeter five feet pentameter
three feet trimeter six feet hexameter
To give a full description of the meter of a line, identify the baseline meter (dominant foot and number of feet) and any substitutions. E.g., “iambic pentameter with a spondee in the fourth foot” or “trochaic tetrameter with a dactyl in the third foot.”
The marks, the terms, are a pain, I know, but they’re a means to an end. A violinist doesn’t learn to read sheet music so she can read sheet music. She learns it so she can play a Bach concerto.
Lastly, note we’re marking meter here, not rhythm, which is a subtler business altogether. There’s a way to mark it but we’re not going there. Fortunately, as speakers of English, you live in its rhythms as fishes in water, so just trust your sense of the character as a living human being, speaking to others the same. The meter is in there, lending order quietly, almost invisibly. When reading these lines, don’t be a robot, be a person.
Gonna hit erasure practice hard next week with my class. So thought here to summate. So much, to lift a word or three from a forebear to this sprawly lineage, depends on how you mark the missingness of what’s missing.
There’s a typography angel (sic) taken by Anne Carson in her Sappho —
Okay wow so the first clump suddenly recalls me to the borderline people in my life. And the second clump to how I’ve answered them. Well anyway I do love the aberrant slant in the image. Too, Armand Schwerner in his Tablets —
Brackets, ellipses, squares, circles, squared circles, enlisted to mark the polyambience of what’s missing, or imagined to be. Though nothing is really missing, is the message, as I take it, of erasure practice. The blank page a perfect poem no one has ever managed to write.
Then there’s the palimpsest, where the new poem greys out, but doesn’t quite white out, the old. Jen Bervin’s erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Nets work here, both stilly
and movingly, as here, where the palimpsest of it flickers in and out. That’s it for tonight, happy sultry (for here) weather all, more tomorrow.