Academic journal article Style

"Strange Things I Have in Head, That Will to Hand": Echoes of Sound and Sense in Macbeth

Academic journal article Style

"Strange Things I Have in Head, That Will to Hand": Echoes of Sound and Sense in Macbeth

Article excerpt

Dramatic poetry begins in a sensuous apprehension through the ear.

Coburn Freer (8)

The renowned pianist Artur Schnabel, when asked what was "great" music, replied that great music is music that is "better than it can be performed." His remark seems aptly parallel to the literary arts in that great literature is literature that is better than it can be read. Literary criticism, whatever may be the theoretical framework upon which the criticism is based, is still the "reading" of literature, and the great works of literature, no matter how closely read, always have something more, often something better, to reward our efforts. Indeed, in the critical reading of most dramatic literature, we face the added complication that though we can read a play as "literature," the play itself was conceived as a performance text.(1) Most of the studies on the language of Shakespeare's plays have been essentially textual ones, however, ones based not on the sound of the enacted spoken word, but rather on the contemplation of the printed word in the text. Yet drama, above all verse drama, is the spoken word, or, more accurately, heightened spoken language for acting. Madeleine Doran opens her book Shakespeare's Dramatic Language with the observation that "those of us who make our roomy home in Shakespeare never cease to wonder at his artistry" (3). A major part of this artistry, she asserts, is how each of the plays "has a distinctive quality, something peculiar to that play alone - a quality that is not altogether attributable to differences in plot, theme, character, and setting, but something that feels different, or that sounds different to our ears" (3). That distinctive quality, she concludes, "would seem to be in the style" (4). Later she adds, "When we know the plays intimately, . . . we are apt to be struck by the remarkable way in which no play sounds quite like another" (25). But Doran's study focuses on the relation of style and language "to situation, and, especially, to the fable as a whole" (4) in a number of Shakespeare's plays. While my study does not ignore either character or situation, my focus attempts to follow the lines of language, the lines of dramatic verse used in a verse drama.(2)

Nearly all of Shakespeare's plays are distinguished by their own particular linguistic texture. The different language of each play creates its own unique tonal fabric. Most editors' introductions to individual plays contain passing references to this auditory phenomenon, but they usually just briefly mention it in a generalized or abstract way as part of a transition to more traditional critical aspects. Although that which creates the linguistic style of each play is one of the least studied aspects of Shakespeare's works, it is one certainly not less deserving of study than the themes, images, and characters that the language also creates.(3) In his study of Shakespeare's meter, George T. Wright discusses how devices of sound can enhance the underlying meanings of a passage. "In any stretch of verse in which we feel a significant correspondence between the meanings and the sounds, some such devices . . . are probably at play and can, if we like, be singled out as contributing to the whole sound and sense of the passage" (235). In a footnote he continues:

What we probably mean when we say that a device of sound reinforces the meaning of the words is that it intensifies the saying of those words, and that this more intense saying invests their literal meaning with a heightened emotional significance which the words of themselves would not bear. (319n3)

Because the effects of the sound of words on their meaning are an intrinsic part of how a verse line is constructed, a study of these effects should lead to a better understanding of the construction of verse-drama as a whole and, consequently, to a better understanding of at least one aspect of that elusive idea mentioned by Doran - how the "style" of a drama is created. …

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