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Reading Shakespeare Part I: From the Heart I As You Like It

On Saturday June 18th, the Beaches branch of the Toronto Public Library is hosting their monthly Shakespeare Readers. This prompted me to start thinking about our fascination with reading Shakespeare. Why is it we love reading the bard so much? What is it about his works that makes us enjoy hearing them aloud? There are many reasons. So I’ll be exploring them in a mini-series on Reading Shakespeare. You lucky lords and ladies get part one today.

I’m going to start you out with a theory of mine and the clarification that, by mine, I mean I share it with many others and its’ near and dear to my heart. Iambic Pentameter, the metered verse Shakespeare wrote all his sonnets and many of his famous speeches in, is a wonderful rhythm. It comprises five sets of an unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat per line. So the beat of Iambic Pentameter is da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. It’s a little familiar, isn’t it? Think of a heartbeat – the unstressed and stressed beats of everyone’s favourite blood pump. The rhythm is identical.

My theory is this: that we like reading and hearing Shakespeare’s speeches and sonnets out loud because the meter they’re written in matches the beat of our hearts. It’s a rhythm we’ve known all our lives and find inherently comforting; therefore we like hearing it echoed back to us. We find it soothing and familiar. Of course, I’m not the first person to coin the idea, in fact; it’s so widely referenced that I couldn’t find out who was. The human heartbeat is even used as the rhythm example for Iambic Pentameter on Wikipedia.

Iambic Pentameter, by the way, can be linguistically broken down. It comes to us from the French ‘iambique’ meaning ‘a foot of verse’, which refers to the unstressed, stressed two syllable verse unit; and pentameter from the Greek meaning ‘five’ for the five verse units per line. Did the French and Greeks know they were quite literally naming the rhythm of their own hearts? Did clever master Shakespeare choose to write in it for that very reason? Is that why we love to read and listen to Shakespeare’s sonnets and verse speeches so much? Check back Thursday for more on reading Shakespeare.

Author Catherine Spence

A Shakespeare-loving, Toronto-based bibliophile. Loves music, art, history, classical texts, languages, food, and performance. Dislikes frozen peas. Attended Regent's University London.

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