27 February 1995 | Letter to Richard Loncraine

Blank Verse

The following letter was written by Ian McKellen to his screenwriting partner/director Richard Loncraine on the subject of blank verse in Shakespeare's plays, and their film version of Richard III.

I'm glad at last we're going to do this film.
Three years has been a long, long time to wait.
But now I thought I should sit down and try
to clarify what blank verse means to me;
and thereby reassure your doubting heart.
If, incidentally, your read these lines out loud,
I'm sure you'll find them tripping off the tongue.
And yet, of course , they're written in blank verse!

I'll stop that game and go back to the start. (And that's another blank verse line, dear heart!) Before Christopher Marlowe (who was born in the same year as Shakespeare — 1564) came down from Cambridge and wrote his first play, the only English drama had been written in rather doggerelly verse and told simple allegorical stories about good and evil, mostly culled from the Bible. Marlowe was also concerned with morality but introduced to the London stage fictional stories about famous people (Tamburlaine the Great and Dr. Faustus for example). He needed a more pliant sort of speech than the old drama. It didn't occur to him that the prose of everyday speech would be appropriate — after all his characters were often bigger than life and he wanted them to sound especially grand. And so he lighted upon a formal rhythm which linked all the possibilities of poetry with the informality of the audience's normal speech.

Blank verse means verse that doesn't rhyme. Its meter is called pentameter because their are five (the Greek 'penta') feet to each line. Each foot contains two beats, in the rhythm of the heart — "de-dum" — with the stress on the second beat. And that's all there is to it. I like the heartbeat point — just as it's nice that we have ten fingers and the blank verse line has ten beats. I imagine Marlowe counting out the beat with his digits. Not that he'd really have needed to, because (cf. my opening paragraph) the general rhythm of English speech — and modern English — often coincides with the sound of blank verse. Shakespeare took blank verse and ran with it. By the end of his career — in Coriolanus, say, and Antony & Cleopatra — he scarcely wrote a regular blank verse line being more fascinated by complicated counterpoint and jazzy rythms. But Richard III is an early play — the first really good one he wrote. He was still intrigued by how easy it is to fall into the rhythm of "De-dum, dedum, de-dum,de-dum,de-dum" and also how fitting it is for whenever the character should sound either rhetorical, e.g. Lady Anne:

0, cursed be the hand that made these holes;
Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it;
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence

or, Lady Anne again, perfectly ordinary:

I will not be your executioner.

Once we accept that a distinguishing mark of our screenplay is a lot of words, that we are making a talky talkie, then I don't think the particular way the words are spread out on the page is an obstacle. Shakespeare made no attempt to have his plays printed and would only want his words to be judged by how they sounded not what they looked like. That's why academic critics get it wrong when they talk about "verse-speaking", as if somehow it was different from prose-speaking. It never worries me — in fact I'm delighted — if the audience never realises that the play is written in verse. The only time when they need to realise it, is when the verse rhymes — usually to mark the conclusion of a long scene, e.g.

Shine out fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.

So I don't think there are any rules about speaking Shakespeare. But I do think that it's worth the actors examining the verse, to discover how it can help them. Some of the words are old-fashioned — that's why I've cut out all the "thees" and "thous". Some other words are unusual and some specially invented — but I promise you that Zeffirelli's Hamlet and Branagh's Much Ado had many more archaisms than are in our script.

I hope you'll want you and me to go through it all line by line but here are a few general notes that I would expect the cast to take into account, as they indicate that the verse is designed to help and not hinder:

1. Read the line out loud and stress the "de-dums", e.g. Clarence:

No, no, my dream was lengthened aft - er life
De - dum de -dum de - dum de - dum de-dum

That suggests that the second "no" is stressed more than the first, giving an impetus to the urgency with which Clarence goes on to explain what he felt next. An actor inexperienced in blank verse might (wrongly?) be tempted to think the second "no" was a bit of over-writing and throw it away.

2. Appreciate that the last word of the line is invariably the most important for the sense and for the sound and it is a sort of teaser, leading on to the beginning of the line that follows. That's the energy of blank verse — it is always moving onwards, often urgently, e.g. It's intriguing how the last words (which will include the final "dum") of the lines in a long speech, invariably carry the meaning of the whole. Take Clarence's speech in jail on page 17:

O, I have passed a miserable night.
I thought that I had broken from the Tower
And was embarked to cross to Burgundy:
And in my company my brother Richard,
Who from my cabin tempted me to walk
Upon the hatches. As we paced along,
I thought that Richard struck me
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
O Lord, I thought what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of water in my ears!
What ugly sights of death within my eyes.
I thought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks,
A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon,
Wedges of cold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels
All scattered in the bottom of the sea.

In comparison, the first syllables (an unstressed "de") are relatively unimportant.

3. In regular blank verse, each line generally contains one thought, so that the speeches are made up of a series of logical links. It disturbs this forward movement if the actor does too many "naturalistic" pauses in the middle of the lines. Shakespeare's characters love talking (rather like the Irish) and speak simultaneously with thinking. The time for the actors to think what they will say next is whilst someone else is speaking. During their own speeches, the natural place to pause (but then only when really necessary for effect) is usually at the end of the blank verse line — even if the end of a sentence occurs in the middle of the line. e.g. Clarence again:

And in my company my brother Richard,
Who from my cabin tempted me to walk
Upon the hatches. As we paced along…

The sense and sentence finish with "hatches" in the middle of the line. If Clarence pushes on from there, without more than a breath, with "As we paced along," he will capture the character's desperation a) to tell the story of his dream while it's still fresh in his memory and b) convey the turbulence with which each succeeding image of the dream turned it into a nightmare. The arrangement of the verse indicates to the actor that the speech is not reflective but urgent.

4. There is never a need for the verse to be obvious to the audience. The "voice beautiful" is a relic not of Shakespeare's style but of Victorian theatres, which were so huge that actors needed to sing out the lines in order to be heard at the back of the distant gallery. I would expect our dialogue to sound swiftly conversational most of the time; as Hamlet advised the actors at Elsinore:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you "mouth" it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.

And that, for now, is all I've got to say.  — Ian McKellen

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Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine on the set of Richard III

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