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Thread: Three questions from a Shakeseare novice

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    Registered User Calidore's Avatar
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    Three questions from a Shakeseare novice

    1) I've always wondered, why go to the trouble of writing in iambic pentameter if the dialogue is meant to be delivered as normal conversation?

    2) Do the historical plays work if seen in order of internal chronology, or are they best seen/read in order of composition?

    3) This may be hard: So much has been written about the intricacy and depth of his plays, both the words and the characters, and yet I thought he was writing for the unwashed masses. Did he actually work on two levels, so his works could be enjoyed by both the general public and the more educated, or are exaggerations afoot one way or the other?

    Best,

    Calidore

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    Good questions! I'm looking forward to answers from some of our better educated members, especially to number 3.

    I will give me 2 cents on question two, though. I don't know if the specifics make it different for Shakespeare, but if I want to explore an artist's complete works, I always like to go in order of publication/composition. It's always interesting to see how an author evolves over time, imo.
    Last edited by Mutatis-Mutandis; 03-25-2011 at 11:27 PM.

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    Registered User prendrelemick's Avatar
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    Yep, three very good questions.

    Although you say the words should be delivered as normal conversation, that is the current fashon and has been less important in the past. I think even in these times where realism and natural delivery are in vogue, you'd miss the rhythm if it wasn't there.

    Only his upper class educated characters speak in iambic pentameters. His low or base characters use ordinary prose, so it is used for that distinction as well.

    Your third question is one I have often wondered about too.

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    TobeFrank Paulclem's Avatar
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    It's my understanding that he did write on two levels - for the diverse audience he had. The construction of the theatre was such that the unwashed would be standing in the pit below the stage - which jutted out ito the audience. The upper classes were seated up on balconies.
    As Mick has pointed out, there were diverse characters in the play discriminated by the way they spoke. The same applies today too. (Especially in class orientated cultures like the UK). The iambic pentameter was spoken by the more "serious" characters, the upper classes to whom the story was concerned. You also get comic turns from the prose speaking minor servant characters, which break up the play, and relax the tension, whilst also playing to the pit, often in bawdy fashion.

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    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    In answer to #2, I've seen Shakespeare taught more often by genre. For example, you'll read all the comedies together, then tragedies, then histories. It might be difficult to read them in chronological order because his so-called "problem plays" are sprinkled throughout, starting from about the middle of his career (early 1600s) onwards.

    In answer to #3, I feel like many playwrights do cater to a number of different audiences. First and foremost, their work is meant to be performed/be entertaining, so they do have to make their work accessible enough and enjoyable for the lowest common denominator of their audiences. But simultaneously, if you're writing plays, you're probably a highly educated individual and would want to use your plays to engage in the intellectual discussions of the day. And throughout both the Renaissance and the medieval period (from which Shakespeare drew extensively), it was a common idea that literature was meant to be entertaining while also educational.
    Ecce quam bonum et jocundum, habitares libros in unum!
    ~Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

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    Registered User Calidore's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Paulclem View Post
    The construction of the theatre was such that the unwashed would be standing in the pit below the stage
    Ah, steerage.

    Thanks to you and prendrelemick, I've already learned something. I had noticed glancing at the scripts that iambic pentameter wasn't spoken all the time, but I never connected it to the specific characters or their status.

    (I just thought, Marc Antony in Julius Caesar speaks this way, so his speech to the crowd after the assassination would be an IP address.)

    Wilde woman: I was thinking more of the Richards and Henrys, etc.--the consecutive, as it were, historical plays. I'm wondering whether they can be read/watched in internal chronological order as a giant historical saga, or, since they were written out of order as self-contained plays, are there continuity issues and such that would create problems?

    Thanks for the input, everyone. Looking forward to more.

