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First Steps in History

by Lisa Ripperton
​May 23, 2019

“It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts.”

​Charlotte Mason
A Philosophy of Education (V​I.178)

​We recommend that you start introducing historical figures to your child around the age of six through short anecdotes of their daring adventures, vividly told. As your young listener travels with Daniel Boone across the Kentucky mountains, holds the bridge with Horatius, attends a tournament with Richard the Lion-Hearted, paddles down the Mississippi with Marquette, or steams up the Hudson with Fulton, he becomes the comrade of great adventurers, the interested spectator of great deeds.

​Start of a  Pageant of History

All the while he is storing images in his mind of these figures who have played their parts on the world's stage and forging connections with them that may last a lifetime.

Here is a story of the type you might employ for this purpose . . .

Alexander and Bucephalus

​ONE day King Philip bought a fine horse called Bucephalus. He was a noble animal, and the king paid a very high price for him. But he was wild and savage, and no man could mount him, or do anything at all with him.

They tried to whip him, but that only made him worse. At last the king bade his servants take him away.

"It is a pity to ruin so fine a horse as that," said Alexander, the king's young son. "Those men do not know how to treat him."

"Perhaps you can do better than they," said his father scornfully.

"I know," said Alexander, "that, if you would only give me leave to try, I could manage this horse better than any one else."

"And if you fail to do so, what then?" asked Philip.

"I will pay you the price of the horse," said the lad.

While everybody was laughing, Alexander ran up to Bucephalus, and turned his head toward the sun. He had noticed that the horse was afraid of his own shadow.

He then spoke gently to the horse, and patted him with his hand. When he had quieted him a little, he made a quick spring, and leaped upon the horse's back.

Everybody expected to see the boy killed outright. But he kept his place, and let the horse run as fast as he would. By and by, when Bucephalus had become tired, Alexander reined him in, and rode back to the place where his father was standing.

All the men who were there shouted when they saw that the boy had proved himself to be the master of the horse.

He leaped to the ground, and his father ran and kissed him.

"My son," said the king, "Macedon is too small a place for you. You must seek a larger kingdom that will be worthy of you."

After that, Alexander and Bucephalus were the best of friends. They were said to be always together, for when one of them was seen, the other was sure to be not far away. But the horse would never allow any one to mount him but his master.

Alexander became the most famous king and warrior that was ever known; and for that reason he is always called Alexander the Great. Bucephalus carried him through many countries and in many fierce battles, and more than once did he save his master's life.

​What is your reaction?

Doesn't the strong opening at the beginning grab your attention? Aren't you eager to find out what happens? Won't your child be as well?

Don't you imagine that he will wonder what the future has in store for Alexander after this incident and his father's ​suggestion that he seek a larger kingdom?

Narrating the story

With a story this vivid your child may spontaneously retell it. If not, you may want to gently encourage him to share it with a family member not present for the initial reading. It is surprising how powerful the act of narration can be. In fact, Karen Glass has written a whole book about it, Know and Tell: The Art of Narration.

In the simple act of narrating the story, the child selects the details most significant to him, and in the process of putting the story into his own words, moves it into his long-term memory. 

​Fuller picture will emerge

The next time ​the young listener encounters Alexander he will likely greet him as an old friend, and expand his understanding of him based on the new context he finds him in. At this point his interest may be aroused enough to seek additional reading material, more so if he has become an independent reader in the interim.

Where can I find more stories of this sort?

The story above comes from James Baldwin's Fifty Famous Stories Retold. ​This title ​together with its sequel, Fifty Famous People, contain one hundred episodes in the lives of well-known heroes and famous men. Most are historical figures, a few are legendary, but "nearly all are the subjects of frequent allusions in poetry and prose and in the conversation of educated people," according to author James Baldwin.  Nearly all have their roots in Europe.

In contrast, Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans by Edward Eggleston, focuses exclusively on American historical ​figures​.  There are several stories each for some of the characters, including Franklin, Washington, and Audubon.

​What ages ​are these stories good for?

​All three titles listed above were originally published over a hundred years ago as textbooks for a second grade audience. ​Checking the text against modern readability formulas, though, ​yielded a third grade reading level for the Eggleston book and a fifth grade reading level for the Baldwin books. ​All can be used with younger children as read-alouds and with older learners (including adults) who want easy-to-read stories as an introduction to historical figures. I count myself in the latter category, with many years of Social Studies under my belt, but little knowledge of history to show for it.

​One more thing, William Bennett thought enough of Fifty Famous Stories Retold and Fifty Famous People to include a dozen or so stories from these ​volumes in The Book of Virtues, a book with appeal for all ages.

​The Takeaway

​Not only do these short accounts of historical characters appeal to the child's imagination and love of adventure, but they lay the groundwork for further historical inquiry, and furnish background knowledge that enhance his appreciation of other cultural offerings. He may meet the historical figure in literature or encounter allusions in the media, view representations in art museums or in dramatic productions. But if he has been deprived of his rightful heritage and knows nothing about these personages or the part they played in the history of the world, his experience, not being as rich as it might be, will be diminished.

