The Sense of an Ending

This sceptred isle, this throne of kings…

The Sense of an Ending

In this series of talks I am looking at ways of reading Shakespeare out loud.  Shakespeare in the Mountains is a project that gathers people who like to read plays and poetry aloud in the mountains of Asturias in Spain.  In this talk I want to look at the way Shakespeare uses rhyme to mark endings.

I am skipping through Macbeth to find examples.  It is not just the witches who rhyme in the play.  The exits and the ends of scenes are almost invariably marked with rhymes.  Act 1, Scene 6 ends like this:

Away, and mock the time with fairest show;

False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

It is almost a tongue-twister getting all those “f”s out, so you have to slow down!

Act 2, Scene 1:

Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell

That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

Act 2, Scene 3

… There’s warrant in that theft

Which steals itself, when there’s no mercy left.

Let’s think about how we should read these endings.  It seems to me that the rhymes are there for a purpose.  In Macbeth the rhymes provide aural punctuation.  Notice that they are not shy rhymes.  It would be difficult to disguise them, even if you wanted, as an actor, to give a less accentuated reading.  They are all monosyllabic words that take the full stress of the end of the iambic line.

In that second example, the line breaks easily after heaven:

That summons thee to heaven //    or to hell.

This accentuates the rhyme even more.  It has the turnaround in the tail that is characteristic of epigrams.  It is almost as though Macbeth wants to say something memorable before quitting the stage.  Yet, it is not just Macbeth.  Skim through your Shakespeare and you will notice how common the rhyming couplet to end a scene is.  You will also notice how quotable those lines often are

We could turn to Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3.  Hamlet is watching the King pray and thinks about killing him there and then, but cannot stand for him to go to his death in a state of grace.  He leaves:

My mother stays.

This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

The king then gets up and leaves:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

How many of these last lines can you imagine on fridge magnets?  The epigrammatic quality of these rhyming couplets draws attention to itself not only by accentuating the rhythm of the language but by the twisting conceits that make the phrases memorable.

This means that when we read the final couplet of a scene we should not rush it or stumble over it.  If we rush it we are taking away half its effect.  It also means that we should be sensitive to the appearance of rhyme in otherwise unrhymed verse speeches and think about why the rhymes are there.  Perhaps this punctuation has another purpose besides marking an ending.

Consider the exchange of taunts in Richard II, Act 1, Scene 1.  Bolingbroke is defending himself against the accusations of Mowbray.  He ends a twenty line unrhymed speech with this couplet:

And, by the glorious worth of my descent,

This arm shall do it, or this life be spent.

When Mowbray replies with another speech of 28 lines in unrhymed verse, he ends thus:

In haste whereof, most heartily I pray

Your highness to assign our trial day.

These are not like the couplets at the end of scenes.  There is no twist in the tale and the concepts are neither interesting nor witty.  This is formal language denoting a formal contest of honor.  I find it interesting that Shakespeare increases the formal patterning the more violent the confrontation becomes.  The impetus towards rhyming accelerates.  The king turns to Gaunt:

Good uncle, let this end where it begun;

We’ll calm the Duke of Norfolk, you your son.

GAUNT               To be a make-peace shall become my age.

Throw down, my son, the Duke of Norfolk’s gage.

When we are reading these lines we should not try to hide the rhymes because as the emotional intensity of the scene builds, the formal patterning of the language increases to match it.  It reaches the point where Richard picks up the unfinished rhyme of Mowbray to throw it back to him:

The which no balm can cure but his heartblood

Which breath’d this poison.

RICHARD                                                      Rage must be withstood:

Give me his gage- lions make leopards tame.

MOWBRAY        Yea, but not change his spots.  Take but my shame

And I resign my gage.

Some readings are acceptable deviations from a straightforward word-by-word reading of the text.  By looking into the motivations and personalities of the characters that Shakespeare gives us we may decide to put an emphasis here or there.  However, when there is a structure to the language that is explicitly written in by the author we should respect it.  This means that, in a reading of Richard II, the readers who take these parts should be aware that they are taking up the rhyme from their fellows and throw them back with emphasis.

The vituperative bitterness of the rhyming reaches a climax with Bolingbroke:

…spit it bleeding in his high disgrace,

Where shame doth harbor, even in Mowbray’s face.

And how does Richard reply?  Listen now to the powerful effect the loss of rhyme suddenly has:

We were not born to sue, but to command;

Which since we cannot do to make you friends,

Be ready…

The art of the development of the scene is in the use of rhyme.


And for an epilogue, what better than Prospero at the end of The Tempest:

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.


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