Cadence in Shakespeare

Cadence is an often overlooked aspect of writing that is significant in the attempt to understand the meaning of text. The use of cadence is most often only considered relevant in an approach to poetry or music; however, poetic form is used in other genres of writing and is an applicable approach to literary criticism. An author’s intended message is intricately woven into the cadence in which the words are to be delivered. In order to appreciate the words of Shakespeare, in particular, one must consider the implications of intended cadence.
Although Shakespeare’s work can be enjoyed through a silent reading, certain nuances of his plays are lost without the aspect of performance or delivery in which the cadence is more visible. In an article from The Sunday Telegraph London Charles Spencer approaches the importance of cadence in performances of Shakespeare. He gets his point across very well by stating that: Anyone who has been to see Shakespeare in the theatre recently will recognize this experience.
An actor is “tearing a passion” to tatters and after what seems like several yards of fraught blank verse, you belatedly realize that you have barely the faintest clue as to what he’s been banging on about. The odd word or phrase sinks in, but even speeches you know well on the page seem shrouded in obscurity on the stage. Luckily this is not always the case. Many of us have also had the pleasure of watching a performance in which the actors manage to “deliver the verse with such clarity that even Shakespeare’s knottiest, and most clotted passages make crystalline sense” (Spencer).

An enjoyable performance of Shakespeare relies on the proper delivery of cadence. The intended meaning can be completely lost if the cadence is not delivered correctly. So how do we discern the intended cadence? Peter Hall, author of Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players, “insists that Shakespeare himself provides all the clues about how to speak his verse . . . moment by moment, and line by line” (Spencer). There are many elements involved in determining cadence.
Read more about Dramatic Criticism
According to Hall one must first study the “mechanics of blank verse, whose unit is iambic pentameter” and in addition one must also focus on the “structure of the line, scansion, the caesura, monosyllables, pauses, alliteration and rhyme” (Spencer). He goes on to say that Shakespeare “tells the actor when, but he never tells him why or how” (Spencer). The why or how of delivering Shakespeare’s verse is left to the interpretation of the reader or performer. Spencer concludes this article by saying that:
Shakespeare’s text is a complex score that demands to be read as a piece of music, learned like the steps of a dance, or practiced like the stroke of a duel . . . but the paradox of art is that the rules of form must always be challenged in order to achieve spontaneity. Yet they must not be completely destroyed. There is a balance between discipline and freedom which only the great creative genius or the astonishing performer can achieve. Let’s look at the mechanics of blank verse. Blank verse is defined as unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter is a metrical pattern in poetry which consists of five iambic feet per line (Meyer 1617). In Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice Kristen Linklater states that “Rhythm takes language and adds an innermost drive that moves it, shakes it, and channels it” (92). She goes on to say that “A poet uses rhythm to shape language into dramatic peaks and valleys, and major clues to topography of any given scene in a Shakespeare play are to be found in its rhythmic dynamics” (92). Linklater also states that:
The verse rhythm that reigns supreme in Shakespeare is iambic pentameter [which is] the basic rhythm of the English language . . . and by the end of the sixteenth century, the development of prosody had determined five to be the most satisfying number of iambic feet per line for English dramatic, or heroic, verse. ” Furthermore, In Speak the Speech! Shakespeare’s Monologues Illuminated, authors Rhona Silverbush and Sami Plotkin explain that “Verse is an efficient and compelling means of communication.
It enables the author to convey more layers of meaning in fewer words” and “Because verse is an elevated form of language, it elevates the dramatic experience” (246). Caesura is a pause within a line of poetry that contributes to the rhythm of the line (Meyer 1617). Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonant sounds in a sequence of words, usually at the beginning of a word or stressed syllable (Meyer 1615). And rhyme is defined as the repetition of identical or similar concluding syllables in different words, most often at the ends of lines (Meyer 1633).
