|Taking Apart Sonnet #12: ‘When I do count the clock that
tells the time’
Shakespeare and Acting
This poem is a terrific exercise in alliteration, antithesis and counterpoint. (It even has a few onomatopoetic devices going: hear the clock ticking in line one? How about the bells of the church tolling for a funeral in line eight?
First scan the poem. Don’t worry about being exact. Scanning is a personal thing. (A couple of hints: action verbs always get stressed, and words with diphthongs (two vowels combined as in 'Time') in them always get a stress as well.)
Most of the lines are what you might expect in blank verse: iambic pentameter. But at important spots Shakespeare will vary the steady beat of iambs. Where? : ‘brave day sunk’ (l.3) ‘past prime’ (l.4), ‘barren’ (l.5), ‘Borne on the bier’ (l.8), ‘beauty’ (l.9), ‘must’ (l.10), ‘ ‘gainst Time’s scythe’ (l.11), ‘save breed’ (l.12).
Notice that Shakespeare uses alliteration in tandem with the counterpoint of the rhythm to give further emphasis to the sound and meaning of the ideas there. Check out all those ‘b’ sounds, and also look at the way he nearly spits out the words ‘sunk in hideous night’ and ‘past prime’ in lines two and three. It is as if the sound of those words is obliterating the ideas that went before them in the sentence; ‘brave day’ is literally ‘sunk’ in ‘s’ sounds, and that poor ‘violet’ seems to get spat upon! This is a perfect example of antithesis in Shakespeare’s verse. He sets particular words and phrases against one another to reshape the line of thought and send it off in another direction. It works on a purely verbal as well as conceptual level. Ideas are in conflict in Shakespeare, often times different meanings are at war for possession of the same words. Antithesis is at the heart of Shakespeare’s method. Be on the look out for it , and always emphasize it when you find it. That is the first real lesson in speaking Shakespearean verse.
With all this choral reading, running around, and in depth textual
analysis under our belt, we are finally ready to address the
question that modern actors want to jump to right off the bat: what
is the situation? What is the actor’s motivation. After looking
carefully at all Shakespeare’s stage directions, you should have a
good sense of who the speaker is, who he/she is talking to and what
their situation might be. Take a few minutes and write out a
possible scenario. The best ones will be linked
organically to the sound of the poem, its rhythm, antitheses,
alliteration and vowel sounds.