20 May, 2024


Shakespeare: Man For All Seasons

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Many people do not realise that in William Shakespeare’s (WS) plays the prose, the drama part, is actually verse, it is poetry and needs to be enunciated with the rhythm of reciting poetry. While he did not invent it, WS invariably used what is called iambic pentameter for the text, the spoken portion, of his plays. Of course, this does not include stage instructions such as “Exit the King” and “Enter a Messenger”. 

I will deal with pentameter first and then the elusive iambic. But before that I need to settle a grouse; a grouse with the experts (Doric, Ashly, Yasmine, Panini and no doubt many more). You see these chaps never, ever, told us any of this; not even that the dramatic prose is actually poetry and needs to be enunciated as such if one is to capture the beauty of WS’s writings. This is why it is said that WS must be read out aloud, the lilt and rhythm must be captured when enunciating even the apparent prose. My grouse is that none of these experts ever told us. I am sure they deal with these things in their Honours Course English literature seminars, but the rest of us laymen they treated as vermin unworthy of revelation. My biggest grouse is with Comrade Doric who I knew ever so well for decades – he was a Party leader. I learnt politics from him, agreed with him, disagreed with him and eventually split from him politically. Whenever he cared to refer to WS it was the plot, the story line, the struggles for power and the political lessons to learn therefrom. Not a word about the other Shakespeare. 

OK, having got this off my chest let me move on. A pentameter is a poetic unit of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (de-DUM.) Penta is the Greek word for five, pentagon for example. Therefore, a pentameter contains five two-syllable rhythms the first usually unstressed the second stressed, a total of ten syllables. The best-known text-book examples are,

If music be the food of love, play on. (Twelfth Night)

O that this too too solid flesh would melt! (Hamlet)

But, soft! what light through yon-der {2 syllables} win-dow {2 syllables} breaks? (Romeo and Juliet)

(I use {x} to indicate a multi syllabic word of x syllables – KD)

What does the elusive term iambic add to this? In my experience absolutely nothing. I have poured through WS study guides, spent a few hours with the 2152 page New Oxford English Dictionary which sent me round in circles on trip through ‘iamb’, ‘pentameter’ and a strange, frankly meaningless term called ‘prosody’ but I learnt nothing, even from a time-consuming web-search. If you will take my advice forget about ‘imabic’ it adds nothing to an understanding of WS’s rhythmic meter. Or perchance this ‘prosody’ fellow may let us in on a naughty Shakespearean secret because the word indicates vagueness.

Actually, WS was very naughty in his syllable counting; often doing an 11-syllable line and following it with a 9-syllable line by way of apology; or equally often doing it the other way around.

To be, or not to be, that is the question :                               (Goody 10 syllables)
Whe-ther {2} ’tis nob-ler {2} in the mind to suffer:               (Good 10 again)
The slings and arr-ows of out-rag-eous for-tune :                 (Hmm 11 syllables)
Or to take arms aga-inst {2} a sea of tro-ubles {2}:                (Hmm 11 syllables again)

And by opp-osing end them. To die—to sleep:                             (Back to 10 syllables)
No more; and by a sleep to say we end –                                        (Oh 9 syllables)
The heart-ache {2} and the thou-sand {2} na-tu-ral {3} shocks:  (11 syllables to balance)
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a con-sum-mation {3}:                             (9 syllables! Again, Oh dear)
De-vou-tly {3} to be wish-’d {2}. To die, to sleep:                          (Back 10 syllables) 

What is obvious is that enunciation, the way in which the on-stage speaker utters the syllables of each word is crucial to preserving rhythmic balance. WS was indeed a naughty practitioner of pentameter.

