…in the even road of a blank verse… – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, V ii

We opened Much Ado last night at Kentucky Shakespeare, our second audience, and I’ve already noticed something fascinating.

The Wife and I got to play Petruchio and Kate in Taming of the Shrew a couple of years ago and now we’re playing Beatrice and Benedick. (We’re running out of bucket list pairings, frankly. Maybe Don Armado and Moth? She’d be a terrific Armado.) The sort of easy go-to critical response is that the former are just a rough draft of the latter, but I’d fight that to the end. I’ve gone on about this before. And I should add to those previous musings first that K&P and the whole world of that play are all painted in rather broad strokes (not an aspersion; I love broad strokes).

And there’s another vital difference – B&B are almost entirely prose and K&P in verse.

18891701_10154772557299370_2864381706751969714_o*

Not just verse, but early verse, so very end-stoppy, by which I mean their thoughts and phrases often coincide neatly with what Benedick calls the “even road of a blank verse”. Take for example this from Petruchio (which I memorized when I was 18 for something and if I ever have an accident or a stroke will probably provide my Mel-Blanc-“What’s-up-Doc?” awakening, so put that in your pocket just in case – pardon the lack of Folio spelling, but it’s faster to type from memory):

          Thus have I politicly begun my reign,

          And ‘tis my hope to end successfully;

          My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,

          And till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,

          For then she never looks upon her lure.

 

And so on. If you say that out loud to yourself while obeying the verse, you can hear how confident it sounds. It can be acted in a way that makes that confidence sound false (which is helpful when playing a palatable Petruchio in a 21st century production), but still each little chunk of logic/thought lines up with each chunk of verse.

It’s a good general order of operations, I think, to give the verse rhythmic priority over the punctuation, or if you prefer, to see the verse as another type of punctuation, something I’ve probably gone on about before and will again. In early Shakespeare, the verse and sentence structure have a tendency to line up anyway. This is tricky when playing comedy, because a huge part of comedy is rhythm that feels unexpected but right (if that makes any sense; I’m not sure it can or should be properly verbalized). So a predestined ten-syllable line makes for some specific choices, one of which can always be to break the line, I guess, though that provides its own challenges.

But in prose, you have a lot more wiggle room – one of the results of even characters in the early plays like, say, Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona being written in prose is not a sense of low social standing but a freedom to wing it a bit so people don’t clearly know how your line will end. Petruchio’s longer speeches are all little even verse arias that are tough to interrupt beyond a) actor-manufactured bits and b) trying to let laughs land between lines. Not a bad thing, again, but a difference. Launce’s prose is all about little gag set pieces (The Shoes Story; The Dog Piss Story). Very entertaining but not what you’d call character development.

And so we’re back to Benedick. Yes, he shares Petruchio’s professed He-Man Woman-Hating, although he’s nowhere near as hard-boiled and drops it at the first sign of a serious situation come the abandoned wedding of Act IV.

Our Gang Hi Sign

And yes, he shares the Sam’n’Dianity of his romantic sparking with his inevitable lady-partner. But Benedick only slides into verse sporadically, and never for long. So instead of the above soliloquy, when Benedick speaks to the audience, they get:

          I doe much wonder,

          that one man seeing how much another man is a foole,

          when he dedicates his behaviours to love,

          will after hee hath laught at such shallow follies in others,

          become the argument of his owne scorne,

          by falling in love,

          & such a man is Claudio,

 

and on for a while without a period for about twenty lines. The above layout is not the way it’s set in the Folio or any modern edition, but I wanted to highlight the commas. They’re not grammatical so much as rhythmic and I’ve been using them for emphasis in various ways (breathing, smacking the word before the comma a bit harder, etc.) and they do all the work for you, setting up the joke, subtle on the page but a really solid laugh in performance, that the audience is being wound up to hear an admission and gets only more mockery of the lovelorn (which will pay off with the other Benedick soliloquy that provides the scene’s matching bookend).

Folio Much Ado

Now, I knew these things intellectually and to a degree even practically before these last two nights of handing the show over to the audience. But the feeling of the way the audience’s attention works during that speech, and how using that punctuation to ensure that everything comes in clear so as to set up the punchline that is the word “Claudio”, is just that: a feeling. Difficult (and maybe not useful) to get more specific about.

It’s also not nothing that Benedick reaps the rewards of being in a better play than Shrew or Gents – I love ‘em both, but the script gives the audience a chance to be genuinely emotionally invested in Benedick, so his moments with the audience and with Beatrice aren’t set pieces but an ever-evolving series of builds and payoffs with an almost Tati-esque level of development and structure, all torn apart and then seemingly falling back together when you aren’t expecting it. (If I didn’t have to go do the show I’d get more specific but for example check out the way women being “wise”, “fair”, and “virtuous” is used in different spots throughout II iii).

And this later/denser writing (plus being in a different story) gives Benedick a vulnerability Petruchio lacks and an intelligence that Launce (of course) lacks. B still has some of the emotional immaturity of those two, but it seems to be in its waning days as the play continues and he learns things.

And when he does use verse, it’s tricky. The title of this post is from a soliloquy in which Benedick says he “was not born under a rhyming planet”, dooming his poetic attempts. But in the next scene in which he appears he speaks for a long time in verse that stutters nervously but in perfect rhythm. I didn’t notice this until well into rehearsals, but as he asks Leonato for Beatrice’s hand, notice the weird syllable repetitions:

          Signior Leonato, truth it is good Signior,

          Your neece regards me with an eye of favour…

          Your answer sir is Enigmaticall…

THEN:

          In which (good Frier) I shall desire your helpe.

