June 17, 2013 § 1 Comment
Why does Shakespeare use verse so extensively in his plays? Why, in fact, do almost all playwrights before the twentieth century?
The conventional wisdom, which I think is wrong, is that verse is the best medium for aesthetically beautiful speaking and/or that it is easier to memorize. Both seem theatrically unlikely explanations to me.
Speaking “beautifully” was not widely admired, or even possible, until after the advent of dimmed indoor lighting in the nineteenth century, which hushed audiences for the first time. Before then, it was powerful voices that could make themselves heard over the crowd and command its attention that were admired. Verse does not help that.
Verse is somewhat easier to memorize but not enough to justify the substantial effort it takes for the playwright to create it. Besides, the convenience of the actors has never been a noticeable consideration in the construction of plays.
Verse does accomplish something theatrically useful, but because we now live in a visual culture, it seems counter-intuitive. Verse is actually easier to hear and understand. In addition to content clues, we also get clues about what is being said from rhythm and (when it occurs) rhyme. In an oral/aural culture, greater communicative power is an advantage worth the trouble that versification requires.
Joss Whedon’s new film version of Much Ado About Nothing, which I reviewed at greater length in a previous post, got me thinking about this again. The performances in it are stripped of all conventions regarding “beautiful” Shakespeare, but there is a ferocious intensity around conveying the narrative. See it, or should I say listen to it, if you want to hear what verse is for.