In the recent post, “Now is NOT the Winter of Our Discontent,” I mentioned that people are misreading and misunderstanding verse because they are reading to the end of the line. That’s not right!
The end of the page limits the space of a line in a book, website, news article, etc. In Shakespeare’s verse, there is a syllable limit instead. Imagine, if you will, that the page is much thinner when reading Shakespeare. A line of iambic pentameter is only a rhythm pattern with a syllable limit. The thought does not stop on the line, it ends with the punctuation mark.
The following passage of verse I have taken out of the line form, and punctuated as if you should stop at the end of every line. Read it aloud and see what happens.
Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy. And will not let belief take hold of him. Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us. Therefore I have entreated him along. With us to watch the minutes of this night. That if again this apparition come. He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
Does this make any sense to you? Didn’t think so. It is, unfortunately, a common practice for actors of all ages and experience. Don’t be like them. Let’s try some normal punctuation but still without confining the text to seperate lines. Read this one out loud too. Use the punctuation and your smarts to make sense of the words as you read it.
Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy and will not let belief take hold of him, touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us; therefore I have entreated him along with us to watch the minutes of this night, that if again this apparition come, he may approve our eyes and speak to it.
It’s all one sentence! So there’s no reason to pause or lose energy at the end of the line. You have to continue the thought when speaking and reading until you reach the end-stop punctuation mark. Here’s the text as it appears normally. Read this out loud too and notice that you’re now able to make sense of the text better than before.
Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us;
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night,
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
– Hamlet (I.i)
If you’re having trouble breaking the habit of stopping at the ends of lines you can try editing your lines to look like prose instead for easier reading. Always remember that you’re not saying words; you’re telling a story.
“Speak to be understood”
– Love’s Labour’s Lost (V.ii)