Cadence in Shakespeare

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Necessary Rhythm
Cadence is an often overlooked aspect of writing that is significant in the attempt to understand the meaning of text. The use of cadence is most often only considered relevant in an approach to poetry or music; however, poetic form is used in other genres of writing and is an applicable approach to literary criticism. An author’s intended message is intricately woven into the cadence in which the words are to be delivered. In order to appreciate the words of Shakespeare, in particular, one must consider the implications of intended cadence. Although Shakespeare’s work can be enjoyed through a silent reading, certain nuances of his plays are lost without the aspect of performance or delivery in which the cadence is more visible. In an article from The Sunday Telegraph London Charles Spencer approaches the importance of cadence in performances of Shakespeare. He gets his point across very well by stating that: Anyone who has been to see Shakespeare in the theatre recently will recognize this experience. An actor is “tearing a passion” to tatters and after what seems like several yards of fraught blank verse, you belatedly realize that you have barely the faintest clue as to what he’s been banging on about. The odd word or phrase sinks in, but even speeches you know well on the page seem shrouded in obscurity on the stage. Luckily this is not always the case. Many of us have also had the pleasure of watching a performance in which the actors manage to “deliver the verse with such clarity that even Shakespeare’s knottiest, and most clotted passages make crystalline sense” (Spencer). An enjoyable performance of Shakespeare relies on the proper delivery of cadence. The intended meaning can be completely lost if the cadence is not delivered correctly. So how do we discern the intended cadence?

Peter Hall, author of Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players, “insists that Shakespeare himself provides all the clues about how to speak his verse . . . moment by moment, and line by line” (Spencer). There are many elements involved in determining cadence. According to Hall one must first study the “mechanics of blank verse, whose unit is iambic pentameter” and in addition one must also focus on the “structure of the line, scansion, the caesura, monosyllables, pauses, alliteration and rhyme” (Spencer). He goes on to say that Shakespeare “tells the actor when, but he never tells him why or how” (Spencer). The why or how of delivering Shakespeare’s verse is left to the interpretation of the reader or performer. Spencer concludes this article by saying that:

Shakespeare’s text is a complex score that demands to be read as a piece of music, learned like the steps of a dance, or practiced like the stroke of a duel . . . but the paradox of art is that the rules of form must always be challenged in order to achieve spontaneity. Yet they must not be completely destroyed. There is a balance between discipline and freedom which only the great creative genius or the astonishing performer can achieve.

Let’s look at the mechanics of blank verse. Blank verse is defined as unrhymed iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a metrical pattern in poetry which consists of five iambic feet per line (Meyer 1617). In Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice Kristen Linklater states that “Rhythm takes language and adds an innermost drive that moves it, shakes it, and channels it” (92). She goes on to say that “A poet uses rhythm to shape language into dramatic peaks and valleys, and major clues to topography of any given scene in a Shakespeare play are to be found in its rhythmic dynamics” (92). Linklater also states that:

The verse rhythm that reigns supreme in Shakespeare is iambic pentameter [which is] the basic rhythm of the English language . . . and by the end of the sixteenth century, the development of prosody had determined five to be the most satisfying number of iambic feet per line for English...
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