Blackfriars Conference 2013 — The End of Shakespeare’s Verse?, Part 2

Hi, I’m Charlene V. Smith and I’ll be taking over the live blogging from Molly for part 2 of The End of Shakespeare’s Verse?, from 10am-11am, specifically Giles Block’s section of the presentation.

While listening to the Patrick Spottiswoode’s introduction, it struck me that the word ‘end’ has several meanings within the question Giles Block and Abigail Rokison are asking. What is the end of Shakespeare’s verse, i.e., what is the purpose of Shakespeare’s verse? Where is the end of Shakespeare’s verse, i.e. what does lineation tell us about theatrical delivery? Is Shakespeare’s verse ending, i.e., are we losing Shakespeare’s verse in modern performance, or even, perhaps, should we lose Shakespeare’s verse in modern performance?

Block opens by admitting that it is difficult to describe to people what he does. Mark Rylance calls him, “the ear on the play.” Block will work with American Shakespeare Center actors René Thornton, Jr., Allison Glenzer, John Harrell, and Benjamin Curns to reveal what he does in the rehearsal room.

Block asks, what do we do with enjambments, when a thought runs over from one line of iambic pentameter into the next? He says there are three ways, using some example text from The Merchant of Venice.

1. with the punctuation: When I told you My state was nothing, I should then have told you That I was worse than nothingBlock notes that this is not how Shakespeare wrote the line.

2. a thought and a breath goes together, delivering the line in a single breath, without any pauses. Block notes that this doesn’t sound like spontaneous speech, like us coming up with words as we speak.

3. Block suggests following the form. We acknowledge there is a single thought, but it is expressed in three parts
When I told you
My state was nothing, I should then have told you
That I was worse than nothing.

He believes this replicates the way we speak and achieves clarity of expression, and also opens a window onto how the speaker is feeling. He argues that the more a speaker is feeling something, the more the speeches get enjambed.

In Macbeth, the enjambments aren’t necessarily associated with moments of high joy or sorrow, but just the way people are speaking all the time. As an example, John Harrell performs a Malcolm speech from 4.3 of Macbeth: “It is myself I mean.” Block points out that most of the lines do not have a punctuation mark at the end. This speech is about comparison. Macbeth and Malcolm. Black and pure as snow. Block asks Harrell to deliver again, following the verse structure more. Block feels that the line ending is never arbitrary, and can help bring greater emphasis to the first stress of the next line. Block asks for the speech a third time, using the “my” in the final line a bit more (“With my confineless harms.”). Block notes that he never wants to know what an actor is doing at the end of the line – he doesn’t call it a pause. Block notes that enjambment are a hallmark of an active mind when engaged in speaking.

The next example is “Cure her of that,” performed by Thornton, Jr. Block says that this speech has a different sound; the speaker’s mind is not busy formulating persuasive arguments. Instead we hear deep longing and Macbeth’s need to disburden himself of this knowledge. Blocks asks Thornton, Jr. to think about the sounds of the speech. We go from ‘m’ sounds to ‘r’ sounds to ‘s’ sounds: minister, mind, memory; raze, troubles, brain; some, sweet, cleanse, stuffed, bosom, stuff. Block says the m’s sound like longing, s’s sound like secrets, whispering. Using Block’s adjustments, Thornton, Jr. gives a moving reading of those lines.

Block says the problem with Macbeth is that we know it too well. We all could be saying these words along with the actors. Block says this is too bad; if only we could forget it, because he feels there is something about this play that makes it stand out. The original audience would have been less familiar with this story, unlike other Shakespeare plays many of which had a preceding theatrical version (Other early modern plays exist about Richard III, Henry V, King Lear, and Hamlet, for example). The play is actually quite weird and enigmatic. It takes until the seventh scene of the play before we hear the first major speech which says the things that haven’t been said up unto this point. Block characterizes this speech as exposition happening deep within the play.

Next Block works with Allison Glenzer on Lady Macbeth’s speech at the end of this same scene. In this speech we learn the back story. Macbeth has sworn to kill the king, which we don’t see during the play. They’ve talked about this and made a pact before the play begins. Blocks says this information helps everything fall into place. Lady Macbeth’s behavior makes sense. The vagueness of their previous conversations makes sense. Block says Macbeth is already guilty when the witches talk to him. The baby that is mentioned is the topic they never talk of, because it is too painful. Block asks Glenzer to make “time” and “place” sound different and to use the “know” more. He asks her to find little phrases which he characterizes as “pop-up thoughts.” He points out “whilst it was smiling in my face” as an example of this. Glenzer’s powerful performance is met by ‘ooo’s by the audience. Block gives Glenzer a couple more notes, and she performs the speech again. The dynamic result seems to leave the audience breathless.

Next Block returns to the top of this scene, to the “If it were done” speech. He has given the actors the speech broken up into thought units, which they read unit by unit. Block is interested by soliloquies and to whom they are spoken. Yes, they are spoken to the audience, but to which part? Block has a feeling that the early part of this speech isn’t for the groundlings. Block argues that Macbeth is saying the first lines to his non-present wife. Perhaps practicing for the conversation they planned to have later: “we will speak further.” The actors demonstrate, with Glenzer representing the absent Lady Macbeth. Harrell says this exercise has made him see this first line in a new light: “If it were done, WHEN ’tis done,” i.e. “if the leaves get raked… WHEN the leaves get raked.”

This is no time in Macbeth, that is what makes the story work, and that is why there is no early exposition: there is no time for it. Block suggests the speech shifts on “This even-handed Justice.” Now it is less about talking to Lady Macbeth; perhaps Macbeth is speaking to the gods, looking for answers. The actors continue working the speech in this manner. Curns makes a fascinating choice to take back to Lady Macbeth the line about being Duncan’s host. For the next step, Block asks where we should place Lady Macbeth since we can’t actually have her on stage. Block points out that there’s something about how the imagery moves upwards: heaven, angels, etc. He points that out and also asks the actors to use the intimacy of this space in their delivery.

In the final moments, Block looks at Macbeth’s speech “Within this hour.” In his example text, Block has marked all the pop-up ideas with parentheses. Curns reads the speech, leaving those marked thoughts out. The sense and story is still clear. Block notes that Macbeth has all these add-ons and it is in the add-ons where the character resides. Curns does the speech again, this time with the add-ons. Block lists two ways to do an add-on: either drop them down, or make them more important than the surrounding text.