    Best,

    Calidore

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    Quote Originally Posted by prendrelemick View Post
    I think even in these times where realism and natural delivery are in vogue, you'd miss the rhythm if it wasn't there.
    I think indeed you would, and more. Your ears would be quite offended. Aristotle makes a good point in Poetics - the most natural of conversations would generally be spoken in iambs (and, to a lesser degree, trochees dactyls and anapests). So when a writer starts to digress from this foot (using spondees and pyrrhuses etc) he starts to sound constipated. In fact, this commenter has observed, a dearth of iambic and trochic feet is generally a mark of sloppy prose. We can also note that many polysyllabic words are iambic and trochic, which is expected given our natural predilection.

    At any rate, my first thought upon reading your first question was "why not?" Why does a poem or a play have to follow a realistic tradition? There are many rhyming quatrains and conversations in the Comedy of Errors which would never occur in real life. Perhaps Shakespeare did this to give the witness a sense that the conversations done with rhyme were somewhat rehearsed; they were not spontaneous conversations, in other words, but routine ones. In any case, though it's improbable that people would talk like this in real life, we can suspend probability for a moment to appreciate it as at least aesthetic. However, this seems offend many people, for some reason. Today, if something appears improbable it destroys the illusion by making it obvious that it is an illusion. In the past I think people were a little bit more tolerant of the improbability aspect. I, for one, am in some respects a bigger fan for the less probable since the aspect of probability starts to bar the artist from capitalizing on certain fancies of the mind.

    So one may be a little put off by its improbability (in truth, speaking almost exclusively in iambs isn't that hard with some degree of practice) but I would argue that the aesthetic gains themselves outweigh that cost (if it is even a cost).

    Moreover, as mentioned by another poster, the meter serves to distinguish between, more or less, noble and provincial characters. Though, in fact, sometimes Shakespeare has a character talk in meter while he's in a certain setting, assuming a certain role, and talk out of it while he's in a different setting, assuming a different role. A good example of this is Prince Henry in King Henry IV part 1. So, in that, it can help the audience interpret the character.

    As for the second question, things only work to a certain purpose. Therefore how you should read the plays, and in what order, depends on why you're reading the plays. If you're reading them to study how Shakespeare developed as a writer, read them in the chronological order, then read them in the order they were written, then read them again (and again...). If one is reading them as a layman, then one should probably simply read them in chronological order. That way would provide one with the best understanding of the plays' contents, at least. For example, reading King Henry IV part 2 prior to part 1 makes about as much sense as picking up Macbeth from Act 3 Scene 2 Line 54 since the second part is an immediate continuation of the first part. And Richard II, of course, gives critical information about King Henry IV's character that must be known in order to fully understand both of his plays.

    As for the third question, I'm not sure I understand it. Doesn't most art work on two levels? There is a deeper meaning expressed in an outer symbol. The symbol, essentially the metaphor, acts as a conduit whereby one can understand something abstract in terms of something specific. I think the metaphors appealed regardless of class because people, washed or unwashed, cultured or uncultured, are generally equally intelligent. For example, while reading King Lear it's easy to see that Lear is really the fool, though supposedly a seasoned old king, and that the Fool is really the 'seasoned' one. Moreover, one can see Lear persistence in believing that the fool is really a fool echoes his fundamental flaw - his inability to differentiate between appearances and true character. There are seldom allusions in Shakespeare to things that only a cultured person would know about; I remember an allusion to Fortune's Wheel in King Lear, but that would not have been construed as esoteric. Was he trying to appeal to people who did not even have the capacity to see through the metaphor? I'm not sure.

    We can compare Shakespeare to Milton, who was clearly writing for a more educated demographic. Considering, I would say that Shakespeare's plays were "exaggerated" in a direction towards the public, exploring more issues of humanity and psychology than intellectual, philosophical, religious, etc. ones.
    Last edited by Cunninglinguist; 03-27-2011 at 08:24 PM.
    Dare to know

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    Registered User prendrelemick's Avatar
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    I'd just like to come back to the third question. Is it possible that the great unwashed Elizabethan rabble in the pit were more sensitive and enlightened than the chavs and gangstas of the current age. I ask this because there seems very little for an uncultured audience in many of his plays. Unyet they were tremendously popular in Shakespeare's time.

