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Strategies for Teaching Shakespeare's Meter

by Eric Binnie

I teach Shakespearean meter in three of my classes in the Theatre Arts Department of a small liberal arts college. These courses are

  Voice, Articulation &Text Reading (intro. level; max. 18 students)
  Shakespeare and Performance (intro. level; max. 12 students)
  Acting III: Shakespeare (upper level; max. 18 students).

Meter is an essential part of each of these courses. There are difficulties, but students do gain at least a minimal understanding. I know that since I teach in a theatre department I may not have the same problems of juggling time against coverage of texts that many of my colleagues in literature departments have.

Since Voice, Articulation & Text Reading is a basic requirement for all Theatre Arts students, I shall describe the work of this course. An essential feature of this class is that each student must record his/her voice and submit a short tape each week for feedback. Class meets on a thrust stage in a large comfortable theatre which allows plenty of room for students to move freely about the well-sprung, wooden stage floor. Most of the early meetings, and the first twenty minutes of each of the later classes, consist of relaxation, movement, and breathing exercises. I also issue and explain the most simple aspects of meter to them, using excerpts from John Frederick Nims' Western Wind: an Introduction to Poetry, Chapter 9, "The Dancer and the Dance: the Play of Rhythms," which is especially useful in showing students that everyday speech and song in English are often in iambic pentameter, e.g.

"I hate to see that evenin' sun go down."
"Suppose you take your damn feet off the chair."

I then bring a drum or a tambourine to class and add beat to the movement and breathing exercises. Each student locates the pulse just under the ear and just behind the jaw bone or on the wrist and keeps a finger there while walking around the stage to the rhythm I beat out on the drum. I vary the rate but keep the same rhythm and ask them to say aloud, "I am, I am, I am, I am, I am." I make a very slight pause after the fifth "I am"-maybe this is cheating, but pretty soon they get the idea that five "I am"s take up a comfortable amount of breath.

We then watch the John Barton video "Using the Verse." This takes about three class days because it contains too much material to be absorbed and discussed in one class. I also put a copy of this tape on reserve in the AV. room of the library so that they know to consult it whenever they have questions. Each student also writes a short analysis of this video.

Next, we work in groups of about six or seven making "sound pictures." Each composition must use a number of overlapping rhythmic patterns and must have a beginning, middle, and end. Typical themes are "a forest at dawn" or "a storm at sea." They use vocal sound and natural sounds like drumming on the floor, scratching fingernails on denim, or finger snapping. Each group presents their picture to the others and asks them to guess the title of the piece. By this means the students gain some idea of variation in rhythm as well as onomatopoeia.

From this we move to group presentations of some of the Chorus' "sound pictures' from Henry V. Once again these are presented by each group of five or six students to the rest of the class, and the scenes are followed by discussion of the various poetic devices and "sound effects" incorporated into the Chorus passages by Shakespeare. (I owe this exercise to a Voice course I took at Central School of Speech and Drama in London a couple of summers ago.)

By this stage, the students have selected one of Shakespeare's sonnets which they prepare and present to the rest of the class in a Sonnet Festival, which comes about mid-point in the course. Each student presents his/her sonnet several times over a couple of weeks, with constructive feedback from the rest of the class. They have also submitted their sonnet to me on tape so that I can help with any problems in a more individual way. This allows me to become aware of any students who still have difficulty with rhythmic speech, and also of those who can read pretty well on tape but fall apart once they are in front of their peers. While I admit to complete failure in a couple of instances, the sonnet work usually results in students having greater understanding and confidence about speaking Shakespearean verse. (The notion that a sonnet lasts one minute is a great help. If totally nervous, the student can always repeat, "It'll be over in a minute" at the end of each line/breath, and, indeed, it will be so. In this work I am using ideas derived from a couple of workshops I took at Shakespeare & Co., especially the work of Tina Packer and Jon Epstein).

Before moving into text from the plays, I use an exercise which I believe is a popular aspect of the summer training course at the Royal National Theatre. (I have never taken this course, but the exercise has been described to me by colleagues who have done so). Take any six or seven verse lines from Shakespeare, preferably not too well known, but not too difficult either. Remove all indications of line endings and punctuation and write the lines out on an index card. Form the students into groups of five or six sitting in a circle. Hand the card to the first student who reads it aloud, sight unseen. He passes the card to the next student who reads it again, having already heard it once. Repeat till it goes all round the circle. At best, by the time it reaches the last in the group, some kind of sense and rhythm will emerge; at worst, it is a lot of fun. The next group then reads their card and so on. This is followed by discussion. If time permits I have the students read short passages from Marlowe and Moliere (Wilbur translation) in the same way, in the hope that they might see how "natural" Shakespeare's verse rhythms are to English speakers. This comparison can also be extended to include the works of certain contemporary American and Canadian playwrights.

The final work of the class is to select speeches from one of the plays. The students vote on which play to select, and I choose speeches of roughly equal length, suitable to the vocal qualities of each student. We work on these passages in class for several meetings, and the students work on them on their tapes. Each student submits a short essay containing a paraphrase of the speech, an analysis of its meter, and a description of any special poetic effects. ( This type of preliminary work I derive from Audrey Stanley). The final class presentation is a reading of the speeches. The main purpose is to demonstrate to the students how much they have advanced since the first class, and that speaking Shakespeare's text need not be an embarrassing chore-may even be a source of pleasure.

While this is an outline of some of the work of my Voice, Articulation & Text Reading course, I use variations of these strategies in teaching my other two Shakespeare classes.

Let me conclude by answering the specific questions Ellen J. O'Brien asked in her SAA Workshop "Dancing the Meter" (Chicago, 1995).

Frankly, I don't see the point of teaching Shakespeare if one does not teach meter. I follow Kristin Linklater and Tina Packer in believing that the breath is the emotional source of meaning and, therefore, of the text. Failure to understand how the breath works through meter would be to seriously reduce comprehension of the plays.

To enhance understanding of how breath, rhythm and emotion are interrelated in Shakespeare's methods.

1) Reluctance of students to read aloud for fear of sounding foolish in front of their peers.
2) The widely spread practice of teaching Shakespeare from the page rather than from the stage.

Useful Teaching Aids
Barton, John. Using the Verse, videotape (Films for the Humanities, 1990)
Berry, Cicely. The Actor and his Text (Macmillan, 1987)
Brubaker, E.S. Shakespeare Aloud ( 1976)
Linklater, Kristin. Freeing Shakespeare's Voice ( T.C.G., 1992)
Nims, John Frederick. Western Wind, 2nd. ed. (Random House, 1983)
Spain, Delbert. Shakespeare Sounded Soundly (Garland-Clarke, 1988)
Rodenburg, Patsy. The Right to Speak (Methuen, 1992)
Wright, George T. Shakespeare's Metric Art (U.Cal.Press, 1988)

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