All of these elements are in the structure of a line and Shakespeare uses these elements in his writing. Therefore the structure of the line seems to hold the key to the intended cadence. Rhythm is what makes poetry and music flow. It is what makes a speech memorable. And if used correctly it signifies the importance of what is being said. It is a subtle way of getting a point across and accentuating what the speaker or author wants you to hear. The way a line is read can change the impression made on the audience as much as the words that they hear.
In an article entitled “The sound of Your Stories” Philip Martin states that “Cadence in literary terms is the rhythm or metre of a stream of words, how the flowing phrases sound on the ear. It is derived from the Latin, “to fall” – the rise and fall of the poetic beat or the inflection of the human voice”. Similarly, in an article written by Dennis Jackson, it is said that “Signaling significance, cadence authenticates your voice”. Furthermore Jackson states that “A cadence is a pause that meaningfully punctuates the flow of music.
Similarly, in our writing, cadences are stress points, moments where syntax and substance team up to convey special meaning”. He then goes on to say that “Cadences are the drumbeats that sound through our prose signaling significance to readers, telling them how the writing is to be read”. He uses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ’s “I have a dream” speech to illustrate how cadence can affect the way we hear or read words. He mentions rhetorical techniques that King uses such as grammatical parallelism, repetition, and manipulation of sentence lengths “to achieve rhythm and affect cadences that underscore his main points” (Jackson).
In Simply Shakespeare, Widdicombe mentions that “if pace doesn’t change monotony sets in” (171). He looks at Hamlet and proposes “can he [Shakespeare] hold an audience’s attention for more than four hours and almost 4000 lines? The answer is a resounding “?yes’” (172). One of the reasons given for Shakespeare being able to successfully keep the audience’s attention is the way “Shakespeare applies his stagecraft to the play’s pacing” (172). Another important aspect of cadence is brought to light by Jackson G. Barry.
In an article entitled “Shakespeare’s ‘Deceptive Cadence’: A Study in the structure of Hamlet,” Barry “puts forth the concept of deceptive cadence, which is a musical term associated with classical music in which the generally assumed and thus logical conclusion given by the chord progression is broken and replaced with some other, not as fitting or perfect, chord”. According to Barry “this deceptive cadence can be found throughout Hamlet, but becomes especially prevalent during the third act, in which Hamlet kills Polonius”.
The idea is that the “deceptive cadence” used in Hamlet “serves to prolong and extend the play into the full five act form” and “without the use of this deceptive cadence, Hamlet would have been able to move forward with his plans for vengeance and would have had nothing to mark or scar his own conscience” (Barry). He states that “until this point the play had been building with steady momentum but this tragic turn of events breaks up the standard and logical progression of the play and thus diverts Hamlet from his true task and goals”.
Without this “deceptive cadence” Barry states that “the true element of tragedy would have been lost, and with it a great deal of substance from the piece”. So now we have the idea of “deceptive cadence” to contend with. The way a story slows down or changes direction therefore can also affect the meaning of a work. Shakespeare adds a great deal to the play by using this “deceptive cadence” in Hamlet in order to change the mood and add to the tragedy of the story. “Round and around, like creatures gone slightly mad, the students march to a slow, rhythmic chant.
Their eerie cadence rises to the upper rows of the gloomy concrete theater, its effect both lyrical and unnerving” (Jones). Tone and emotion are portrayed through cadence. Shakespeare’s words are well known by many people. Even those who have not read or seen his work can recognize, or even recite, a Shakespearean quote. His use of the English language is certainly beautiful. He paints a picture for the audience with his words and manipulates the language in order to achieve the desired effect. Shakespeare manages to portray the effect of every human emotion.
According to Ralph Waldo Emerson “reading for the sense will best bring out the rhythm” he states that Shakespeare’s secret is “that the thought constructs the tune. ” The process of understanding and performing Shakespeare is a task attained on many levels. Not only must one consider the “mechanics” but also the thought process behind the author’s intentions. Poetic form is a complicated work of art that can not be approached without understanding the importance of cadence. The voice makes all the difference. Once you have heard how the lines are supposed to be delivered, it is much easier to appreciate and understand Shakespeare.

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