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 playground help children learn to connect and be social.
So Shakespeare uses a form that speaks to our deepest selves. We experience it almost unconsciously: you may not, if you went to see Hamlet, have analysed the interruption in the meter in Ophelia's line:
“That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy”
but you will feel it. “Blasted,” in inverting the iambic foot, is a searing intrusion into the verse.
Macbeth, in an example Owen gave us on Monday, following the meter in "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," puts the emphasis on "and" – and the tragedy is in the "and." (Notice also that extra syllable on the end of the line: the tomorrows are so persistent in their creeping on that they can't be contained in the verse line.)
So next time you pick up a piece of Shakespeare, take it for a walk. Feel it physically. Everything you need is already there.
This article by Jessamy James is a reflection on SHAKESPEARE SUGERY on Monday 4th March 2019 with director Owen Horsley who trained at Drama Centre London. Directing credits include Maydays by David Edgar (RSC), Salome by Oscar Wilde (RSC) The Famous Victories of Henry V (RSC), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Garsington Opera), Henry V (Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (Watermill Theatre) Owen was Associate Director on the RSC King and Country Tour and worked with Artistic Director Gregory Doran on Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 and 2 and Henry V from 2013-16. Owen is also an Associate Director for Cheek by Jowl. He was Assistant Director to Declan Donnellan on The Changeling (2006) Cymbeline (2007), Troilus and Cressida (2008), Macbeth (2009-11) and ‘Tis Pity she’s a Whore (2011-13) becoming Associate Director in 2010. Owen Co-Directed the 2013 Tour of Tis Pity. Other directing credits include Alls Well That Ends Well (Stella Adler), The Two Noble Kinsmen (RWCMD) Outside on the Street (Edinburgh Fringe and Arcola) Antony and Cleopatra, Lysistrata, As you Like it (Guildhall School of Music and Drama), Edward II (St Andrew's Crypt), In Bed With Messalina (Courtyard Theatre) See What I See (St Clements Mental Hospital) and The Duchess of Malfi (Southwark Playhouse and UK Tour).Owen created Bard City in 2016, which offers Shakespeare training in New York as well as presenting innovative versions of his work. Owen works extensively Internationally. He has led workshops in Spain, Italy, Luxembourg, USA, China and France. Owen’s first Spanish production, The Malcontent, opened at the Almagro Festival in August 2011 before transferring to Madrid.Owen is Represented by Christina Shepherd at Shepherd Management.