One potential barrier to Shakespeare for students in our culture is that we think of sincerity as spontaneous and spontaneity as sincere. When we’re being true to ourselves, our cultural logic goes, we are casual and idiomatic. When we tell the truth, we think and speak and write in prose. Perhaps the most valuable of many interesting things I learned from the Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance summer course at the Globe Theatre is that Shakespeare’s characters speak in iambic pentameter when they are most authentically themselves.The meter isn’t a gimmick, it’s a heartbeat. Verse is alive, with the restrained exuberance of the formal exercise inspired by love: a wedding vow (“I do” is a trochee as the answer to “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” and an iamb as the answer to “Do you take this man?”), or an origami box.
Meter poses particular challenges for the translator, who must decide whether to preserve or disregard it. The Arden Shakespeare’s Shakespeare and the Language of Translation, a survey of adaptations and translations from around the world, wrangles engagingly with questions of form and interpretation in Bulgarian, Scottish, and British Sign Language . While iambic pentameter is most common in post-Shakespearean English, Goethe and Schiller used it as an homage. Teachers, students, and autodidacts can study a translation of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet into German and read an English-language discussion on German-language Shakespeare at this open-source Shakespeare blog, a quirky, accessible resource in the key of a good staff-room chat.
Twitter’s economy of syllables offers Wordsworth’s “scanty plot” of creative real estate. A recent Folger Education chat engaged in the debate of whether to teach the full text of a Shakespeare play (not necessarily) in iambic pentameter (yes, always). As resources for teachers proliferate online, collaboration can become truly international and interdisciplinary. The handle @Pentametron (“With algorithms subtle and discrete/I seek iambic writings to retweet”) has been automatically retweeting lines of presumably accidental pentameter for two years. Perhaps Twitter’s structured evanescence makes it the right platform for measured and imaginative speech; Jennifer Egan and David Mitchell have taken to Twitter to compose serial stories, and lyrics from pop songs like Lorde’s “Royals” have been rewritten as Shakespearean sonnets and gone viral on Tumblr. Various accounts quote, misquote, and paraphrase Shakespeare each day: debating Middle East policy, mourning celebrity deaths, critiquing New York Fashion Week.
My own favorite resource for starting a conversation in the classroom about the uses of meter is a passage from Jay-Z’s autobiographical history of rap, Decoded, quoted in part here:
The first kind of rhythm is the meter…It’s like time itself, ticking off relentlessly in a rhythm that never varies and never stops. When you think about it like that, you realize the beat is everywhere, you just have to tap into it…But the beat is only one half of a rap song’s rhythm. The other is the flow. When a rapper jumps on a beat, he adds his own rhythm. Sometimes you stay in the pocket of the beat and just let the rhymes land on the square so that the beat and flow become one. But sometimes the flow chops up the beat, breaks the beat into smaller units, forces in multiple syllables and repeated sounds and internal rhymes.. The flow isn’t like time, it’s like life. It’s like a heartbeat or the way you breathe… If the beat is time, flow is what we do with that time, how we live through it. The beat is everywhere, but every life has to find its own flow.
The truths we set to rhythm become part of a larger whole, a context, like history, we can never wholly choose and can’t help but navigate. The confinement of meter forces us to acknowledge the limits on expression and to be more lively, more real, in how we work with and around them. If reading, speaking, and performing are “what we do with time,” meter is not only a formal constraint but a reminder of mortality.