Blackfriars Conference 2011 – George T. Wright Keynote Address

Greetings! I’m Charlene V. Smith and it’s 10:30 am on Day 2 of the 2011 Blackfriars Conference. George T. Wright from the University of Minnesota is giving the Keynote today, entitled “Climbing Shakespeare’s Ladder, and Other Sound Patterns.” Wright is well-known among the both the conference attendees and the graduate students at Mary Baldwin due to his seminal work Shakespeare’s Metrical Art.

After some announcements from Sarah Enloe, director of Education at the ASC, Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen takes the stage to introduce Wright. Wright is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Minnesota. Besides Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, Wright has also written Hearing the Measures: Shakespearean and Other Inflections and Poetical Craft and Authorial Design.  Dr. Ralph says that when the graduate Shakespeare program at MBC began, he really wanted to use Shakespeare’s Metrical Art as a classroom textbook. He was worried that some students, less familiar with Chaucer and poetry, might find it difficult. He says he made the mistake of using a different book, but for year two of the program Ralph “switched to the Wright/right book.”

Wright begins by noting his growing interest in ladders in Shakespeare’s text, and that years ago he noticed too many actors underplaying long verse speeches and rhetoric. They were being cheated of their force, brought down to the prose moments of the play.

Wright grew aware of growing interest amongst British actors and directors in speaking Shakespeare’s verse. Wright was interested in how verse was heard by the ear of the audience. These actors and directors were looking for guidance and rules for shared lines, pauses, enjambed versus end stopped lines, etc. Wright cares much more about the weight given to stressed and unstressed lines as they are critical to the emotional intensity of the text.

Wright notes that there are three kinds of people interested in the meter of the verse: Actors, editors, prosodists. The questions each group asks are how shall we speak the lines, how shall we print the lines, and how shall we hear the lines, respectively. Wrights says that editors and actors must print and speak the lines in a way that allows us to read and hear the lines as metrically coherent.

Wright has consulted many texts of Shakespeare’s verse and has not found much dealing with the ladder. As an example, he presents an early speech from Julius Caesar, a speech Wright says in a perfect example of a ladder.

And do you not put on your best attire?
And do you not cull out a holiday?
And do you not strew flowers in he way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.
(1.1.48-55)

The first four lines step up, and the last three lines step back down the ladder. A ladder is sequences of clauses that keep elaborating on a topic until it’s been exhausted and then the actor has to run back down.

After 1593, Shakespeare’s line really find their range. Wright says we have the plague to thank, as it caused Shakespeare to write the sonnets. With the sonnets, Shakespeare was training himself to compose verse speech in a larger four line unit. Though many sonnets are end stopped at the end of each line, usually do to the rhyme scheme. The end stopping of the lines halts the rising of the verse. There is an inherent rise and fall in the structure of the sonner. The quatrains build up and then down.

Shakespeare then used more ladders in his blank verse. Wright demonstrates Shakespeare’s powerful buildup via ladders with Richard II’s “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,” John of Gaunt’s This England, and Henry V’s famous St. Crispin Day speeches. Shakespeare had found a new way to be seriously expressive. Why say a thing once, when saying it differently and again and again will make it more memorable?

Wright notes that the performance of these ladders is not always the same, nor is it a continuous rise. The voice likes to back track a little, or down track a little, before it continues to the next level of the speeches. Wright speaks some of Macbeth’s speech, “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, / Loyal and neutral, in a moment?” This speech goes up and down constantly, as if Macbeth doesn’t know where he wants to be.

Wright launches into Claudio’s speech from Measure for Measure, “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,” a speech Wright calls, “one of the finest of all ladder speeches.” This speech goes up for many lines, and then steps down powerfully. The imagery is as over the top as the dramatic structure of the ladder, and Wright suggests that Shakespeare intended that.

Wright notes that every actor will not perform ladders the same way, but that the device should be recognized as respecting it creates a powerful effect. Shakespeare was an extraordinary writer but also an extraordinary listener.

Wright loves the increasing attention given in recent years to the performance of verse, but the more he reads about it the more questions he has. Metrical variations add texture to Shakespeare’s verse. Readers, editors, and voice professionals need to note these variations. Not just the normal variations such as trochees, but the rarer ones such as hexameter, broken-back lines, and epic caesuras, should be considered. Shakespeare uses these irregularities more than the other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and we should wonder why.

Wright then takes a few questions from the audience. One person asks about Wright’s suggestions that we have some reservations when we hear a ladder, and wonders if that is connected to a feeling that the ladder is calculated. Wright likes the idea and the suggestions it gives for performance. Another scholar asks about evangelism and whether Wright thinks Shakespeare could have picked up some of the ladder technique from church. Wright thinks it is completely possible and beautifully quotes a poem of John Donne. Mary Baldwin professor Matt Davies mentions that the sonnets were metrically regular, and that so were the examples, there weren’t a lot of inverted feet in them, which might cause a trip in the ladder.  He asks whether regularity is essential to building a ladder. Other audience members respond to this idea and ASC actor James Keegan says he notes that sort of thing a lot in Tamburlaine. Keegan then notes that he feels contemporary actors are afraid of pitch, of singing the pitch, and has anxiety about it. Wright agrees, and says that they are afraid of going of the top. But Wright says he’d like to hear actors going over the top a bit more and notes that you can find fine examples of this, nodding to Keegan’s fine performance as Prospero in The Tempest the night before.