Shakespeare for English Language Learners
1. Explanations of Things That Are Understandably Confusing About Shakespeare By Ian Shanahan Q: Why do most of the lines begin with capitals even if the beginnings of lines are not necessarily the beginnings of sentences? A: Shakespeares language is a spoken form of poetry and is not a literal representation of how people in Europe spoke during Shakespeares lifetime (1564-1616). Look at how countless poems and song lyrics are written- same thing: capitals at the beginning of lines. Shakespeares form of free verse is one of the many non-literal ways of communicating a story using words. Songs, raps, limericks and rhyming verses are other common forms of communication. Q: Why are there gaps at the beginnings and endings of certain lines? A: This requires a bigger explanation: Shakespeares plays were written as scripts to be used by actors and not texts to be read. There wasnt much in print in those days even if people did prefer to read the plays instead of see them. To assist the actors, little clues as to how to perform the text were embedded in it. A basic rule for regular verses of iambic pentameter is that there are 10 syllables per line. Lines that have fewer than 10 syllables indicate that the actor should briefly pause. Look, for example, at this excerpt from MacBeths famous dagger speech from Act 2, Scene 1 of MacBeth. I see thee yet, in form as palpable As this which now I draw. The top line has 10 syllables and is thus a regular verse. The second verse has only six, meaning that a pause can be taken. In this case, the pause is used by the actor playing MacBeth to draw his actual dagger from its sheath as is indicated in the line itself. On a related but somewhat more complicated note, some ten-syllable lines are completed by two characters who are meant to speak one after the other very quickly. These situations appear as such: MARCELLUS: ... Who ist that can inform me? (3 syllable gap filled in below) HORATIO: (7 syllable gap filled in above) That can I; ... In this opening scene of Hamlet, the mood is tense because Marcellus and Horatio are on guard in the cold looking for the recently-seen ghost of the just-deceased king. Id be talking pretty quickly if I was in that situation. Wouldnt you? Q: To pick up on that last quote, why are some words abbreviated and others not? A: Marcellus is meaning to say Who is it?, but this is abbreviated to Who ist? The unabbreviated example has 3 syllables, while the abbreviated one has 2. Were the abbreviated version not used, the line would be irregular as it would have 11 syllables. 11-syllable irregular lines tell the actor something...which we will get to below. 2. Q: Why are some words elongated? A: 2-syllable words like banished are sometimes elongated to a 3-syllable banishd where an accent grave indicates that an extra syllable is to be pronounced. Some words are elongated so that the line in question contains the regular ten syllables. Q: What about lines with 11 syllables? A: Good question. These are, not surprisingly, known as irregular lines. Irregular lines serve several functions, but all are meant to give the actor who speaks the line a clue about something. What is perhaps the most famous line in Western Literature is an irregular line with 11 syllables: To be, or not to be, that is the question: (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1) The clue for the actor here is that all is not well in Hamlets mind; he is, after all, contemplating suicide. Q: Why dont I understand so many of these words? A: Words like thither, doth and anon are some of the many unfamiliar words for contemporary audiences and readers of Shakespeares plays. Keep in mind that Shakespeares plays are approximately 400 years old and the English language has evolved over that time. Thats only a small part of the explanation for so many odd-seeming words: Remember that Shakespeares language is one of the many non-literal means of communicating a story using words. People didnt speak like that back then. Also consider that Shakespeare made up a lot of words. Why? Artists make things up all the time whether it be colours and shapes in a painting, riffs in a song or steps in a dance. Q: Where Shakespeares plays meant just for royalty and other rich people? A: Royals and wealthy patrons most certainly attended Shakespeares plays, but the bulk of the audiences during his time were made up of regular folk like peasants. Q: Whats the big deal about a dead playwright from 400 years ago? A: Many of his stories and characters seem unoriginal to us, but many werent unoriginal when he wrote them. Above all, though, is the fact that Shakespeares innovative use of the words in the English language to tell stories is the work of a true master: creating new words, imbedding clues for actors in the text, creating beautiful descriptions, using many figures of speech; the list goes on. *Above all, remember that plays are meant to be seen and not read!