How to Analyse Speech and Language, Verse and Prose in Acting


By ‘heightened language’ we mean language rich in imagery, metaphor and simile, language which is evocative, where the exactly right words are used to create the maximum depth of understanding and feeling. Blank verse is the most common form of language used by the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, so the actor must learn to make proper use of it and enjoy it. It seems to be so effective as a means of communication because it’s so easy to listen to. I said that the prevailing verse pattern was of alternate stresses over ten syllables, thus: de dum de dum de dum de dum de dum. Were this to be an absolutely regular rhythm, the audience would be rapidly lulled into boredom or sleep. Let’s look at a speech which is in verse, and replete with images and rich description. It is from Antony and Cleopatra, where the tough soldier Enobarbus is describing Cleopatra’s river-borne first appearance to Agrippa:

I will tell you.

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,

Burn’d on the water: The poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that

The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,

Verse and Prose

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,

It beggar’d all description. She did lie

In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold, of tissue,

O’er-picturing that Venus, where we see

The fancy outwork nature. On each side her

Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,

With divers-color¡¯s fans, whose wind did seem

To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool

And what they undid did.

…Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,

So many mermaids, tended her i th’ eyes,

And made their bends adorning: at the helm

A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle

Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,

That yarely frames the office. From the barge

A strange invisible perfume hits the sense

Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast

Her people out upon her; and Antony,

Enthron’d i’ the market-place, did sit alone,

Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,

Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,

And made a gap in nature.

This magnificent speech presents many of the problems inherent in speaking Shakespeare and needs careful examination. It incorporates archaic words and phrases:

The silken tackle

Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands

That yarely frame the office.

We must translate; it means that the sails billow as a result of the maiden’s soft hands that speedily and efficiently do their work as sailors! A delightful notion: the men presumably are out of sight, pulling like hell on the oars. Having satisfied ourselves that we know what we are talking about, we must use Shakespeare’s language exactly, to the last syllable. We are using a language which is unique in its beauty and richness, and expresses the writer’s thoughts and meanings exactly. To alter it in any way would be heresy.

The actors of Shakespeare’s time, however, didn’t speak modern southern English R.P. as described. It hadn’t even evolved, and their accent was more like that of the present day educated and articulate American, an accent that has its roots in the west-country speech of the founding fathers of the United States. It is a moot point whether Americans acting Shakespeare should not do so in their own accent, rather than working for a polished British R.P.

Let’s start taking the speech to pieces, examining its form and meaning. First and foremost, it’s a ‘choric’ speech, a narrative of action and a description of people, things and events, not apparently a speech about the speaker, his situation and feelings. Yet it reveals Enobarbus as a man not only of wonderful powers of observation (the senior soldier), but a man of sophistication and culture; also as a romantic sensualist who can revel in the beauty and magnificence of what he’s seen. We don’t expect a burly soldier to be bowled over, and his appreciation of the experience is a most interesting facet to his character, revealing unexpected depths. It ends with a fine bit of humor, with the image of a rather grand Antony, doing the heavy pro-consul and having his dignity and importance severely dented, an example of a piece of characterization emerging from what another character says about him – a momentary image of a testy Antony looking a considerable fool.

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About the Author: Cody Riffel is a regular contributor to MegaHowTo. She likes to write on variety of topics, whatever interests her. She also likes to share what she learns over the Internet and her day-to-day life.

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