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on the details of his language. Since the day when Shakespeare lived and wrote three hundred years have passed. During that long interval men have changed in their use of words and in their method of speaking. New expressions have crept into use and old ones have been gradually forgotten. This change in language has gone on just as steadily, though of course not nearly as rapidly, as the change in fashions of dress. For this reason we find many words or phrases in Shakespeare which were in common use in his day, but which seem odd to us
Like the stiff ruffs and long hose of the poet's contemporaries, they were once a part of everyday life but have long since gone out of fashion. For example, in Elizabethan times to peize meant to weigh. Today the appearance of Sir Walter Raleigh in Elizabethan garb would scarcely seem more odd than the use of such a word.
Then, besides the words which have disappeared altogether during those three centuries, there are many others which have completely changed their meaning. When Shakespeare's schoolmaster said to the bewildered class, “Do you conceive me?”
” he meant,
“ Do you understand me?" To-day we have the word conceive, but we never use it in the sense of understand. These cases where the word has altered its meaning but not its form are very common and should be carefully examined. Sometimes the whole sense of a passage is confused, or even rendered ridiculous, if we give such expressions our modern meaning where the author intended another. For instance, the word dear formerly meant either greatly loved or greatly hated; and when Hamlet speaks about his “ dearest foe" the young prince does not mean at all that he loves his enemy, but that he hates that enemy above all other men.
In thought and feeling Shakespeare is refreshingly modern; but we cannot appreciate his thought and feeling unless we make his individual words mean to us what they meant to the men of his time.
Another thing which should be mastered before we can appreciate the poet at his best is his meter. The meter generally employed by Shakespeare is known as Blank Verse. Like Longfellow's Hiawatha it does not depend for its beauty upon riming words, but produces the effect of poetry wholly by the swing and music of the lines. It differs from Hiawatha, however, in that its swing is a longer, slower one, less like the trotting of a horse and more like the rise and fall of waves at sea. Here is an illustration of it:
“I should not see the sandy hour-glass run,
If we read one of these lines, we shall find that our voice divides it into five waves of sound, rising and breaking, one after the other, something like this:
Each one of these waves is called a
foot"; and every regular line in Shakespeare is said to contain five feet. If we notice the line again while reading it, we see that the wave effect is produced by the order of accented and unaccented syllables. The rising part of each wave, or foot, is formed by a syllable which we should naturally pronounce lightly, without stress or emphasis. The falling part of each wave is a stressed or accented syllable, one on which the voice comes down heavily as we read. In other words, the regular type of line in Blank Verse owes its billowy swing to the fact that it consists of five waves of sound called feet, each wave containing two syllables, the second accented and the first not. In technical language such a foot is called an iambus; and the technical name for Blank Verse is “iambic pentameter,” which means a line made up of five iambic feet.
The regular type of line, then, in Blank Verse is very simple. It contains ten syllables. Of these, the odd syllables—first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth-are ones which we should speak lightly without emphasis. The even ones—second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth-are those which we should naturally accent heavily as we read. The line is supposed to be divided into five feet, each consisting of one unaccented syllable and one accented syllable following it. Such a line when scanned is usually written like this:
But not all Shakespeare's lines are of the regular type described above. If they were, although each separate verse might be good, the poem as a whole would grow monotonous. Consequently, for the sake of variety, the poet often makes one foot in the line unlike the others. There are three common ways in which this can be done.
The first of these is to use two unaccented syllables in the place of one at the beginning of a foot. This foot will then consist of three syllables, the first two unaccented, forming together the rising part of the wave, and the last accented forming the descending part. Such a case is shown in the combination “the occa-” in the following verse: And you embrace
sion to depart. foot
3 The second variation consists in adding an extra unaccented syllable at the end of the line. This is called a “ feminine ending,” and is illustrated by the second syllable of “merry” below:
The third possible change is to have one foot turned around, so that the accented syllable comes first and the unaccented second. This change is seen in foot i of the first line given below and foot 4 of the other:
My wind cooling
This is a more violent change than either of the others; but Shakespeare handles it so skilfully that its effect at rare intervals gives vigor and spring to the verse.
As a general thing there is not more than one irregular foot in a line; but occasionally there are two or three. Here is a quite irregular line:
you are mer It must be remembered that these irregular lines are not mistakes but changes made by the poet intentionally, to give more variety to the music of a passage.
In Blank Verse we can not usually have more than two unaccented syllables together. If there are three the swing of the meter forces us to pronounce the middle one with an accent; and consequently we mark it with an accent in the scansion. Here is an example. The “ and” in the combination“ -lows and of " must be read with a stress to get the proper scansion or the right swing to the line: 1
lows and of flats. In the same way, when we find three syllables together which from their sense would all be accented, we usually treat the middle one as if unstressed. In the line below we do this with “strange ” because it occurs between the stressed sounds “framed” and “fel-” and we cannot have three stressed syllables together without spoiling the wave effect as we speak the passage: Nature hath framed
lows in her tíme. .