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​Get access to the ebook editions of ​​Fifty Famous Stories Retold, Fifty Famous People, and ​Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans by purchasing the Yesterday's Classics Ebook Treasury, Volume 1

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Reading Shakespeare in Meter

by Rebecca Ripperton
May 20, 2019

After writing two other posts on Shakespeare, we realized that we simply needed to dedicate an entire post to a discussion of reading Shakespeare in meter. There was just too much we wanted to say! (If you missed them earlier, be sure to catch up on Part I and Part II of introducing new readers to Shakespeare.)

Our primary aim in this post is to give you a sense of how reading Shakespeare in meter can enrich your experience of his plays. We’re also hoping to give you some ideas as to how you can easily begin doing your own scansion (metrical analysis). Even just a little bit of meter work will further your understanding of the entire text and make you a better, more engaged reader overall!

Why read in meter?

For most people, reading and/or teaching Shakespeare is daunting enough without discussion of meter. And as with English grammar or organic chemistry, a lot of people would probably prefer to go their entire lives without ever learning about it or encountering it “in the wild.” However, I personally am a strong advocate of the idea that being familiar with meter makes reading Shakespeare much more accessible. When Shakespeare’s text is spoken in proper meter, it flows beautifully and the speaker sounds far more fluent, even if nothing else in their relationship to the text has changed. Ultimately, we hope you’ll find that it’s actually much easier to read verse in meter than not to do so.

What exactly do you mean by ‘meter’ and how is learning about it helpful?

All of Shakespeare’s sonnets and many of his plays are written in what’s called “iambic pentameter,” meaning that these texts are written in rhythmic lines with ten syllables of text in each line (typically, anyway). Each line of ten syllables has five metrical “feet,” and each “foot” has two syllables. When a reader goes through and identifies the stressed and unstressed syllables, they are “scanning” the text or participating in the process of “scansion.”

Interestingly, iambic pentameter has a fixed pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, and these natural stresses of the meter actually do a lot of the heavy lifting of interpretation for the reader. What I mean by that is when the correct syllables are accented, the meaning of an expression shines through organically. Even the correct pronunciation of words becomes clearer! As a reader, you can also feel much more confident in your understanding and interpretation of the text after you've scanned it; scansion removes much, though not all, of guesswork from the process of interpretation. At the very least you’ll end up with a lot of great clues and interesting questions!

Of course, not all of Shakespeare’s work is written in meter, and much of his metered text contains irregularities, but the irregularities themselves are also instructive. More on that in just a few paragraphs!

How to scan a text

There are so many wonderful resources about the nuts and bolts of scansion on the internet already that we’ll keep this section relatively brief. 

We believe that the easiest way to learn about meter is by “scanning” a doubled-spaced scene, monologue, or sonnet with a pencil yourself. (You can also do the same exercise with other poets, although their meter may be different; Frost, for example, is great for looking at verse!) Whoever is scanning the text should read a single line of verse to himself or herself either in exaggerated pentameter, either silently or out-loud. The rhythm in which they read should follow the pattern of a heartbeat, or dun DUN dun DUN dun DUN dun DUN dun DUN. If the meter of the line is regular, it will have 5 iambic feet, with 10 syllables in total. If the line is irregular, there may be fewer or more syllables. (Usually if there aren’t exactly 10 syllables, there are 11, sometimes 12; it’s rare to find fewer than 10 syllables in a line of pentameter.) 

For Shakespeare, the pattern typically is: unstressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed

Or, in notation: ˘ ʹ ˘ ʹ ˘ ʹ ˘ ʹ ˘ ʹ

An example from “Twelfth Night”

A great example of almost perfect or “regular” iambic pentameter comes from Duke Orsino's famous lines at the opening of Twelfth Night:

“If music be the food of love, play on;

 Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

 The appetite may sicken, and so die.

 That strain again! it had a dying fall:

 O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,

 That breathes upon a bank of violets,

 Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:

‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”

Two notes: first, in the second line, if a reader is speaking in pentameter, the odds that they correctly pronounce the word “surfeiting” will be much higher than when they are speaking in prose. Shakespeare has so kindly placed the word so that the first and last syllable coincide with stressed syllables, making it much harder for a person encountering the word for the first time to mispronounce. (Of course Shakespeare didn’t write in meter so that we would have an easier time pronouncing difficult words, but it is a pleasant, if unintended, consequence for us, and one small way in which reading in meter actually makes Shakespeare easier to understand.)

Second, when speaking those lines aloud in exaggerated pentameter, readers will notice that the heart-beat pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables is perfectly accurate throughout the excerpt with one exception. The meter is regular until the 5th line (“stealing and giving odour...”), where there are 11 syllables instead of 10. Furthermore, the line itself begins with a stressed syllable -- “steal,” followed by an unstressed “-ing.” This type of metrical foot is known as a trochee.

