Shakespeare’s Verse: A User’s Manual


I grew up in the rough-and-tumble frontier city of Spokane, Washington, where, to my surprise and enrichment, the schools took us to such performances as the Metropolitan Opera on tour, plays, symphonies and such great artists as Isaac Stern. Also my mother was a wonderful singer and our house was filled with music.

I attended Gonzaga Prep and played trombone in the band. Did a stint in Stand-Up comedy, with The Three Mistakes. My joyous college days were interrupted by a call from the Air Force who evidently needed another trombonist for the Korean Conflict. The military decided to ease me into a position as a writer and director of “soldier shows.” I think they nabbed me because of good notices for my nightly satiric programs on Eastern Washington College Radio.

After leaving the Air Force, I worked professionally as a jazz musician and added a variety of media assignments including newsman, comedian and television producer in Portland, Oregon, before deciding that the academic field was where I belonged. I finished a degree in Theatre at the University of Oregon and moved on to the University of Minnesota for an M.A. in Theatre before returning to the University of Oregon for a Ph.D. in Theatre. I wrote two musical comedies and my first book while at the University of Oregon.

Shakespeare hooked me at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Frankly, I was not enjoying most of the scripts I read until I came to Shakespeare. It only took a few productions and readings to capture me forever for the Bard. My favorite Shakespeare watch each year was in Ashland, Oregon, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. As an impoverished graduate student, I had to devise a survival system that would keep me long enough in the Ashland theatres facing up to Shakespeare’s plays. The Festival had a standing offer back then: those who bought tickets for the first performance of each of the four plays, could attend the last rehearsal of each play, free. I would drive my old DeSoto down to the park outside the theatre. I’d see all eight of the performances and sleep in my car. I subsisted richly on a box of saltine crackers. Eight nights of theatre all by the same author: what a knockout … if Shakespeare is the author.

I finished my good tenure at the University of Oregon. Time now to go to work.

I got a good job at Santa Clara University and began directing five plays a year. The first non-musical I did was Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Whoopee! Then came a meeting of spirits, rare and creative and valuable:   actor/director James Dunn and I came together and talked all night about our dreams of Shakespeare. We decided to create our own Shakespeare Festival. The plan was to hire the best actors we could find, to keep them together and to train them as well as to use them. We founded the original California Shakespeare Festival and I served as Artistic and Producing Director, as well as directing plays. And what a wonderful group of actors and designers we attracted. It was a great dream and an effective plan. Within a few years, we produced shows of power and delight. Jim Dunn turned out to be a brilliant director.

We pleased our audiences and ourselves. We even pleased the professors of English… almost. But there was, too often, a qualification in their praise: “Wonderful, exciting…. of course you massacred the verse… but it was great nevertheless.” I reveled in the praise and brushed off the quibble about the verse because, frankly, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I thought we spoke the text very well. I now blush at the naiveté of my response. After eight years of playing the dual role of professional director and full-time college professor, I had to make a choice. The Festival at this time was running two theatres for five months a year and needed to lengthen its season yet again. The time for riding two horses at once was over. In the end, I decided that my heart lay more with the academic theatre.

I brought a lot of things with me from the Festival. Above all, the nagging question, “What the hell do they mean ‘we massacred the verse?’” I needed to find an answer to the question. It should be easy, I thought. I’ll study a couple of the best books on speaking the verse and resolve that question. What a shock to find that there were no such books. There were shelves of books about Shakespeare’s poetry. That is, his metaphors and figures of speech and his other ways with language, but none of any value about performing his verse. In my disappointment and eagerness, I did the obvious thing; I hurried to the professors who had complained so.

THE PROF: Well…  you see … um… it’s in… uh…  blank verse and… er… you need to speak it… that way.

ROGER: Yes, of course, I know it’s blank verse. But what do you mean… speak it that way?”

THE PROF: Well… you know… speak it as verse… blank verse.

ROGER: But more exactly… what were we not doing?

THE PROF: Well… um… the rhythm.

ROGER: Yes, what about it?

THE PROF: You’ve got to get it right.

ROGER: Could you be more specific?

THE PROF: Alright… it has to be like…  blank verse rhythm.

ROGER: Which is?

THE PROF: You know: dee DUM, dee DUM, dee DUM, dee DUM, dee DUM.

ROGER: That’s it? You don’t mean that literally, do you? That every line should be spoken in that deadly humdrum beat? Actually many of the lines don’t seem to fit that beat. Most of them have too many syllables and many of them seem to want emphasis in the wrong place. But mainly it just sounds boring: always a light emphasis followed by a heavy emphasis.

THE PROF: Well, it is iambic pentameter, and we should respect the playwright.

I admit that this is a bit of a parody of my conversations with many teachers. I expected them to know about the verse, these teachers of poetry and of Shakespeare. But the gist of it is true. In fact, when I listen to professors of Shakespeare and other poetry specialists reading Shakespeare aloud, I never hear them read him as verse. They sense, vaguely, that the productions they see are not done as verse, but they don’t, in fact, know exactly what that means or how to speak verse themselves, with the exception of a precious few who are blessed with an intuitive grasp of verse rhythm.

I found, to my amazement, that skill in speaking verse was a lost art. In the nineteenth century, the scholars got interested in other aspects of poetry and lost track of some of the most fundamental facts and strategies of verse form. This apparent dead end whetted my desire to know. Something convinced me that there was a lost treasure and it was findable.

Turned out I was right. But rather than in the modern scholarship, I found my most useful study to be of the sources from approximately 100 years before to 100 years after Shakespeare’s birth. While directing and producing plays at The California Shakespeare Festival, I became interested in the power of Shakespeare’s verse and the importance of iambic pentameter.

I have spent the 40 years since trying to figure out what it means and what you should do. I have directed 180 plays, 40 of which were written by William Shakespeare.

Roger-as-LearAs I began to direct Shakespeare’s plays, I composed music for the songs, and collaborated on performance editions of the scripts I directed. The mixture of music and literature in my background combined effectively to guide me in this work. My time studying Shakespeare was spent at the world’s great Shakespeare libraries including: The Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, D.C.); the Shakespeare Centre (Stratford on Avon); the British Museum Library (London) and The Birmingham (England) Central Library. (My deepest appreciation to the kind and generous staffs of these institutions.)

Though I retired a couple of years ago, I’m still busy writing both academic and dramatic work. When you finish Shakespeare’s Verse, move on to my first book, Understanding Playscripts, which is more complimentary to this book than you might think.


Photo Credit: Ironside Photography

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Dr. Gross appreciates comments, questions and feedback, especially when the topic is Shakespeare. Please contact him using the form below. Thanks for your interest in Shakespeare’s Verse: A User’s Manual.

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