Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Language

posted by Eric Pargac at 11:44 PM

Alright, so we are doing a little classical theatre at Furious. Fair Maid is a 17th Century text, and it is in blank verse - neither of which I have any experience with. Although I’ve done my share of work with modern plays, outside of reading the title role in a high school English class oral reading of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I had not done any classical theatre. OK, maybe I was a little intimidated, who knows? But I have to say, I have more than embraced the work, I actually ENJOY it.

Before we even had our first read through for Fair Maid, the cast began text analysis workshops with Art Manke, a frequent director at the Pasadena Playhouse and one of the co-founders of A Noise Within, widely recognized as the preeminent classical theater company in Southern California. For this class we used Shakespeare’s text for purposes of analysis. Although Thomas Heywood is no Shakespeare, he uses the same general rules in the blank verse iambic pentameter of Fair Maid. This proved to be a truly amazing class, and vital to my ability to communicate the language.

We started with Hamlet’s speech to the players. First, Art had us look up EVERY word in the speech in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). If you’ve never used the OED before, it’s quite amazing. It lists every word in the English language and all its definitions throughout history. If the word appears in Shakespeare, it is often cited as to the exact meaning in that particular Shakespeare play. Just this step expanded my understanding of the text immensely.

Next we went through and underlined all the operatives (the nouns, verbs and adjectives that make up the meat of the sentence). Art explained that as you read and perform Shakespeare these are the words that you want to stress. Just hearing and reading the text only stressing these words again lead to a greater clarity of meaning.

But we were only two layers deep into this Shakespeare onion, it was time to really start pealing away the layers. We were off to tackle the beast known as METER.

a. The measured arrangement of words in poetry, as by accentual rhythm, syllabic quantity, or the number of syllables in a line.
b. A particular arrangement of words in poetry, such as iambic pentameter, determined by the kind and number of metrical units in a line.
c. The rhythmic pattern of a stanza, determined by the kind and number of lines.

This was no small task since, as Art explained, this was where the true emotional meaning of the text could be found. The verse of Shakespeare is typically in iambic pentameter, meaning the syllables are stressed in a rhythm were the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed (iambic). Then within each line are five feet, or sets of these syllabic pairs (pentameter).

Now for the key to unlock the verse…

Emotion within the iambic pentameter is represented by irregularities in the verse. So, whenever a line is not it typical iambic pentameter there is some sort of emotional reaction going on in the speaker. The more irregularities, the more emotional the speaker is whether it be love, fear, anger or just plain confusion. They key is to find these irregularities and use them.

If you put all this work together and go back to the punctuation of the original folio versions to define the phrasing, it is like getting Shakespeare’s original directing notes. Pretty amazing stuff. But reading this on a page probably does it no justice. If you ever get a chance, take a text analysis class with Art Manke. It will be the best theatre class you’ll ever take. I know it was for me. Thanks, Art. You convinced me that Shakespeare really is a genius. This class truly prepared me to tackle the Fair Maid of the West.


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