Speech in drama


Another of the axioms I try to validate in my online conflagrations is that people in possession of the same facts do not often reach the same conclusion. An interesting occasion where this happened to me recently was a discussion about Shakespeare. The general flow of the discussion had been about the emergence of general story archetypes over a wide variety of sources, and been diverted into the theatre generally (long time readers will remember my discussion of The Iliad as the first Western). Mark began to wax lyrical about the effervescence of Shakespeare’s dialogues, arguing that the characters’ speeches were well wrought and elegant. They were, in his view, several levels above the state of ordinary diction that we were using to discuss them.

This interested me greatly. Shakespeare is renowned as a fine poet, but I am not sure that his characters are so universally well spoken as to exclude the possibility of being matched by real people. I think Samuel Johnson articulated this view best:

But the dialogue of this author is so often evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.
– Preface to Shakespeare

Of course, neither of us are experts on Shakespeare; Mark’s studies focusing more on the Roman theatre, and in terms of English drama, on the Jacobean period. Mine own studies have cut a broad but shallow swathe through most periods, but with only a slightly longer-than-average pause on Shakespeare. Therefore, a specific discussion on the language in various Shakespearean plays might be too ambitious an undertaking at this stage. Instead, let’s talk about all dialogue in and out of the theatre generally; much simpler.

Well, as mentioned, I’ve got a lot more experience with real life than any kind of theatre, so let me make a few observations about ordinary speech. The thing I have begun to notice in those casual conversations in the halls of learning as one scurries between appointments, or the banter around the design office, or the preliminary pleasantries with the apes on the construction site… is that there is not any attempt to elevate the diction beyond a very basic level. People simply do not aim to speak well, instead aiming to engage at the most surficial level that will get them through the conversation and on to whatever really interests them. When I consider that this is the bulk of my communication with my fellow man, it is hardly surprising that at even at my utmost I might not match that of a great poet – I simply haven’t had the necessary practice at speaking well. In fact, some authors have specialized in bringing this banality into the heart of their work; most notable in my recent experience are Hemingway and Carver.

There is, I think, a tendency to avoid looking at the dialogue of novelists, unless it is especially emblematic of their work and also makes an un-ignorable deviation from the standard dialectic. I read a very interesting article on the dialogue in The Great Gatsby called Tuning in to Conversation in the Novel: Gatsby and the Dynamics of Dialogue by Dan Coleman. The title was slightly more promising than the article delivering, essentially being a series of character sketches derived from the various dialogues; but even so, a very worthwhile use of a half hour. The reason I bring it up is because he very carefully deconstructs some of the more lively and dynamic exchanges between the characters to show the relatively simple structural underpinnings. Essentially, the very vivacious dialogue derives from a common quasi-cultural understanding of the dialogue’s “purpose”, which is not a conveyance of information, but the construction of the dialogue. Talking, for talking’s state. Freed from the mundanity of information exchange, the characters are free to look for the kinds of compression and metaphorical entities which are abundant in Shakespeare’s soliloquies and comic exchanges.

The point of this foray into ordinary speech is to argue that if we fall short in mortal conversation of the Shakespearean ideal, it may be because we’re not aiming to meet it. This assessment does not square with Johnson’s hyperbolic view of Shakespeare’s method. Unless… you consider what the subject matter of the playwright is generally. Unless you’re a New Realist, your subject matter revolves around what G’Kar described as “moments of Transition and Revelation.” Whether in comedy, tragedy or history, the playwright is interested in the scenes of a person’s life where they are called upon to perform at their best, at a time when their diction might plausibly be raised up with the rest of their endeavours. At the height of your personal tragedy, you might summon up a hitherto unknown eloquence. The author can write this down, and through a concatenation of such exclamations, build a play.

This is to say: we best remember what is most memorable in life. This is an obfuscating process going into and out of the play. The playwright puts in what is most memorable, and from that selection, the audience remembers a sub-set of those experiences. The impression that they form of the play over all is of those most memorable things. My favourite of Shakespeare’s play is Henry V, which I have read several times and seen performed half a dozen times. Even with such exposure, in recollecting the play my mind turns with preference and greatest ease to the magnificent speeches, skimming over the bulk of the play’s action; which while distinct in my mind, can only be brought forth by conscious application of memory.

Having thus investigated some general approaches to dialogue in plays and life, I must concede that in large part any dramatic performance is made or broken by the dialogue. In choosing between the two options of well wrought elevated magnificence and a reflection of the idiom of life, one is faced with a necessary loss of great merit. Imagine a Woody Allen movie scripted by Mark’s Shakespeare. The very awkward inarticulation of Allen’s characters is the basis of the characterisation.

