There was a sketch on Shakespeare Live! – the program broadcast by the BBC commemorating the 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – where stupidly famous actors argue where the emphasis should be in that stupidly famous line: "to be or not to be, that is the question." Should it be "to be OR not to be, that is the question," or "to be or NOT to be, that is the question," or perhaps "to be or not to be, that is THE question?”
In fact, of course, Shakespeare has already told us where the emphasis should be, because he has written it in iambic pentameter. This heartbeat rhythm is Hamlet's anchor - he needs the verse meter to contain and structure his thoughts. Or to attempt to contain them, because in that extra syllable that "question" adds to the line we see Hamlet’s inner turmoil – uncontainable – spilling out of the verse structure.
This is a thing better experienced than intellectualised, which is why, in his Shakespeare workshop Owen Horsley had us physicalising the verse in the speeches we’d brought to work on, pacing the syllables out and experiencing the physical jar of the extra syllable, the missing syllable, the syllable that inverts the iambic meter. A character whose iambs are all over the place is very telling. A character whose iambs are immaculate is also very telling. You never need to make decisions about your character's inner state in Shakespeare: it's all there in the verse.
Owen's workshop got me thinking a lot about rhythm. We speak rhythmically, Owen said, in an argument, when we need to be listened to, when we need not to be interrupted, when the stakes are high. I use rhythm a lot when working with young children. You can walk into any primary school in the country and clap a certain rhythm (if you've been in a school recently, you'll know the one I mean) and the children will echo the clap, knowing it's the signal for quiet. Little rhymes and chants get children's attention: I say, "one two three, eyes on me!" they say, "one two, eyes on you!" The nursery rhymes we learn as children are our introduction to storytelling, even to language itself. Chanting and clapping games in the pl