Shake 38

The Regulars

On the Value of Variation
Article by Cass Morris

We weren’t even supposed to be focusing on scansion and shared lines.

During the last Teacher Seminar at the Blackfriars Playhouse, we had introduced the concept of metrical scansion early on, but by the middle of the weekend, we were on to rhetoric – specifically, Iago’s omissions in Othello. While working through a scene on its feet, however, the teachers in the workshop latched on to one particular moment, and we ended up spending close to twenty minutes examining just the following exchange:

          OTHELLO
          …if thou dost love me,
          Show me thy thought.

          IAGO
          My lord, you know I love you.

          OTHELLO
          I think thou dost;

What the participants noticed is that “Show me thy thought” and “My lord, you know I love you” put together form a full iambic pentameter line, with a feminine ending. Or do they? Does Iago’s line instead share with Othello’s next, “I think thou dost”? Or are they all simply short, with pauses inserted in-between.

A caveat: Shared lines have a somewhat woolly pedagogical history. The printed texts of the plays do not lineate them as modern texts often do, indenting the second half of the shared line. We have no way of knowing whether the cue scripts used by Shakespeare’s company would have done anything to indicate shared lines or not, nor whether or not that would have indicated the potential for pauses to his actors. This concept is a possibility, a conjecture, not a certainty. But shared and short lines still provide useful moments of exploration in the classroom. Each can be a place to examine the language, to make a choice, and to see how that might change the story – as this moment was for the teachers in our workshop.

Should someone pause? Othello or Iago? Both? For how long? How does it change the scene if Iago hesitates? What could he do with that time, physically? Turn away from Othello? Check to see if anyone can overhear them? Who closes the distance between them if he does move away? And that’s without even getting started on the stress patterns! How is “Show me thy thought” different from “Show me thy thought”? And how does that change the relationship between Iago and Othello, as more friendly or more martial? How is an Iago who stresses the verbs in this moment different from an Iago who stresses the pronouns? All of these thoughts and suggestions came from the participants themselves, generated in the moment as two of them walked through the scene, stopping and re-starting with new directions.

It linked up with rhetorical omission, in a way – particularly the opportunities for pauses relating to Iago not answering questions directly – but I didn’t even care that we’d gotten off track. I love that they were bringing back information from earlier in the weekend. I love that this moment got our teachers so excited. This is precisely the sort of engagement and creative-critical thinking I hope we can bring into classrooms. Showing students the opportunity for choice, the brilliant variety of stories we can tell with Shakespeare’s language – that’s what can make it theirs, rather than something handed down to them from on high. And if you’ve got them up on their feet, arguing about whether Othello should lower his status to move towards Iago, or whether Iago should sidle himself alongside Othello – then you’ve won.

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