Here is a purple passage that I cannot resist
Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene II 

The barge she sat in, like a bur-nish’d {2} throne:                     (10 syllables, ok)

Burned on the wa-ter {2}: the poop was bea-ten {2} gold:                (11 syllables unless you rush)

Pur-ple {2} the sails, and so per-fumed {2} that:                       (9 syllable; no way of increasing)

The winds were love-sick {2} with them; the oars were sil-ver {2}:  (11 syllables, but forced)

[And thus, it goes on till we reach] 

…………………. For her own person,    

 ………………    It beggar’d all description: 

[All rhythm is broken to startle. Get out your copy of WS and read on for pure purple pleasure – KD]

The Shakespeare Canon

That’s enough about Shakespearean dramatic prose being verse, poetry. I will next say something about the content of the plays themselves. I would have loved to include Hamlet but I am too biased; few would disagree that it is the greatest literary work in the English tongue. I am tempted to say in any language but I have not read Homer, Kamban, Cervantes and Dostoevsky except in translation. I have therefore restricted this essay to Anthony & Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Othello. I chose plays whose plot and moral compass have some current relevance by putting the magnificence of literature at the command of everyday life and crisis – global or domestic.

Anthony & Cleopatra

This is political drama, a depiction of the titanic, in modern usage global, conflict between Rome and Egypt. In modern times in the case of America and China it is also Thucydidean. Rome is desperate to get back its finest general Mark Anthony (America and China are desperate to get back or retain their most able final experts and technologists). Then and now there were/are outlanders incessantly complicating the equation whether by the name of Sextus Pompeius, Vladimir Putin or Recep Tyyip Erdogan. 

The timeless ring of great literature ignites the mundane in daily life to spring into reality. This is how the great fills out the everyday. By providing depth of perspective it makes the silly familiar strategist and the armchair analyst appear as unintelligent as powerful decision makers, whether domestic within this island or global. When couched in the timeless, the everyday takes on a resonance. The Anthony & Cleopatra story is also famously entangled in the love affair between a great general and she who is fabled to be the most beautiful woman ever. That’s the spice. The endless spice in Colombo’s gossip and Donald Trump’s self-declared love of pussies can aptly be captured in great idioms borrowed from the past

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is pure political drama. Even conversation on the streets of Rome is filled with politics. Which remark in a Colombo street or market, which chatter in social-media and every conversation in a drawing room does not pulse with political content? Why we can teach the Romans “When in Colombo do as Colombo does!” Sri Lanka is in ferment. Hardly five years pass without mighty change – 1956, ‘70, ‘75, 1977-82, ’89, 2009; the list in endless. Of the people, tribunes Flavius and Murellus put it better than any commentator in Colombo, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things”. 

What character does Mahinda Rajapaksa mimic? Maybe Brutus eh who once praised Caesar, then stabbed him “the unkindest cut of all”, and then rose in revolt against him. Mahinda certainly has played as many roles in his life but perhaps a line or two from the play can capture it all “Now in the name of all the gods at once, upon what meat does this our (Mahinda) feed that he is grown so great?” To be fair Anthony, over Brutus’ dead body did declare “This was the noblest Roman of them all. All the others, save only he, did that they did in envy of great Caesar. He, only in a general honest thought”. Who in Lanka’s political story comes close to earning such an accolade – NM, Ponnambalam Arunachalam?


I have chosen Othello for my third example because it is the story of a black man, a Moor who “served the state not wisely but too well”. Did WS have in mind our GG, father and son, or Douglas, or many of our Al Haj gentlemen? The story of race, religion, colour and prejudice are now so much a part of our world both locally and globally that the nuances of the story ring ever true.

But it is the personal tragedy that dominates the play. The story of Othello’s betrayal is timeless and heart rending. It is a problem that we face at every turn in our lives. If someone close to acts wrongfully (fraud, misrepresentation in a family or criminal matter etc.) What should one do? Expose the person even if a son or daughter, wife or sibling? Or cover-up actively or by silence? The tragedy is doubled in the case of Desdemona and Othello in that the accusation of infidelity against Desdemona is false. A good, upright, simple and decent man is betrayed by his trusted friend Iago and foolishly misled by circumstances. Was Othello a simpleton, partly to blame for his own downfall? He/she among us who is free of sin may cast the first stone!

Even Shakespeare surely excels himself in the beauty and pathos of the following lines. Don’t you agree? Were he to quench Desdemona’s life, where can he find that Promethean flame that can restore its light? No wonder people are so opposed to the death penalty even for alleged murderers, torturers and rapists; even serial offenders. What tricks the tiny DNA molecule has played on prosecutors and judges.

“Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume”.

Othello (5.2.9-15)

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Latest comments

  • 1

    You know me! I should not even attempt to expose my inadequacy in English, worse on Shakespeare.
    I have been to Shakespeare’s birth place, Stratford-upon-Avon. It is cared for as a British pride. Why shouldn’t the British be proud of their Bard. No dramatist is equal to him.
    But, the purpose of my comment is elsewhere. About Deception.
    In my opinion Shakespeare would certainly miss modern Sri Lanka.
    We are poorer for the absence of a Shakespeare among us today!

  • 2

    “Man For All Seasons” …….. thought it was Thomas More.

    Hope, now people don’t start getting ideas …….. Native making ol’ Ranil his man for all seasons ……… and for all dirty deeds: more likely. :))

    To each their own.

  • 2

    Yes indeed the Man for All Seasons is Thomas More.
    I have borrowed the name, if I may.

  • 1

    …………Even conversation on the streets of Rome is filled with Politics…….pens Prof: David.
    But then, Even rainfall in Russia had triggered the Commies in Colombo to open out their umbrellas. But alas, in the good old days.

    What character does Mahinda Rajapakse mimic?

    Mahinda Percy Rajapakse in the post Aragalaya period resembles several tragic heroes of Shakespeare rolled into one.
    Gloomy like Hamlet; Jealous like Othello; Betrayed like Julius Caesar; And ranting like King Lear[ From his abode down Wijeyrama mawatha ]
    Sad! Who will shed a single tear for Mahinda Percy?

  • 0

    Dear Kumar,
    I read this article with great enjoyment two days ago. I don’t think that I can match you for response to the plays. Response is not objective, scientific nor static.
    I was fortunate to be introduced to Shakespeare long before O. Levels; at Gurutalawa by Oliver E. J. de Soysa, whom Ratnajeevan Hoole also remembers with gratitude. He used to have Long Playing records (33 rpm) of entire Shakespeare plays and used to take us to his room which had a gramophone and play them to us. Actors like Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Olivier. It was not confined to what any syllabus contained.
    Those actors had developed a style of speaking Shakespeare which was standard at the time. I’m sure it influenced Richard Burton later, where it would have modified his Welsh accent. And there was his co-star Elizabeth Taylor, whom in real life, he married twice.
    There were indeed various books which showed one how to scan a line, but all that was secondary to listening to those actors. Each student of Shakespeare has to work these out for himself, guided by teacher.

  • 0

    Kumar has embarrassed me by listing me as “an expert” in the company of the late Doric, and Ashley (whom I have met), and Yasmine (since she’s still breathing, I may yet meet her. I’ve just found this:
    I’ve given you the link here, but most of the listening will be done later.
    Yasmine is a close relative of nimal fernando, but since he wants to remain anonymous, let me not pursue that.
    All these people have something to offer us, and I’m grateful to them. One Peradeniya giant whom Kumar has strangely left out is E.F.C. Ludowyk Before his time? I’m resisting the temptation to give Wikipedia links; let the reader explore. Ludo was very much of a Shakespeare expert and edited the plays for Cambridge University, and an introduction to WS. However, one has to leave that behind at some point, and there are more specialised but available editions, such as the New Arden.
    Panini Edirisinhe

  • 0

    How much do I owe to MI. Kuruvila (at Aquinas) and Ashley‘s teaching? It is difficult to analyse. When listening, one adds it to what one already knows. Ashley taught well. Just a scene was discussed, with the five students encouraged to contribute. We then had to apply those insights to our study of the entire play. So, much depended on the individual.
    Shakespeare has necessarily to spill over into the theatre. and that theatre was on the other side of the Mahaweli, the E.O.E. Pereira, in the Engineering Faculty. It goes without saying that one has to explore other “Drama” if one is to come back to exploring Shakespeare with greater enthusiasm.
    There was a major production, The Tempest, in modern dress, which in my view was not the greatest success. It was directed by this man who was then in the Science Faculty studying buffaloes.
    However, I learnt a lot even from that, and I’m grateful.

  • 0

    I heard this story many many years ago narrated to me by Dr.Thiru Kandiah who later became Prof:at Peradeniya.
    A freshly passed out English Honours graduate who was recruited as an Asst.Lecturer had asked Doric, who was then Head of the Dept:why he did not pursue his Ph.D.
    Doric casually replied that he did not want to reassure himself!!!

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