We have been working on the verse in Macbeth. Iambic Pentameter. What is that?
An iamb is a metrical foot comprised of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Such as ‘elope’, ’embrace’, or ‘raccoon’. A line of iambic pentameter is simply five of those stuck together. Pretty simple. ‘And if you do it right it sounds like this.’ If you say that sentence out loud, it should sound pretty natural, but you should hear the inherent rhythm.
‘And if you do it right it sounds like this.’
Why? Patterned language, language with a rhythm, has a beat. That beat, that some say imitates the human heart beat, keeps things moving. Like music, it just moves. And in a play, that’s good. But language with a beat can also be manipulated to create special effects within the speech, and create special moments that reflect what is going on in the speech.
Speaking of eloping and embracing, Romeo and Juliet. Probably not raccoons. Perhaps some of the calmest, most harmonious speech is that of Friar Lawrence. He speaks in almost predictable, unbroken, soothing speech, with little punctuation, and thoughts that fill the line.
Now ere the sun advance his burning eye,
The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry,
I must up-fill this osier cage of ours
With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.
Each thought takes a full line, or two. There is no punctuation within a line of verse, and the rhythm is even and predictable. But there’s more! These are rhyming couplets, which means that every two lines rhyme with each other. Even more soothing. Even more predictable.
The point of all this is to give context to some beautiful uses of disjointed, broken, unharmonious language in Macbeth. Speaking of raccoons. Are there raccoons in Macbeth? No, but there should be.
What could you do to a line of iambic pentameter to make it broken, not soothing, not predictable.? Break up the line with punctuation, or, worse, make it separate sentences. And then give those sentences to more than one speaker. What if you had four sentences in one line of iambic pentameter, spoken by two different people on stage, so that the audience actually has to look from one to the other four times in one line? Soothing? Not so much.
When Macbeth comes out of Duncan’s chamber after Duncan is killed, (spoiler alert, sorry), the lines are
I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?
When spoken as a single line, by two people, it sounds like
‘Did not you speak? When? Now. As I descended.’
The tension, the energy, the discord created by the rhythm itself, after almost a thousand lines of regular, mostly unbroken lines in the play so far, is palpable. And Shakespeare is telling the actors that this is the way it should be done.
Shakespeare also tells us when to pause. When Macbeth hears the news that Lady Macbeth has died, (another spoiler alert), Shakespeare literally gives him a pause.
The Queen, my lord, is dead.
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
After Seyton’s line, there are two iambs missing to complete the line of verse. Shakespeare is telling the actor playing Macbeth to wait exactly that long before he speaks again. And after his next line, there is another iamb and a half missing to give him time to gather himself.
Did Shakespeare really go to all that trouble just to make one of the most brilliant plays we have? Yep. Do actors really go to all that trouble to make it work? We try.