In a Hamlet workshop today the director asserted the importance of feeling the metre in Shakespeare. Nor merely of being aware of it or utilizing it but of feeling it in a very physical sense. When an actor speaks Shakespeare well, he said, it will chime somewhere inside them.
Whereas language touches the mind it seems music touches the body in a very real sense. Last week we spoke to a performance artist who works with materials and the most startling and interesting thing she suggested was that there were only really two senses, seeing and touching. Smell is the product of particles of a material touching the insides of our noses and, more interestingly, hearing is the result of the waves of sound buffeting our ear in a very literal sense. Hence when we hear a piece of music it quite literally touches us. It is pre-cognitive. It moves our body first and the feeling it produces in the body (sadness, joy, pity, fear) is then translated into something the mind can comprehend. When language and music are combined then, there is the potential for the most powerful of experiences – in which the mind and the body are both simultaneously transformed.
The most obvious example of such an effect would seem to be opera. However, I feel that in this medium the balance between language and music is almost always tipped towards the latter – indeed even the frequency of a split between language and music in terms of a composer and librettist attests to an uneasy relationship between the two. The Rake’s Progress for example is always Brittan’s Opera, Auden and his words, regardless of their stature elsewhere, are required to hide somewhere in the shadows.
And this brings us back to Shakespeare and the chiming of his language. Ezra Pound suggested that ‘all good poetry aspires to the condition of music’. That it is in poetry, with its rhythm and metre, that you find the most perfect synthesis of thought and feeling. Shakespeare’s verse has the potential to physically transform an audience through its musicality. Othello’s rage, or Romeo’s love or Hamlet’s frustration are experienced by the audience physically – when performed well they should be chiming in the spectator’s gut almost before they have considered what is actually being said.
Thus the physical experience of Shakespeare onstage transforms the audience from spectator to participator. In a very literal sense they feel the characters, they do not merely watch them. This is why, for me, it is important that Shakespearean rhythm and metre are honoured. I have been taught how to speak verse since I was eleven years old and I love it. I adore this powerful transformative quality that it has. I recently played Romeo in the echoing grandeur of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. I found that the very musicality of the verse was the most powerful tool allowing me to really experience Romeo rather than simply imitate him.