I never really understood how the iambic pentameter works and how I should read Shakespeare's verses. Could you please recommend me some books about how to read Shakespeare properly? I'd be much obliged to you! :D
How to read Shakespeare aloud is mainly in the department of acting. Two seminal books you might look at are John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare, and Peter Hall’s Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players.
But, honestly, my inclination is to tell you to begin by just reading Shakespeare, and preferably reading it out loud. Having tried first will give you a starting point after which, if you still feel the need to develop your understanding, these famous directors’ books might take you further. What you need is a foundation based on your own experience of reading the texts.
As far as iambic pentameter goes, it’s just a style of poetry made up of five (as in pentagon) iambs, which are two syllable units made up of a short(unstressed) syllable followed by a long (stressed) syllable. The word ‘aloud’, for instance, is an iamb.
This sounds all a little confusing when explained in words, but it really isn’t. All it means is that you have a line of poetry made of five ba-DUH rhythms:
ba-DUH ba-DUH ba-DUH ba-DUH ba-DUH. Or, to give the example everyone uses from Shakespeare’s poetry (sonnet 18),
But Shakespeare’s verse isn’t always made up of straightforward iambic pentameter (sometimes it’s not written in iambic pentameter at all). Take the beginning of Henry V, for instance:
The verse starts with a trochee (which is the opposite of an iamb – it has a long stress followed by a short stress: BAH-da), and the effect is attention-grabbing. The second line is one syllable short.
Knowing about the various techniques Shakespeare uses can certainly help you to understand why his writing sounds the way it does, but it’s not strictly necessary for knowing how to read the plays. Just because it’s in iambic pentameter, it doesn’t mean you have to read it any differently. Part of the reason it’s written like that is because it sounds like the natural rhythm of spoken English, and it’s often counter-intuitive and extremely unnatural to read it emphasising the rhythms and the end of the lines.
So what you do need to watch out for, instead of trying to work out the iambic pentameter in lines, is how to verse flows. Well edited versions are useful: all you have to do is keep reading until you reach a punctuation mark. For instance, in the lines from Henry V I just quoted you can’t stop at the end of the first line, even though the line ends there: ‘O for a muse of fire that would ascend’… Ascend what? It needs to keep going straight onto the next line to make sense: ‘O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention’.
In fact, iambic pentameter is there to help you, rather than hinder you. Historically, Shakespeare’s troupe had very little time to prepare their plays; they did them with hardly any rehearsal, so the language had to do some of the work for them. The rhythmic style of writing forces the actor to speak the lines in a certain way, and often does a lot to convey the emotions of a character (by making the actor speed up and slow down on a verbal level). Iambic pentameter is something that happens rather than something you consciously do or think about (unless you’re doing textual analysis)
So if you’re sensitive to the flow of the language, the rhythm should actually come naturally; you’ll start to hear and feel it. Just let the verse carry you, instead of trying to impose the rhythm you think it ought to have onto it.