Acting Shakespeare
Acting Shakespeare
USEFUL NOTES ON LANGUAGE from Discover Fine Acting

Apostrophe   Blank Verse   Caesura   Dictionaries / Glossaries / Guides   Elision   End-stopping  Enjambment   Iambic Pentameter   'ion' Ending   Pronouns   Pronunciation   Prose / Verse   Punctuation  Rhyming Couplet   Thou / You

Apostrophe (') & Elision
Often an apostrophe shows a word is possessive (e.g. "the boy's book": the book belonging to the boy). It can also show elision - where a join is made and the apostrophe replaces something missed out, e.g. "don't", eliding "do" and "not". With Shakespeare, elision is often linked to the verse rhythm of iambic pentameter, where the line would be irregular if the full syllable were spoken.

          Example of Elision:
          "But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport."
          "disturb'd" would be pronounced with 2 syllables: "dis-turbd", as is usual in modern
          parlance (speech), the 'e' being left out

Correspondingly, were this word written "disturbed", it would be pronounced with 3 syllables: "dis-turb-ed" (final syllable to rhyme with 'wed').

Where this pronunciation - unusual in modern speech - feels too awkward, the actor can choose whether or not to use it. Work with it at first, though, to feel what it gives to the piece, before making your decision.

In other texts, this pronounced syllable may be shown by the use of an accent above the 'e', as in 'disturbéd'. This style usually means that "disturbed" - without the accent - would only be 2 syllables (the equivalent of "disturb'd" above).

Be sure to investigate which style is being used when working with a new text!

Blank Verse
Shakespeare mostly writes in blank verse - verse lines, with a set length and rhythm (see also iambic pentameter), that do not rhyme. He uses rhyme as well, of course, and where two lines together end in rhyme, they are referred to collectively as a rhyming couplet.

Caesura, Enjambment and End-stopping
These terms relate to where a thought stops, shown by punctuation. The end of a thought in the middle of a verse line is a caesura. Where the sense of the thought continues from one line to the next (no punctuation at the end of the line), you see enjambment and end-stopping is where the sense ends at the end of the verse line. Mark Antony's famous funeral speech for Julius Caesar (Act 3, Sc. 2) shows end-stopping as the usual, with line 5 below showing both caesura (full stop near middle of line) and enjambment (no punctuation at end of line):
"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it."
To ride the rhythm of the verse, it is best not to pause within a line, so a caesura does not mean a real pause or breath. Rather, it is a sign of how quickly the next thought follows on, and therefore a useful acting clue. Breaths can be taken at the end of a verse line, including where there is no punctuation (though you can try continuing), so do remember that, even with enjambment, the final word of the line acts as a 'hook' that catches the audience and keeps them listening, wanting to know what comes next - even more so with enjambment, in fact. So do not lose this final word in delivery, just because the sense runs on!

Dictionaries / Glossaries / Guides

Shakespeare's Words: Glossary by David & Ben Crystal - online, for immediate use; site well worth exploring (see also pronunciation); book also available; this is a modern work
A Shakespeare Glossary by CT Onions - online (though not easily searchable) and available as pdf download (which is searchable for every instant of word); book also available, and this has been traditionally used for generations now

The above glossaries contain definitions and sample usages for Shakespearean words; the following offer information about Shakespeare's plays, characters and life:

The Rough Guide to Shakespeare by Andrew Dickson
Essential Shakespeare Handbook by Leslie Dunton-Downer & Alan Riding
Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal - also very informative about Shakespeare's language (by co-author of Shakespeare's Words)

There are hundreds of Shakespeare sites online (as well as many, many books) - you can find some helpful starting links at Acting Shakespeare.

