View Full Version : A short tour of the castle

Olly Buckle
October 22nd, 2015, 12:59 PM
I am not sure if I have posted this before, I wrote it some time ago but a search for the title revealed nothing, however, I thought it reasonably appropriate as the Purple PiP is iambic pentameters this month

In ‘Letters to Alice’ Fay Weldon likens the body of English literature to a city, with suburban areas, red light areas, cultural ghettos, and looming over all Castle Shakespeare. Imagine you are walking across the drawbridge, through the open gates, and looking up at the portcullis. But a solid structure requires a good foundation, even if it is a cultural foundation.
An iamb is a metrical foot, made of two syllables, one un-stressed followed by another stressed one.
A pentameter is a line of five feet.
So an iambic pentameter is a line of ten syllables, five iambs.
dee Dah, dee Dah, dee Dah, dee Dah, dee Dah
If you have trouble saying it remember there is usually a tiny pause one side or the other of the middle pair.
Chaucer’s heroic couplet was the first form, they rhymed. Then, coming from the heroic couplet and designed to replace the classical, Latin, hexameter, came blank verse. It is the most important form in English verse, not only Shakespeare, most of the great poetry is written in it. Like the heroic couplet it is written in iambic pentameters, though not in rhyme.

Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameters right? Well right, a lot of his feet are iambs, and most of his lines are pentameters. We say he wrote in iambic pentameters because the basic form behind the verse is that. Where it fits the meaning he uses Iambs and pentameters, other places they can still be heard as part of the background structure.
Let’s consider an example of an irregular iambic structure like that, this is one of his best known lines, it comes from a scene where Hamlet is considering whether or not to kill himself.
“To be or not to be, that is the question”
Read again and listen, I expect you can hear it in your head, now try hearing it with the stresses on the bolded syllables in the line below; “be, not, be, is, quest” ; as though it is written in regular iambs.
To be or not to be, that is the question
And compare that with the way it sounds naturally.
To be or not to be, that is the question
This is how an actor would speak it on stage, the stressed syllables would be; the first ‘be’, ‘not’, ‘that’, and ‘quest-‘. There is also an unstressed syllable stuck on the end, ‘ion’ after ‘quest-’, and the stress on quest- is not so great as that on the other three stressed syllables.
Shakespeare is moving away from the monotonous regularity and putting his stresses where his meaning lies, to be or not, that is Hamlet’s question, and that it is a question is important, but not as important as the question itself. ‘Question’ is quieter, and stretched by the extra syllable; that might even have been two, “i-on”, in Shakespeare’s day.
I am going somewhere else now; this is Macbeth considering his conscience, and whether he should kill his King.
If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly, if th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time
We’d jump the life to come.

Look at that “ … DONE … DONE … ” in the first line, and then again ... DONE ... in the second line, like a great, cracked, bell, the man is cracking, he is on the verge of madness.
It makes it sombre and heavy, then comes the comma, a heavy pregnant pause mid line, before the line rushes away and overflows on to the next; his resolution and his conscience sway to and fro, and the rhythm of the verse sways with him, raggedly holding on, non stop: a colon here, and a semicolon there; but there is no full stop to madness ….
It is still blank verse, “here” pulls him back to the present, and,
“But here, upon this bank and shoal of time”
The iambs and pentameter are still there in the present and the reality. But the rhythm is all over the place elsewhere.
And look at the enjambments, the places where the meaning carries over the end of the line, The meaning flows from line to line as he considers the madness then comma and a new thought,
“But here, upon this bank … “
It is as different from Surrey’s iambic pentameters as an American Gothic, upright, plain wood, chair is from a gold encrusted, Egyptian throne. But both are seats, and both are still iambic pentameters at heart. Good foundation material

October 22nd, 2015, 01:23 PM
Olly, this is fabulous... Thank you!