Today’s audiences talk about seeing a movie. And we are very much a visually oriented culture. Yet, in Shakespeare’s day audiences would say they were going to hear a play because language was such an integral aspect of their culture.
Shakespeare knew this, of course, which is why he wrote his plays with rhyme, rhythm, homonyms, laced with ambiguity. He wanted his audience to hear the auditory beauty of language.
Modern audiences are more accustomed (or have grown more accustomed to) sound bites—quick bits of communication. No wonder eye rolls and twitches are commonalities when someone mentions Shakespeare—we are no longer used to the longer, more developed portents of language. We want quick and easy auditory digestion instead of the languid delight of a language banquet. ‘Tis a shame, yet supping upon a Shakespeare play is possible with a bit of effort.
Shakespearean plays are written to be heard and the Stratford-Upon-Avon wordsmith created the means to better enjoy his words by employing the following:
1. Read the lines with deliberation and emphasis. For example, Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” does better with a slow pronounced repetition to emulate the tedious monotony of life.
2. Use punctuation as a guide by reading to the end stop rather to the end of the line it gives more meaning to the lines. This is known as enjambment, where the line overflows into the next line, much like a waterfall cascades flow smoothly creating movement. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet pours out her emotions for Romeo in one rolling, passionate wave:
When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Reading this passage out loud, carrying one line over into the next enhances Juliet’s feelings for her Romeo.
3. Be aware of accented words, pronouncing them with an extra syllable. For example “perfume’d would be three syllables, not two. Shakespeare would have done this to enhance the meter or rhythm of the line. Plus, it has the bonus of sounding fancier.
4. Know that Shakespeare presented his words with intention to paint pictures (no access to CGI) with verbal cues to ignite his audience’s imagination. He needed his words to create imagery since scenery and props were minimal on the Elizabethan stage. For example, when Juliet says, “It was the nightingale, and not the lark,/ That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear,” she is in her wedding bed with Romeo—she is no doubt as close to him as her heartbeat.
Reading Shakespeare can be an enriching, delightful experience when his words are read out loud with considerate digestion.