Monday, July 30, 2007


Speaking in blank verse is a challenge, but the structure provided by the playwright provides valuable help to interpreting the character.

Blank verse is unrhymed verse in iambic pentameter; that is, five beats of a simple two-syllable rhythm, like a heartbeat: da dum. A full line will be ten syllables:
da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum

A famous line in iambic is Christopher Marlowe's, "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" This is a simple iambic line, as the thought begins and ends where the line does, and there are exactly ten syllables contained in the line. (Blank verse is ruled by five beats, but a line can contain 9, or 12 or even 14 syllables.)

A good writer goes beyond creating a clip-clop rhythm and is able to construct sentences so that the stresses vary without distracting the listener, important words feel the strike of the iambic meter, and ripples, jogs or hesitations clarify the emotional state of the speaker. We will look at some speeches from Act V of Nahum Tate's The History of King Lear (1681) to examine how blank verse helps in characterization.

Look at this speech by Edmund (Bastard):

Bastard What will not Edmund dare! My lord, I beg
The favor that you’d instantly appoint
The place where I may beat this challenger,
Whom I will sacrifice to my wronged fame.
Remember, sir, that injured honor’s nice
And cannot brook delay.

Albany Anon, before our tent, i’th’army’s view,
There let the herald cry

Edmund's lines are nice, regular ten-syllable ones, with the final stress coming pat on the final syllable every time. He starts off with a rushed "What will not Edmund dare!", the exclamation point forcing a pause before "My lord", which is pronounced closer to a 1 and 1/2 syllable sound rather than two. His final line is short, as Albany interrupts him -- he has scant patience for Edmund and has tolerated him in the army out of necessity.

Edmund's earlier speech also is a regular, ten-beat one:

Sir, I approve it safest to pronounce
Sentence of death upon this wretched king,
Whose age has charms in it, his title more,
To draw the commons once more to his side.
‘Twere best prevent –

He is interrupted here again by Albany, but before that we have a clean, almost metronomical beat. If we look at all the speeches in the Act, and count out the beats (marking the number in the margin), we can see that Edmund stands alone with his predictable ten beats. The others speak with 9, 11, 12, or even 7 beats, as often as with 10. All the characters are at a high emotional pitch, but Edmund is able to spin out rhythmic and controlled sentences -- a clue to his character as a plotter and manipulator. He doesn't break until confronted unexpectedly with his half-brother's challenge to fight:

Albany Lord Edgar!

Bastard Ha! my brother!
This is the only combatant that I could fear,
For in my breast guilt duels on his side.
But, Conscience, what have I to do with thee?
Awe thou thy dull legitimate slaves, but I
Was born a libertine, and so I keep me.

Beat out the meter and count the iambs. "Ha! my brother!" connects to Albany's exclamation, showing us a quick reaction. But these add up only to 7 iambs -- the three beats after are possibly a pause of shock or amazement. Edmund picks up again, but the regular beat falters on "combatant" and "legitimate," words of high significance for him. The last word "me" is a throwaway unstressed syllable, which is a telling change in a man of Edmund's inordinate egoism.

Examining where he quivers in his pentameter, where his lines break, or where his thoughts begin mid-sentence, will give clues to the actor where Edmund's fault lines lie, how he presents himself to the world, and emotional peaks can effectively appear. Blank verse adds beauty to speech, but it is beauty married to function -- form not only follows, but supplies content -- a fact alert actors will exploit.

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