Iambic Pentameter (you can find very clear practical help within Skills for Shakespeare)
An iamb is a foot (set of syllables) in verse metre (rhythm) which is made up of
two syllables, with a stronger stress on the second syllable, e.g.:
Pentameter means metre times 'five' (penta) - five instances of a set metre or foot;
five instances of iambic feet is, therefore:
   de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum
This makes a line of iambic pentameter, which is the basic rhythm with which Shakespeare creates his verse, e.g.:
   If music be the food of love, play on!   (Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night, Act I, Sc. i)

Specific detailed use of iambic pentameter affects expression of a line and this rhythm can work as Shakespeare's instructions to his actors. For clear articles looking at these exciting possibilities in the verse, explore the DF Acting Skills for Shakespeare series.

'ion' ending
In Shakespearian pronunciation, 'ion' endings (e.g. "dissension", "pronunciation") were sometimes pronounced "ee-on", making this ending 2 syllables long, instead of the modern 1 syllable pronounced "on". This tends to be more awkward than elision and is often avoided; again, it is the actor's choice, and should be explored with "attenshee-on" given to verse rhythm and to any rhymes involved.

Pronouns (such as I, she, you, they) are often stressed in modern speech. In Shakespeare's texts, however, stressing pronouns can overwhelm other words important to the meaning of a line and can also diminish the 'drive-through' and energy of a thought, as well as its clarity.

Usually, the iambic rhythm shows Shakespeare emphasised pronouns far less than we tend to nowadays - where a strong stress does fall on a pronoun, you are being given something particular with which to work: a useful note! (See also Thou / You and this detailed example: Titania.)

Spelling, especially before the 18th century (and the start of standardised spelling), can help to indicate pronunciation. Through the ages, there have been writers (known as orthoepists) who describe pronunciation known to them. Additionally, intrinsic to Shakespeare's writing (and that of others), clues can be found in rhymes, rhythm and puns. (See comments on pronunciation of the 'ion' ending)

Samples of plausible "original pronunciation" can be found at David Crystal's (he is a co-author of Shakespeare's Words).  One cannot know for sure how actors spoke in Shakespeare's time, but they too would have differed from each other due to regional variations - there was no set, standard pronunciation, and certainly not what is used as RP (received pronunciation) these days.

Prose / Verse
Prose is 'normal', non-verse, writing.  Shakespeare uses prose which is frequently - though not always - linked to status of character (verse being more usual for higher status).

Shakespeare's verse is usually blank verse - though he often rhymes as well (and uses rhyming couplets) - and it is generally in iambic pentameter.

Shakespeare's punctuation is not really known - see detailed example: Titania

Rhyming Couplet
This refers to two verse lines which end in words that rhyme (see also blank verse); often a rhyming couplet is used for exit lines, such as:
   Not for thy fairy kingdom! Fairies away,
   We shall chide downright if I longer stay.
   [Exit Titania]
and for ending sonnets, such as:
   SONNET 18:
   So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

(For a look at these sonnet lines and iambic pentameter, see Speaking in Iambic Pentameter, and there are various online Sonnet 18 enjoyments at "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?")

Thou / You
Nowadays English uses 'you' for singular and plural and without attention given to the speaker's relationship with the person being addressed (German and French, though, distinguish these, much as older English does). Shakespeare makes use of both this modern manner and of an older custom. Sometimes his 'you' may not, therefore, tell you much about the relationship between characters (when it is used in the modern fashion), but very often it is connected to the older form. This means that it is well worth considering why a character is saying 'thou' or 'you'.
The following notes are also true for the various forms of these pronouns (thee, thy / thine, thyself, your, yours, yourself - see useful table).

   Regarding number:
   'Thou' is singular, used to address one person only, while 'you' (also 'ye') is plural and
   addresses more than one.

   Regarding relationship:
   'Thou' is informal, used for someone of equal or lower status, or someone with whom
   the speaker is familiar; it can be an insult, if it implies a lower status in order to offend;
   those of high status may also use it for an equal, but generally use 'you'.

   'You' is formal, used for someone of equal or higher status; it can be used to honour and
   to flatter; used against type, it can also ridicule.

Thou Pesky 'Thou' is a useful essay on this subject and includes reference to 'thou' being used to offend (Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Act III, Sc. ii - find line 42).

For information about these words related to iambic pentameter, see pronouns.

Putting Shakespeare's Language to Practical Use
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