READING SHAKESPEARE TODAY.
Nina MK, Ph.D.
Before we embark on a lesson or lessons based on the Bard’s oeuvre, let us look at some peculiarities of the poetic and dramatic language of his time. Several features may perplex a non-native speaker. We can make a presentation for our students, listing the common traits, and then suggest that they peruse any Sonnet line by line, seeking their own examples for any and every item. As most young people, they would be fascinated by the originality of the whole work, and by the many deviations from the “rules” listed. Most of them are unimaginable in the Russian poetry, which fact alone stimulates the pupils’ interest. The following list is by no means the only possible one, nor is it exhaustive. I have read The Sonnets many times, and tried to classify the difficulties from the point of view of a non-native reader.
(1) The Rhythm and Meter.
Note: the word “rhythm” itself presents an irresistible exercise for me. The Russian pupils find it next to impossible to pronounce the term correctly; they also tend to read it as “rhyme”!
Critics tell us that almost all of The Sonnets and plays were written in the iambic pentameter, a widely-used verse line size consisting of ten syllables, or five feet of two syllables each, the first one being unstressed, and the second one being stressed. Sounds well and good until we try to read, say, Sonnet 66, line one:
Tired with all these, for restful Death I cry.
Surely the first syllable in the line was stressed, wasn’t it? If it was, can we still consider the meter an example of iambic pentameter, or do we need another definition? Allow your pupils a few minutes to search through the poems for comparison, and encourage any ensuing discussion, as long as it is conducted in English and is based on the original text.
(2) To maintain the meter or for stylistic purposes, a word may be reduced. Sometimes a vowel is cut out, and we see an apostrophe in its place, e.g. “trimm’d” (Sonnet 66). The apostrophe was also used to show that a letter was for some reason dropped out in practically any part of speech. O’= of, o’er=over, et cetera. Let your pupils find other examples, which are plenty. Some linguists believe that at the time, all the vowels were pronounced, and maybe Shakespeare introduced both the reduced form of participle II and the modern way of pronouncing the verbal ending ~ed. At times an “extra” syllable was cut, in order to preserve the rhythm. It may be the reason why we hear both “got” and “gotten” today.
(3) Inversion, or changing the customary word order, was and still is widely used in poetry: If now thou not renewest (Sonnet 3) = If you do not renew now.
(4) Archaic grammar forms, especially with the verbs, like “thou hast” (you have) and many others, together with the more modern “you do” as a polite way of address, or as a way to show a person’s higher rank or advanced age, were common.
(5) One of the most amazing and fascinating features is the so-called “visual rhyme”, which does not exist in my own language at all. A classic example of such a rhyme is “love-move-rove”. Today, all these words are pronounced with different vowels. Maybe during the previous centuries, most words that were written in a similar way sounded alike and thus were fine for rhyming purposes. Die - memory (Sonnet 1), glass - was (Sonnet 5), and so on. Was “die” pronounced as “dee”, or the last syllable in memory as “rye”? We shall never know, but it presents an interesting subject for discussion. It also makes teenagers realize that the language indeed is a living developing organism.
(6) Ellipsis is widely used: one or more traditional sentence parts are skipped to emphasize the main sense of a phrase: tell me not = do not tell me, etc.
(7) Verbs and adverbs often acquired the prefix a~, again for emphasis: a-running, a-crying. We can find this poetic device even in today’s works, though it is now often used in a humorous way. Prefix en~, on the other hand, is still in use even in everyday speech: endearing, encompassing, ensure…
(8) The French negative prefix mis~ was used almost universally. Gradually, many other prefixes came into being, like dis-, un-, non-, in-, im-, ir, il-.
If you read even one Sonnet at your lesson and draw your pupils’ attention to the obsolete forms, and to the modern-sounding words and expressions, you will help them recognize Shakespeare as a genius who really helped form the English language as we learn it today.