I have so far offered two alternatives: One being that Shakespeare’s merit derives from a careful selection of lifelike passages uttered at the zenith of personal achievement, the other that our memory is selective so as to render our opinion of him greater than a truly universal appraisal would. There is though, an obvious third route, already mentioned, being that his speech really is more precisely constructed than can be approached without refinement and rehearsal. While I am unconvinced that this is wholly true, it is at least as compelling a view as the two previous offerings. Moreover, it accords better with the view taken by both critics and the public at large for over four hundred years. Whatever the method he may have used in the construction of his characters’ words, there is no denying that they are a great strength in his work, overcoming his many failures in plot construction and historical accuracy. Let me end, therefore, with Shakespeare’s own summary of the dramatic arts: the Chorus’ introduction to Henry V.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire,
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that hath dar’d
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object.
Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France?
Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confin’d two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times,
Turning th’ accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass; for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like, your humble patience pray
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

(I was tempted by Puck’s last words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; frankly both of these are obvious and somewhat cheesy choices, but the paucity of my scholarship prevents me chasing down a fragmantery remembrance of a more apt quote.)

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12 Responses to Speech in drama

  1. nishatalitha says:

    I find, at my current (soon to be former) workplace, that I end up using more simplistic language than I would prefer in order to be understood, as my workmates lack a full and comprehensive understanding of English. However, I do not, in customary diction, speak as Shakespeare’s character’s speak. You neglected to mention the fact that there has been a shift in speaking styles and language usage over the centuries which partially explains why we don’t speak like that now.

    • mashugenah says:

      Indeed, by the time of Dryden in the 1680s Shakespeare’s particular idiom was considered old fashioned. However, I think that once you get past a certain unfamiliarity with his vernacular, you can see that the linguistic ornamentation is quite extensive. The characters very rarely say as little as is really needed.

      • nishatalitha says:

        True, but they say it so prettily… I think that was your point to begin with. I think I’ll leave off saying anything about good dialogue and realistic dialogue, since that point has already been made, and I think it’s where I was going, anyway.

      • mashugenah says:

        I think that it’s a very interesting point to explore though. Maybe I’ll have secondary thoughts on it later. Stranger things have happenned.

  2. kitsuchi says:

    But people don’t talk like characters. Good dialogue isn’t the same as realistic dialogue. If you wrote your dialogue like people really talked, the reading of it would be incredibly awkward, and confusing – maybe not quite so much in theatre, but definitely in prose, where you just can’t include all the other detail that goes into a conversation.

    Of course, generally you skip the boring conversations anyway, but even during those, they’ll be talking more nicely than people actually talk. Because it has been constructed. I wouldn’t be concerned that nothing I ever say is going to equal Shakespeare’s dialogue – because he wrote it first, and generally it is more poetry than dialogue anyway (although perhaps nowadays we’re just out of practice with talking in iambic pentametre). It is kind of annoying that I can write characters who are better conversationalists than me.

    Most conversations are mundane enough that they don’t warrant great language anyway. If you’re talking about something you’re really passionate about, then it is likely to come out as poetry – but generally you don’t have that much invested in what you’re saying. Of course, there are people who are better orators, and I’m definitely not one of those, but I do write, which probably colours things. But someone like Kate de Goldi talks beautifully, and takes full advantage of the English language when she speaks. I go to a lot of author talks, where you can take it that they are going to be good writers – but that doesn’t mean the way they talk is going to be any better, and some do stand out for it.

    So you could say Shakespeare’s characters are all just amazing orators – but even if they were, they still wouldn’t talk that way, as real people. All the repetition could be quite tedious – although I’m usually grateful for it watching his plays performed, because half of the dialogue goes in one ear and out the other. The first scenes of a Shakespearean play are wasted on me, because my mind hasn’t had time to adjust to the language and I can’t ‘translate’ it.

    I’m not that enamoured of Shakespeare anyway, but if people actually talked like that, I would probably be hitting them to get to the point. I tend to think less is more eloquent anyway.

    …says the girl who just wrote a few hundred words. You’d be hard pressed to get me to speak that much.

    • kitsuchi says:

      Omigosh, I really did write a lot. Looking at it, it’s kind of overkill. Or at least makes me feel ridiculous.

    • mashugenah says:

      Good dialogue isn’t the same as realistic dialogue.

      A quite reasonable point. In fact, the point might be more generally applied to literature. Good literature is not necessarily the same as realistic literature.

      I think you will find your point better made by the Athenian tragedians of the 5th century than by Shakespeare. They structured their plays around a host of limitations that, really, nobody else has bothered with since. (Although Racine and his lot, the dastardly French, certainly gave it a try.) Yet, despite those limitations, many of the plays remain a powerful invocations of essential human experiences and conditions.

