On How to Read Shakespeare

Take any text that introduces Shakespeare to the beginner, and ever so shamefully little mention will be made of meter. Instead, time will be spent speaking about themes, about characterisations, about motives. Rather than bringing into relief one of the fundamental tools of Shakespeare’s trade and training the ear to hear, what can be idly “discussed” to and fro for arguable gain are emphasised. Sadly, such a sorry situation is made worse by actors often taking liberties with the meter in performance.

Puck’s epilogue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is yet another moment of Shakespearean brilliance and a fine example of how Shakespeare employs meter to reinforce meaning (stressed syllables are underlined):

If we shadows have offended
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearn-ed luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Puck, the merry prankster, is here speaking not in pentameter, but in the more playful and fun-loving tetrameter. So instead of every line containing five stressed syllables or beats, as Shakespeare usually writes his verse, Puck speaks predominately in four-beat lines of rollicking merry glee.

Shakespeare also sets up a call and response by making Puck’s first two lines end on weak beats that are emphatically answered with the lines that follow, each of which ends on the strong beat and feature one less syllable to accentuate the last word of each line.

Those lines are unevenly syllabled for another reason too. Each line of verse is ordinarily even-numbered in length, so the lines’ seven syllables go hand in hand with the sense that something does indeed need amending, as Puck confesses.

And the pièce de résistance, the thing that makes Shakespeare the king of verse, is the final two lines of the epilogue that turn from seven-syllable lines of trochees (DA-dums) to eight-syllable lines of iambs (da-DUMs). Iambic is the predominant rhythm of English prosody, the natural flow of an Anglophone’s speech, and just as Puck promises to restore amends, he himself reinforces what he says by turning from uneven trochees to well-balanced iambs and speaking in English’s natural rhythm.

In Puck’s epilogue, Shakespeare deftly works the meter to support the text’s meaning, all of which go over the head of the beginning student whose introductory books speak only of grander subjects and ignore the humbler merits of musical meter. Shakespeare is perhaps more for the ear than he is for the insights into human behaviour, and ignoring the ear’s joys is as silly as swallowing whole a blueberry cheesecake without it even brushing past the tongue.

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