 

Weird little internal rhyme there. The only other major rhyming by Benedick was in prose and was looong ago after the dance when he tells the Prince:

          Yet it had not beene amisse the rod had beene made,

          and the garland too,

          for the garland he might have worne himselfe,

          and the rod hee might have bestowed on you,

          who (as I take it) have stolne his bird’s nest.

 

Which he ruins intentionally (and to me delightfully) with that last line and which isn’t in iambic pentameter at all but cannot be said unrhymingly.

But now, meeting Claudio again towards the end he comes of with (and bear in mind that this rhymed better in the pronunciation of the era):

          Bull Jove sir, had an amiable low,

          And some such strange bull leapt your father’s Cow,

          ‘E got a Calfe in that same noble feat,

          Much like to you, for you have just his bleat.

 

Easy as you please. And then it all falls apart, for the next thing he’s responsible for is a public proposal to a woman too wise to woo peaceably. Spoiler: it all works out.

These probably don’t read to an audience at all, but these are the details that make this work such a pleasure.

We’re supposed to have lovely weather all weekend. Y’all come see us.

 

* Photo by Bill Brymer

Here follows prose. – TWELFTH NIGHT, II v

As I’ve noted elsewhere, dramaturgical concerns arrive like the Spanish Inquisition. Today my wife and I were watching The Year Without a Santa Claus, starring Oscar & Tony winner Shirley Booth (in her final role), Emmy winner/Oscar nominee Mickey Rooney, and the perennially underrated Dick Shawn, among others. You know the one. With the Miser brothers and all.

It’s terrible in its 1974 stop-motion way and its wonderful in its comfort food holiday constancy. And possibly prescient in its climate change metaphors, but I really do not want to think about that right now.

Before I get too far into holiday TV nostalgia, I should note that there’s a legitimate Shakespeare matter here. If oversimplification is permitted here (it is), most of his plays were written in some combination of verse and prose, of speech that’s in a strict (well…on paper) rhythm and speech that ain’t.

There are varying feelings about what, for an actor, the purpose of this difference is. (Not just for the actor, but we are the ones who have to make the difference heard.) Some say it separates the high-born from the low, some the ceremonial/formal from the humdrum everyday, some the sane and/or sharp from the mad and/or stupid. Also letters, as noted in the title of this post – that’s my fellow (fellow!) Malvolio reading from the ersatz Olivia letter.

And all of these are true some of the time, though all of those are demonstrably false some of the time as well. Iago is neither crazy nor a fool, Olivia is plenty genteel of birth. There’s something to each of these takes on when Shakespeare might choose prose, but none is consistently true in a helpful way.

My favorite interpretation is the one I found in Giles Block’s work. I cannot recommend his Speaking the Speech highly enough; I’ve plowed through a huge stack of published works that lay out as many and as varied methods of explaining How To Talk The Shakespeare because I feel like my job as text coach is not to espouse a theory or method so much as find the theory or method that speaks most effectively to each actor I’m asked to assist. His book from a couple of years back is the one I’ve found speaks most usefully and with no nonsense to the widest swath of people.

Block’s take (returning to oversimplification – he has chapters on this and I’m not just going to paraphrase them in toto) is more or less that verse is the sound of sincerity – closest to the heartbeat – and prose the sound of… not insincerity (or not exclusively), but of what happens when a character is out of touch with the heartbeat. So the profoundly stupid, the mentally unstable, people lying to others, people lying to themselves, people carefully crafting their words instead of letting them spill out (as verse almost always does) including those actively trying to entertain an audience in any sense of that word, people dealing with things that are a bit removed from their inmost hearts. Also letters.

Where was I? Ah.

The Year Without a Santa Claus was based on a children’s book by Phyllis McGinley, some of which text is used in the narration. This is going somewhere, I swear it.

(Which means I’ll refrain here from seasonally going on about how it’s bothered me since I was far too young to be bothered by such things, from a poetic viewpoint, that the “arsenic sauce” line and the “mangled up in tangled up knots” lines in “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from a different holiday special entirely were obviously transposed in post at some point – you can tell because they’d rhyme with their preceding lines if they were only swapped – listen for it – but the “knots” line is longer, so there was probably something in the animation sequence that made it necessary and while I’d seldom question the wisdom of personal artistic hero Chuck Jones, seldom is not never.)

At one point early in Year Without a Santa Claus the book-based rhythmic/rhymed narration stops and we move, as I noted aloud to my wife as it happened this afternoon, into prose. We then discussed why the impending entrance of the surly Elf Doctor would trigger such a change. Class? Clearly the Clauses are the royalty in any North Pole scenario. Sudden dealings with the quotidian matter of having a flu checkup? I don’t know – a similar scene between Helena and the King in All’s Well shoots a hole in that, though he doesn’t have the flu. Beatrice has a prose cold for part of Much Ado, but she never sees a doctor about it, or not that we hear about. I’m sure Theobald and Pope have reams of opinions on that. The Elf Doctor certainly fits into what Block would call the “prose entertainer” category, or could, if he were more entertaining and less like a stop-motion Charles Lane who’s been put in the dryer and shrunk.

And the letters in YWASC for the most part rhyme! What the hell, Rankin/Bass? Blue Christmas isn’t prose at all.

So what is the main connecting issue?

We finally decided the main issue is that the two of us are idiots.

Happy Holidays, y’all.