      A more modern example would be Beckett and his ilk, who are deliberately unrealistic in their potrayal of things as a kind of rhetoric device. I’ve always thought that Beckett would have been the perfect man to try and dramatize Spenser’s Faerie Queen. 🙂

      The second aspect here is that the dramatist, as you say, chooses what to show on the stage. Just so with all artists. It is crucial to the understanding of Jane Austen as a satirist to look at the subject matter of her books and realise how trivial it is. Or you could not bother, since it’s terribly dull.

      although perhaps nowadays we’re just out of practice with talking in iambic pentametre

      Iambic pentameter works relatively well in Shakespeare because it is a close approximation to the rhythms people instinctively use when speaking. Most of Shakespeare is blank verse rather than pentameter anyway. (Aristotle has a treatment of this particular convention somewhere early in The Poetics, but obviously about the ancient Greek equivalent)

      But someone like Kate de Goldi talks beautifully, and takes full advantage of the English language when she speaks.

      There is a distinctin to be made here in free-flowing discourse compared to set-piece events.

      • kitsuchi says:

        Sadly, I never studied classics, so I don’t really know anything about Athenian tradgedy. I have done political and absurdist theatre though, which are both unrealistic forms because it serves their purpose. Not that naturalistic theatre is necessarily any more realistic.

        I always understood blank verse just to be unrhymed iambic pentametre… I know it’s closest to natural speech patterns, but that’s only when you’re ignoring the line breaks – you hear someone reading Shakespeare and pausing at the end of each line, it’s pretty damn horrible. Which is probably why I never understood the point of having it in verse anyway, because it seems you’re ignoring the whole verse aspect of it.

        I did actually mean free-flowing discourse as well as set-pieces – what I was thinking of there was chaired discussions, which combine the two. So someone might do a decent talk at the start, but when it comes to the discussion part you can see their skills aren’t so great. Dylan Horrocks is someone else who talks extremely well, which I never appreciated until I saw him in a panel discussion and realised just how much better he was than the other participants. The chair wasn’t too great for that one either – which is where Kate de Goldi stands out. I have also been blown away by politicians. I didn’t realise how pretty they talked…

      • mashugenah says:

        Wow, you know, I never really thought about it before. No rhyming always implied no formal verse structure to me. Bugger. 🙂 See, this is why I’m describing myself as unqualified to talk about Shakespeare with great specificity above. 🙂

        You should study classics. 🙂 I tend to find that the classical modes and methods thin things out to more or less their simplest form, so you can really see what’s going on. The more sophisticated writing becomes, the more “fluff” you get attached to works on the basis of literary value. Hmm.. just a thought, and not one I can instantly support with screeds of evidence. 🙂

      • Well, actually, no Old English verse rhymes at all – it’s all hung together by alliteration, and there are very specific rules about how many stressed syllables in a line and which do and don’t alliterate. Rhyming was very hard to do, because most of the stresses in words were on the first line. Things got easier after the Norman invasion when English got a huge influx of French and Latin vocabulary which likes secondary stresses and kept all its inflections, but its still harder to write rhymed verse in English than French.

        Iambic pentameter works relatively well in Shakespeare because it is a close approximation to the rhythms people instinctively use when speaking. Most of Shakespeare is blank verse rather than pentameter anyway. (Aristotle has a treatment of this particular convention somewhere early in The Poetics, but obviously about the ancient Greek equivalent)
        It’s more that ten syllables is a good line length for English (as opposed to 12 or 14 syllables in French) and that iambic meter rolls off the tongue beautifully and works well in long speeches with a wonderful build up of momentum. I never particularly noticed that people talk like .-.-.-.-.- in real life. (Kistsuchi’s correct about blank verse, by the way.)

      • mashugenah says:

        *shrug* Seth’s tetrameter-based The Golden Gate has a pleasing cadence too, and doesn’t sound particularly unnatural (certainly no more than Shakespeare does). I suspect it’s just the iambic foot which is important after all. Once you’re not stressing the ends of the nominal lines with rhyming (or in some other way), the “pentameter” part really just becomes book-keeping.

  3. botrytis says:

    The thing I have begun to notice in those casual conversations in the halls of learning as one scurries between appointments, or the banter around the design office, or the preliminary pleasantries with the apes on the construction site… is that there is not any attempt to elevate the diction beyond a very basic level. People simply do not aim to speak well, instead aiming to engage at the most surficial level that will get them through the conversation and on to whatever really interests them.

    A thought – in general day to day communication – people only aim to communicate – if what they use is good enough to communicate what they need to, then that’s good enough for them generally I would imagine.

    Looking at and understanding the intent behind the action, can perhaps explain why the action takes certain forms?

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