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    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    Nah, there's lots in there for the rabble, his writing is full of puns, often sexual, and gratuitous Senecan style violence. Also, many of his plays involve plots that would already be familiar to the mass audience. The language would also seem much less dense to audiences used to the syntax.

    The theater was also a very different place at the time, you could pick up hookers there, chat with your friends, eat, yell at the actors, and have a generally wild old time.

    Edit: Also, in performance of the comedies you really see how much slap stick comedy can be incorporated to bring the text to life.
    "If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."
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    Registered User WoodyS's Avatar
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    I'm not a Shakespeare expert, but I think I can bring another answer to question 3 :

    We don't know that much about Shakespeare as a man : for his education, he went to quite a good school where he studied Literature, Classics, History etc, but he didn't go to the university. He married Anne Hathaway when he was 18, and then, he completely disappeared. From 1585 to 1587, there is no clue that could reveal us what Shakespeare did, but in 1587 he apprently arrived in London, and the proof of his presence there was a pamphlet by Robert Greene published in 1592 -in which Greene criticized him. So we can say that Shakespeare had an educational background, although he didn't go to the university.

    During the Elizabethan Era, a drama did not have any educational nore artistic value. It was only entertainment. It didn't cost much -for people who stood during the play, it costed a bit more for people in the balconies. There, poor people could both see a show AND see "celebrities" (aristocrats and rich people in the balconies). As a rich, you came to the Theatre both to see a play and have fun, but also to be seen. If you examine the construction of a "wooden o" theatre like the Globe, you can notice that you see much better from the ground than from the balconies, from which you barely saw the actors ! So going to see a play at Shakespeare's time didn't have the intellectual value it has today. It was entertainment, and only entertainment. The authors weren't seen like artists, nore as writers, writing plays was something that you did when you wanted to earn money !

    Plus, like OrphanPip said, people were used to Shakespeare's language, which is really different from today's English. And every character has a very special way of talking : take the exemple of Romeo and Juliet, and you'll see the difference between Juliet's lyrical text and Mercutio's sexual allusions and sometimes obscene humour. Shakespeare's texts were understandable, there's no doubt about it.

    Yes, there are a lot of historical and mythological backgrounds in Shakespeare's plays, but it didn't matter actually : these backgrounds could be understood by the educated audience, and the less educated one didn't care about it, for they came to have fun, see fights, see a show and do many other things that OrphanPip evocated earlier.

    A last word : at Shakespeare's time, playwrighters often wrote plays together and then signed under one name only. If you notice discrepencies in his writing, it's normal : there's no reason why he should have written alone while his colleagues wrote in groups !
    "His books made me his friend."

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    hmmm, i would say something...

    It does not matter. As Coleridge said about Wordsworth claim that his poems used the mundane form of dialogue, what matters is the effect that it was the mundane words, etc while it was not. The audience at threatres expected that kind of language which would represent normal saying. Just like we expect a movie to have background silence (Or lower sounds) to hear the dialgoue.

    As how do you want to read, be my guest. They work well as separated entities, as groups, as anything.

    Shakespeare did wrote for the masses, but as well for the educated people. You can see both elements on Shakespeare, who had the ambition to be something else, beyond a dramaticist and those elements are in his play. However, Shakespeare threatre was not the popular, traveling, anything goes teatre. He is not even as "popular" as Moliere. I would say more urban style, where he had the obligation to include classical references and such, which would please the richer class (which was not exactly higher educated either).

    However, Shakespeare plays were edited and published not by him, but by people who late studied him. Those people have polished the varations, versions (which Shakespeare produced for his public) to us.

    And Popular, massive art can be pretty complex. See Rabelais, Cervantes which both go to deepths of "3 stooges style" sometimes. It is because the masses can enjoy complexity (bible, faery tales, 1001 nights), they may not reproduce or explain it. But they can enjoy it.

