Those who attended the “Twelfth Night” reading, will recall the short discussion we had at the beginning of the session on handling the run-on lines or the enjambment that Shakespeare often uses extensively for verse in  his later plays. I have some more ideas about this that I wanted to share with you before our next reading. Please share any thoughts you might have about this topic that can help our reading! I apologize if this discussion is not interesting or useful to you.

An example from the Winter’s Tale is given below. Enjambment means that the end of the line of verse does not correspond to the culmination of a thought and meaning flows as the lines progress.

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown.

Contrast this with the end-stopping that is often seen in Shakespeare’s earlier plays, where a verse line corresponds to a thought. Here are some lines from Romeo and Juliet:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished.

One of the dilemmas of reading Shakespeare aloud is how to handle these lines when reading. Sir Peter Hall, one of the founders of the Royal Shakespeare Company, maintains that a tiny sense break should be adhered to at the end of every line to show the verse nature of a speech into clear relief. There is a wonderful discussion about this in Ron Rosenbaum‘s book “The Shakespeare Wars” and Sir Hall cherishes being called an “Iambic fundamentalist” for spearheading what he thinks is the “War on Error” in reading Shakespeare:-).

On the other hand, some readers prefer to read by following the punctuation
thus preserving meaning albeit sometimes at the expense of losing the verse shape of the speech and making it sound like prose. One interesting observation is that no one really knows how Shakespeare would himself have punctuated the verse so almost any edition of the plays that we pick up has had editorial decisions on punctuation.

I have been recently watching the much revered John Barton and Trevor Nunn master classes on “Playing Shakespeare” where Barton and Nunn work informally with a group of actors including David Suchet, Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart, Alan Howard etc and the ensemble demonstrate their ideas on acting Shakespeare. The key idea that keeps coming up is balance and needing to be aware of whether the speech is heightened or just “conversation”.

I have found it useful to go through the play, especially through the verse portions and identify the lines where I would adhere to the verse with a small pause even at the end of a verse line with no punctuation and where to read the verse in a run-on line fashion (I precede these lines with a small pencil mark). The amazing thing is that if I find I clearly understand the meaning of the particular lines of the speech, the decision on what to do suggests itself! Shakespeare varies the structure of his sentences so that small tiny pauses at the end of some lines even without punctuation give punch and energy by emphasizing the verse nature of the speech, (especially during heightened speeches, but not exclusively) and sometimes it is best to read the line as a run-on line for the sake of conveying meaning and smoothness.

The nice thing is that it is up to every reader/actor to arrive at his or her own idea of how the text should read giving us one more variable to work with in portrayal of a character. On the other hand, it seems like there is always one more thing to consider when reading Shakespeare, but I believe challenges like this led researchers to conclude that “Reading Shakespeare Has a Dramatic Effect on the Human Brain” (see PhysOrg link below) or Google Shakespeare and Brain and see what comes up!

Prashant Andrade