An interesting blog post about teaching Shakespeare and mining the metrics

I caught this online and felt it was worthy of a repost. It’s from a blogspot called Ferule and Fescue, and its author, Flavia, writes to our point here at Shakespeare Aloud extremely effectively.

In short, there are MANY different rhythms going on – the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s line, our own heartbeats and breaths, the remarkable ‘inconsistencies’ in the meter that give characters and scenes flavor and inspiration. There’s the natural attention span of young and old alike, the challenge of teaching or telling a story in ever-changing classroom times, and the flow of the Bard’s own imagery. Which is all to say, as Flavia writes about very well, there is no standard. There is just the music of the poetry and what it means to us.

Thanks for articulating it this way. And for more, go see her blog and see the comment threads.


From Ferule and Fescue…

Friday, February 03, 2012

Feeling the rhythm 

Every semester, in my Shakespeare class, I begin with two weeks on metrics. Partly this is a way of doing something productive on the first day of class, but it’s also a way of establishing, early on, that our course is going to involve attention to sound and language, not just plot and character. I think that I teach it well and most of my students respond gamely, but there are always a handful whose response is hostile puzzlement. They seem equally displeased by the restrictions of metrics and by the fact that there isn’t always a single right answer: they sigh, loudly, when we’re scanning a poem in class and I acknowledge that a particular foot could be either a spondee or an iamb–or just possibly a trochee, depending on how the neighboring foot is accented.

I sympathize, of course, and I tell them that my ambition isn’t for them to become expert scanners, but just to understand that meter can affect meaning and to be familiar with some basic terms. But I also tell them that if they do it enough, or simply read Shakespeare aloud enough, they’ll come to feel the rhythm instinctively, even recognizing when a word must have been pronounced differently in Shakespeare’s day because the logic of the meter demands it. Iambic pentameter isn’t something Shakespeare imposed on his plays; in a culture of sonnet-writing and theatre-going, it was just the back-beat of daily life.

Still, it takes a while to fully inhabit any rhythm. This semester RU has shortened all its class periods in order to add another period to the day and to free up more classroom space: we’ve gone from 60 minutes to 50, from 90 to 75, and from 195 to 165. Such changes are tough. I went from 75 minutes at INRU to 80 minutes at Big Urban, and then the next year to to 90 minutes at RU, and both those changes were disorienting. Even five extra minutes threw my rhythm off, and ten felt impossible; I was always running out of things to do, or dragging on a discussion past its natural life in order to fill time.

Over the years, though, I’ve come to love the 90-minute period, especially in my Shakespeare classes: we can do real and detailed scene work, have a free-wheeling general discussion or two, and even fit in a quiz or talk about administrative matters. I was totally in control of those 90 minutes, and losing fifteen of them feels like a disaster. It’s not about content, it’s about rhythm. I don’t feel a 75-minute period in my gut the way I do a 90-minute period, and so I’m slow to cut off one discussion to move along to the next.

I’m off my game and I hate it. These new periods feel clunky and awkward and totally unnatural. But I suppose that I’ll grow into them eventually–and that my brain and body will come to respond as they do to da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum.