Did shakespeare's actors breath at the end of each line?
June 12, 2016 5:34 PM   Subscribe

There are some who say that shakespeare's verse is meant for the breath to be taken at the end of the line rather than at the end of sentences and ideas (as is the natural way people take breaths). What proof is there that Shakespeare's actors actually did this?

I'm wondering if there's any real evidence that this is how these lines were played back in Shakespeare's day. I find it suspicious. Mainly because breathing at the end of each line is so unnatural that even after having the speech memorized the actor often has to consciously think about where to breath every time. But also because I know that back in Shakespeare's day, players often had a very short time to learn their lines and I find it unlikely that they took the time to memorize where to breathe.
posted by manderin to Education (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've never heard about the breathing thing, but I do know that if you read Shakespeare's scripts in their original pronunciation, the lines tend to be much more rhythmic and poetic. Here's a video of some students reciting A Midsummer Night's Dream in original pronunciation. If you pay attention, you'll notice the actors tend to just naturally take a breath after saying each line anyway.

I wouldn't really call it evidence, but I don't think it would sound that unnatural if they kept the breathing consistent.
posted by picklenickle at 5:56 PM on June 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I believe what you are looking for is called Hall's Pause. It's a very slight pause rather than a breath. I imagine the pause would actually aid in memorization of lines; it could emphasize the 10-syllable lines as units.

Check out the excerpts from this book.
posted by Specklet at 6:14 PM on June 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

British Council There are a series of clips from the British Council that are wonderful on this topic.
posted by effluvia at 6:46 PM on June 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Re: "memorizing where to breathe"-- per Mary Oliver, in English, the 5-foot iambic line is about the length of a natural breath anyway, which is why iambic pentameter sounds unforced and speechlike. In shorter-line meters, you have breath to spare at the line's end (giving a hurried/ bouncy feel); in meters > pentameter, breath runs thin toward the end and the line feels drawn out or lagging.

So the actors wouldn't have needed to carefully memorize all the pauses; it 'd just have been a question of getting into the rhythm of things enough that breath and line end naturally at the same place.
posted by Bardolph at 8:32 PM on June 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

Rosenbaum offers a potted summary of how he views 'Hall's Pause' as a portrayal of thinking-while-speaking in this Slate piece.

I definitely treat unpunctuated line-endings in Shakespearean verse as pivots that need to be acknowledged by the actor, but not necessarily tied to a breath. That said, Elizabethan performances in public theatres like the Curtain or Globe were certainly more stentorian than modern ones, given the need to be heard above a larger and more raucous audience; when you're projecting harder while trying to ensure your lines landed, you may need more puff, and the shoutier bits of verse usually provide room for that at line-end or a caesura.

Private indoor theatres like Blackfriars, where Shakespeare's late productions were performed in winter, were more intimate, appealed to a considerably more affluent audience, and had higher production values and a more experienced company. The verse sections of plays written for Blackfriars like The Winter's Tale tend to use enjambement more often and in more complex ways than earlier plays -- often riffing on the iambic pentameter a bit like like a jazz musician improvising around the beat -- and that in turn demands more complex breathing patterns.
posted by holgate at 9:07 PM on June 12, 2016 [7 favorites]

There can obviously be no proof of such a thing, barring time machines, but I suspect the "take a breath at the end of each line" thing is a misunderstanding/exaggeration of the need to mark the line break in some way, if only by a micro-pause. There is nothing worse than hearing actors treat blank verse as if it were prose and ride roughshod over the meter, pausing only at the end of a sentence.
posted by languagehat at 9:15 AM on June 13, 2016

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