Shakespeare Crafted His Words Well
Directors in the theater did not exist back in Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare, however, was a master at crafting text that did the work of a director. His verse and prose guide the speaker in the appropriate execution of the words, and his monologues and dialogues are set up to garner specific physical reactions from actors.
This is done with punctuation. Actors are directed when to breathe, when not to breathe, and how to breathe via Shakespeare’s punctuation.
When guiding students in reading Shakespeare aloud, it is best to set aside concern for the iambic pentameter for at least one lesson. (There are many ways to teach an appreciation for iambic pentameter.) Focusing on one thing at a time, and bringing it all together in the end, is an effective strategy.
So, to focus on punctuation, go over these facts with your students:
When a period (.) appears at the end of the sentence, the actor makes a full stop. The actor takes a very short pause, a full breathe, and continues with the next sentence. A comma (,) on the other hand requires a very short breath and no pause. A dash (–) directs the actor to continue, and quickly. A colon (:) indicates that the next phrase requires emphasis, and a question mark (?) directs the actor to raise his or her voice at the end of the line. The artful placement (or exclusion) of these marks acts as a strong director guiding actors toward a perfected performance.
In Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene v, Juliet is most anxiously awaiting her nurse to come back and let her know what Romeo has said.
The clock struck nine when I did send the Nurse,
In half an hour she promis’d to return.
Perchance she cannot meet him. That’s not so.
O, she is lame. Love’s heralds should be thoughts
Which ten times faster glides than the sun’s beams
Driving back shadows over lowering hills.
Therefore do nimble-pinion’d doves draw Love,
And therefore hath the wind-swift Cupid wings.
Now is the sun upon the highmost hill
Of this day’s journey, and from nine till twelve
Is three long hours, yet she is not come.
Had she affections and warm youthful blood
She would be as swift in motion as a ball:
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me.
But old folks, many feign as they were dead–
Unwieldy, slow, heavy, and pale as lead.
Juliet’s first two lines are said easily, as she is thinking about how tardy the nurse is. We have a full stop (.) after “Perchance she cannot meet him." She is stopped in her speech at such a dreadful thought, then she decides that is not so.Relieved and annoyed at her decision that the nurse is simply incompetent, she speaks for almost three full lines without taking a breath. This is more difficult than it seems — try it! The lack of commas and periods (opportunities for breath) cause an actor to start to speak more quickly, and mirrors the strong sense of anticipation and impatience that Juliet is feeling as she rambles on about her nurse.
Two more lines with a breath, and then almost another three. Perhaps the actor is turning red in the face, as she rushes through these lines of excitement, rushing to catch her breathe. Juliet, too, would be red in the face as she works herself up into a frenzy over the tardiness of her nurse.
Finally, we get to a colon after “ball," and we know to emphasize “My words would bandy her to my sweet love…" Then, in disgust, Juliet describes old people as slow and heavy. The actor must briefly stop to breath after each comma: “Unwieldy, slow, heavy, and pale as lead." This slows the actor down, actually demonstrating the slowness Juliet is talking about.
Paying attention to and obeying the punctuation in Shakespeare’s text gives actors wonderful clues about how to portray these characters. When we read Shakespeare out loud, it is important to follow these rules so that we can better understand what the character is saying and feeling, and what the play is all about.
This post is part of the series: Making Shakespeare Come Alive in the High School English Classroom
- Read Shakespeare Out Loud in Class: It Might Be Fun!
- Teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Elements of Drama
- Reading Shakespeare Out Loud: A Director's Guide