Friday, December 15, 2006

Learning from Bill

As a committed Philistine (or, as some people say, a Philistine who should be committed) I think Shaw did a better job as a playwright and Edna St. Vincent Milay as a poet, but nobody could touch Shakespeare as a teacher of letters. English profs tend to focus on crap such as what sort of dagger a scoundrel might have worn in Elizabethan England. I am more fascinated with why and how the words work.

One thing I have found it useful to do is make what I call the “atomic” change to something Bill said that really grabs me. The word “atomic” comes from the Greek a temnein, which means “not to divide.” I therefore define an “atomic” change as the least one can do to a sentence – such as adding or removing a single word. Consider this from MacBeth:

“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stageAnd then is heard no more.”

Take the word “then” out and the statement has the same meaning. But it does not have the same impact. By the way, that is almost certainly the same technique Shakespeare used to write the play in the first place. Since reading this play for the first time I have not been able to use or hear the word “then” without thinking of MacBeth. You can make atomic changes to anything Shakespeare – or Jackie Collins for that matter – said which grabs you and see what happens.

Another thing that is worth doing (to a Philistine) is to try to spot The Bard’s use of iambic pentameter. If it has been too long since that boring Middle School English class taught by the eternally frustrated Miss Spinster T. Ironbottom, here is an example of iambic pentameter from Twelfth Night:

“If music is the food of love, play on.”

Forget the words and attend to the rhythm and you get dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum. There are five dah-dums (thus the pentameter) and the dah-dum itself is the iambic. My feeble understanding, anyway. Regardless of what the sentence says, this rhythm should be buried in there somewhere. Bill used iambic pentameter to distinguish the speech of kings, queens, and lords from those of less noble characters. What is so neat about IP is that you can do it without anybody getting wise. And yet they do get the effect. Poetry shouts to the reader, HEY, I AM USING IAMBIC PENTAMETER. Bill buried it subtly in what appeared to be prose.

Now the question. I have seen lots of books on Shakespeare. But has anyone ever seen anything that deals with the problem posed above – namely, why The Bard is The Bard and not just another mean scrivener? Has anyone ever collected all his techniques into one marvelous book?

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