If Shakespeare caught you reading one of his plays, he’d smack you. He was that kind of a guy: rough and tumble, working class, a showman and a salesman.
And Shakespeare never intended his plays to be read–he meant them to be experienced, to be seen and heard. But to accomplish such performance on a large scale, he faced a huge technical challenge.
The Globe Theater had no sound amplification system. He made his living selling admission tickets and like public venues today, more seats meant more revenue. In Shakespeare’s theater, you could actually buy a seat on the stage and be right in the thick of the drama, and easily hear every word of dialogue spoken. But how could Shakespeare assure the ticket holder in even the most remote balcony seat that he’d be able to hear the dialogue and thus follow the story portrayed on stage?
That’s a challenge we face as writers, too: how do we ensure that readers follow our thousands of words, grasping them in the cohesive manner we intend, line after line, page after page? How do we assure the story can be followed from the cheap seats, the distracted reader, the hit-and-run reader who must come and go from our hours-long story as spare time allows?
Shakespeare reached back a thousand years for the secret weapon: meter.
The rhapsodes of ancient times traveled from town to town telling stories they’d memorized–just like Shakespeare’s actors–to an audience for a fee. Meter was the linguistic device that helped these rudimentary bards memorize and recite thousands of lines of a story. Kind of like this:
My grandfather left school and went to work at age 13. He learned to read and write, but in his retirement years, volunteering at the public library, these letters became an obstacle: to re-shelve books, he had to know alphabetical order. As he told me, “I know all the letters, just not in order.”
How do you and I know the order? Meter: that silly, childhood song constructed of both meter and rhyme. The A-B-C song prompts us to know what’s next, what fits, what’s expected. It’s the crutch that allowed the rhapsode to recall and his audience to anticipate what should come next in a thousand lines of poetically composed story.
Like in a theater, seated in the cheap seats, straining to hear: what’s next? What fits, what rhymes? Ain’t no PA system–but I have a framework to anticipate and even fill in the blanks if needed. Because there’s no replay function, then or now, in live drama.
Shakespeare used the most efficient, natural meter he knew of to organize his spoken words into a structure that allowed his customers to follow, anticipate and even fill in the blanks (see cartoon above) so as to follow, engage, and experience his story. It’s the A-B-C song playgoers and library volunteers and novel readers need to seamlessly, effortlessly know what goes where, when and how it fits.
Writers can engage readers with the same metric organization in parts of our narrative, especially those parts we wish to deepen in intensity. If you use a logical syncopated meter, like the rhapsodes’ own method of engaging listeners, you will engage readers. Subtly, invisibly, readers will more easily follow your narrative, like boats that are riding the tide.
There, I just did it: the last line I wrote has a deliberate but subtle iambic meter, one that readers can engage, can anticipate, can intuitively know what book goes on which shelf. Meter is a simple, subtle way to engage readers, to help them follow, to give them a poetic feel that they can subconsciously rely upon to fill in the blanks, to reinforce the feel, to grasp the story.
I don’t use meter in every line, of course. But I add poetic accent that structures crucial passages to reinforce, to engage readers, to help them along in a subtle undertow that allows them to glide through the dialogue, paying more attention to the story than the mechanical process of reading.
So, defy Shakespeare: read his plays, focused on the dialogue. Borrow from him the meter he borrowed from the ancient bards who succeeded where both playwrights and novelists strive today: enable, enmesh and engage the audience in the story.
After all, that’s just what he did himself.*
*more iambic meter: that’s just what he did himself.