Reading Shakespeare: part II


Since I last posted I’ve received a bunch of messages and comments from people interested in my reading through Bloom’s Western Canon, specifically my upcoming read of Shakespeare. A few interested in reading along.

Originally I was going to update sporadically but due to the interest, I’m going to blog the entire thing. Hopefully putting my thoughts into words on here will help me understand the material better and enrich the overall experience. I’m not exactly sure on the format but I’m thinking that I will try to make a big post per act with supplementary side posts when needed.

After a bit of deliberation, I decided that the first read will be Macbeth. It’s the shortest of the tragedies and also has plenty of witches, ghosts, madness, and murder. Also, I haven’t read it before so it will be exciting for me.

Right now the plan is to start the read sometime this week. I’m currently finishing Clavell’s excellent Noble House, but I should be done soon. So, go ahead and pick up a copy of Macbeth, preferably the Folger Shakespeare Library edition, and join me.

But first I wanted to go over a few simple points about the language of Shakespeare and poetic style. During a throwaway conversation,  my coworker commented that reading Shakespeare was too hard due to the Old English. Now, I don’t blame him for that comment, he is a product of the LAUSD so it’s a miracle he knows how to read in the first place, but he does bring up an interesting point. Shakespeare’s language wasn’t Old English, it was Early Modern English. Check out this video and fall down the rabbit hole of watching videos of people reading Baewolf like I did.

What makes Shakespeare hard to read is that his plays are written in Poetic Meter, specifically Blank Verse(non-rhyming) predominantly in Iambic Pentameter.

Meter is the basic rhythmic structure of poetry. The most common meter in the English language is Iambic Pentameter, used by Shakespeare extensively.

An Iamb is a unit made up of one unstress syllable followed by a stressed syllable. A line of Iambic PENTAmeter is made up of five Iambs. Some examples include the following:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

Another type of meter used by Shakespeare is Trochaic Tetrameter, made up of stressed followed by unstressed syllables in fours. He used this chant like meter for a lot of magical scenes or scenes involving prophecies.  The best example is from Macbeth of course.

Double, double toil and trouble; 

Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

Shakespeare does a lot of really cool things with meter such as using Iambic for high-born nobles and main characters and plain English for low born. The topic of poetic meter is vast and far beyond what I want to go into but having a bit of an outline is beneficial. Also, most of what I posted above is what I remember from my Shakespeare class from over a decade ago. If any of you guys have some input or corrections please send them my way.

Oh, did I mention, the play itself is supposedly cursed.


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