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    Shakespeare was a poet who wished to be read and studied than acted on stage.

    It is common knowledge that Shakespeare went to a good school, he was a diligent learner, had a very good knowledge of history, was an adept in plotting themes and moreover and more than everything, he was a talented poet. It was his wish not to be read and acted on stage as a playwright but to be learned and studied as a poet and creator of literature. But in his times, to win his daily bread, he had no other choice but to write plays and get them played on stage. He always considered his works as major literary creations in poetry which we now know were true too. So he was in his inner self a sad poet who for a living had to go through the tediousness of arranging stage presentations. But he firmly believed that a day would come when he would be begun to be studied as a poet rather than being acted on stage as a dramatist. Therefore he saw no reason to lower the permanence and durability of his poetry by using normal conversation-like dialogues instead of Iambic Pentameter which was easy for him. It was not at all a trouble for him. His poetical lines were nearer to dance than drama. Try to sing those lines in fast rhythm: you will recognize how easy it would have been for him to create them. Today we all know that his wish has been granted by Time. Shakespeare has ceased to be acted on stage but begun to be studied as a poet. Thomas Hardy, another Londoner, protested forming a Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and predicted that he was no more a playwright but a poet and would soon be begun to be considered so.



    No one turns to Shakespeare’s plays for learning the truth of historical events for all knows that he distorted the relevance and comparative significance of events in history for stage appeal and poetical charm. Therefore, as many Lit Netters in this forum have pointed out, it is good to read his works in the order of their writing or staging so that the intellectual development of the writer could be followed.



    Like all poets who wished immortality for his poems, Shakespeare also did not compromise the loftiness of his language and diction for momentary applause. When needed, he did lower the refinement of his speeches to suit the tongue and demeanor of his characters. But that he was writing for the uneducated and moderately educated is a fallacy into which many of his critics and evaluators have fallen into. In fact, he knew that his great many spectators were rising in their language skills, refinement and polishness each day, with each show. What else to cause delight to an entertainer?

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    The actual problem with Shakespeare is that people like Mark Twain couldn't find evidence that he actually lived and wrote in the town where he was supposed to have lived. Plus there is a substantial amount of evidence that his writings came from Venice during times of Catholic hegemony in England. Apart from that, whether you like or don't like Shakespeare's writings is personal.
    I have criticized his sonnet #52 in the negative because he speaks about power to hurt and redeems those who can do it but refrain. But in my opinion there is no way to redeem power to hurt because in the first place it would have to be proven and the only way to prove it is to do it. So to me, as it is evident anywhere else, he admired aristocratic values of the times in a legendary manner which was not occurring. Twain did a lot of research on English aristocratic values enjoying a lot of satirical laughter at their go about and the gossip around them. You can get the Kindle edition of Twain's work at Amazon for a few dollars. There is a lot of research about England's aristocracy and several stories about its relationship with the New World.
    Last edited by cafolini; 10-04-2011 at 05:02 PM.

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    Up the close and down the stair,
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    Shakespeare reflected back at his audience whatever they were ready to see. An old essayist said that the mark of genius in a writer is the writer's willingness to leave the interpretation to the audience, and Shakespeare did this to an uncanny degree. There are brilliant and plausible arguments for almost every answer you'll read here. It's been argued, I think, that Shakespeare's plays contain themes that Only an 'uneducated' audience would have grasped, and of course there's an abundance of material for the opposite view. Even the implausible, the goofy idea that the real Shakespeare was a ghostwriter, is in a sense justified by the fact that Shakespeare is fundamentally an author who seduces the intellect: his plays draw on the governing ideas their readers and audience. Borges wrote a story wherein Shakespeare appears as a kind of mental aberration, a man with no emotions and almost no personality, and I think this shows a deeper understanding of Shakespeare than does most scholarship.

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