“...and giving odour!” is again in regular iambic pentameter, but “Enough;”  could be read as having stresses on both syllables, making it a spondee. To finish the line, “no more:” also scans as an iamb. Usually a sentence with 11 syllables would have a “weak” or “feminine” ending, but in this case, I believe that there’s actually a caesura, or pause, after “enough;” so this line would technically be composed of 12 syllables, with 11 spoken and 1 taken as a pause.

You can see how these irregularities quickly complicate a seemingly straightforward process (and you can also see how much room there is for debate in this sort of work.)

Metrical irregularities and detective work

These sorts of metrical variations or irregularities occur frequently within the text. Often sentences will begin with a trochee, or a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Richard III’s famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” is one such example. This sort of opening is forceful and often sets the tone for the remainder of the speech, which is certainly true in Gloucester’s case.

In any event, to scan the text, the reader should go through line by line and note the stressed and unstressed syllables with a pencil. Technically, they don’t need to identify what type of foot each syllabic pair is, so long as they can correctly identify what should be stressed and what shouldn’t be. Often there are difficult lines and when I encounter these, I do my best and put an asterisk next to them, indicating that I would like to talk through them with someone else later on. If you really get stuck, we’ve listed two places where you can access (free!) previously scanned plays online for reference purposes.

To me, the exercise of scanning is analogous to tapping out the rhythm of notes, although there is generally more detective work involved and there isn’t always a “correct answer.” But, like learning to read music or to understand the rhythm of musical notation, it does get easier with time and practice. Eventually when you read verse out loud, you shouldn’t have to think much or at all about the meter; you should simply be able to read it in a smooth and flowing manner.

Scansion as a tool, not a strict requirement for reading

It’s also worth noting here that most readers don’t need to scan an entire play or every play they read. I personally have found that studying meter has been helpful in learning to read Shakespeare “fluently,” and then also in more involved writing projects. For instance, if you’re writing about a particular character or scene, it is often quite helpful to look at the meter. Alternatively, if you’re an actor, you’ll certainly want to look at the meter. But for most of us, it’s not a critical activity for each time we encounter Shakespeare. But it does really, really help to do for a while until you get a feel for it.

What meter can teach us about a play

As noted above, metrical irregularities are often instructive.

A well-known and oft-cited example is “to be or not to be that is the question.” The sentence contains 11 syllables – 1 too many – but the meter is regular all the way until the last syllable where it ends with an unaccented “-tion.” When you look exclusively at the accented syllables they read “be not be is quest” which succinctly reveals the thrust of the sentence. The extra syllable then trails off, indicating Hamlet’s indecisiveness. The beginning of the sentence is strong, but it isn’t a decisive sentence because of the additional syllable. To me, this speaks to the heart of Hamlet’s character and dilemma.

Readers may also be interested to note where and when characters who speak in meter do so and where they leave it behind. Hamlet and Lear both speak in meter until they go “mad” when both lapse into prose. In As You Like It, characters such as Rosalind, Celia, and Jacques speak to one another in prose but respond to the Duke in meter. While this may not seem inherently interesting to some, it does give the reader clues about characters' relationships with one another and about the tone of the scene as a whole. The cousins Rosalind and Celia are relaxed and playful when alone; a fact which is evinced both in the content of their speech and by its form.

Again, I completely understand that scansion isn’t something that everyone gets excited about, but just as organic chemistry makes general chemistry much easier to understand, so does metrical analysis illuminate Shakespeare. It requires more work on the part of the reader, but is well worth while in the end.

How understanding meter helps us to become better readers and writers

Last but not least, when we read and study verse of any kind we learn to read more closely. Poets in particular make such careful and incisive word choices that they teach us to gain a better appreciation for the nuances of any text. This appreciation often translates into precision in our own writing, as well.

When we scan a text, we look at it as though we’re looking at a specimen under a microscope. After we do this enough, we start looking more closely at everything we read, regardless of whether or not we’re scanning or formally studying it. And reading more carefully is always something to be encouraged!

Other resources

PlayShakespeare and Purdue Online Writing Lab both have helpful descriptions of the different metrical feet that readers are likely to encounter, as well as their proper notation. I would especially recommend the Purdue site to beginners as it also discusses other elements of scansion, and contains a treasure trove of information for writers and readers alike. 

If you’re looking for examples of scansion at work in the plays, both PrescannedShakespeare and ShakespeareScanned have posted Shakespeare’s Complete Works with their own scansion notated above each line of verse. I wouldn’t recommend using these resources as a replacement for your own scansion, but they could certainly be helpful to use when you’re just getting started or when you’d like a second opinion on a difficult line.

Share your experience

Have you ever looked at meter when reading or studying Shakespeare? What about for other poets? Are you the kind of person who loves this sort of exercise, or is it not exactly your “cup of tea”? Lastly, do you know of other free Shakespeare resources online that you think our readers would appreciate?

Let us know in a comment below! And please also let us know what other questions you have that we didn’t answer here or in either of our previous two Shakespeare posts.

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