Guide note: In the first of a regular series, our "Teaching Shakespeare" columnist shows you how to bring Shakespeare to life in the classroom and drama studio. We start with a practical approach to an old question: how do you speak Shakespearian verse?
How to Speak Shakespearean Verse
by Duncan Fewins
What is Verse?
Unlike modern plays, Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote plays in verse. This is a poetic framework that gives characters a structured speech pattern and enhances their authority. Typically, Shakespeare’s verse is written in lines of ten syllables, with an ‘unstress-stress’ pattern. The stress is naturally on the even numbered syllables.
For example, take a look at the first line of Twelfth Night:
If mu- / -sic be / the food / of love, / play on
ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM / ba-BUM
However, verse isn’t spoken continuously in Shakespeare’s plays. Generally, characters of higher status speak verse (whether they are magical or aristocratic), especially if they are thinking aloud or expressing their passions. So it would follow that characters of low status don’t speak in verse – they speak in prose.
The easiest way to tell whether a speech is written in verse or prose is to look at how the text is presented on the page. Verse doesn’t go to the edge of the page, whereas prose does. This is because of the ten syllables to a line structure.
Workshop: Verse Speaking Exercises
- Choose a lengthy speech by any character in a Shakespeare play and read it aloud whilst walking around. Physically change direction every time you reach a comma, colon or full stop. This will force you to see that each clause in a sentence suggests a new thought or idea for your character.
- Repeat this exercise, but instead of changing direction, say the words “comma” and “full stop” out loud when you get to the punctuation. This exercise helps heighten your awareness of where there is punctuation in your speech and what its purpose is.
- Using the same text, take a pen and underline what you think are the natural stress words. If you spot an often repeated word, underline that as well. Then practice speaking the text with an emphasis on these key stress words.
- Using the same speech, speak it aloud forcing yourself to make a physical gesture on every single word. This gesture can be clearly connected to the word (for example a finger point on “him”) or can be more abstract. This exercise helps you to value every word in the text, but again it will make you prioritize the correct stresses because you will naturally gesture more when saying key words.
Finally and above all, keep speaking the words aloud and enjoying the physical act of speech. This enjoyment is the key to all good verse speaking.
- Always use the punctuation in order to discover the natural places to pause or breathe when speaking verse. A common mistake is to always pause for breath at the end of a line. As Shakespeare often writes sentences that go across lines, this tendency to breath at the end of the line will distort the meaning and create an unnatural intonation.
- Be aware of the natural stress rhythms in the verse but don’t allow them to dominate your delivery of the line. Instead look at the line in its entirety and decide where your stress should go.
- Listen to the beautiful imagery and poetic elements of the verse and close your eyes when saying the words. Allow the imagery to form pictures in your mind. This will help you find meaning and substance in your lines. If you connect imaginatively with the language, you will naturally speak the words more effectively.
- Listen carefully to the colliding rhythms and sounds in Shakespeare’s verse. Often repeated words, harmonic sounds and clashing sounds help you to understand Shakespeare’s intentions and the motivations of your character.
- Obviously, use a dictionary if the context doesn’t present you with the meaning of a word you say. Not knowing the meaning of one of your words can be a problem. If you don’t know what it means, the chances are the audience won’t either!