Joy to the Word

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe

Beyond Pow!
Photo Credit: Barbara Holbrook

I have recently been taking acting classes that focus on Shakespearean verse. One of the many fun things we learn is exactly how much you can trust the Bard to get it right, and how much the characters revel in their choice word choices. If you truly give in to the words—to the sounds of the words, to the alliteration and the assonance—you find out a lot about the character’s feelings and state of mind.

My most recent monologue was “mad” Queen Margaret‘s speech to Queen Elizabeth (no, not that Queen Elizabeth, but Edward IV’s wife) from Richard III. Margaret lost her power, her son, and her husband Henry VI to Edward IV during the War of the Roses. At this point in Richard III, Elizabeth has also lost her husband and her power to Richard and has just found out her two young sons were murdered by him as well. Margaret has been hanging around England to watch the downfall of the house of York, and the speech is about her schadenfreude and about her twisting the knife in Elizabeth’s wounds. The full speech can be found here.

We talked a lot in class about how awesome Shakespeare was with his words. So one week, I just totally gave into those words. I really drew out all the consonants and vowels, really gave in to them and let them tell me the character’s feelings. Interestingly, I got a map of what she was doing and feeling.

At the beginning of the speech, Margaret is showing her contempt for Elizabeth, saying she was barely worthy of being queen as it was. She calls Elizabeth “poor shadow, painted queen, the presentation of but what I was.” Say that line, emphasizing every puh and buh. Sounds like you are spitting venom, doesn’t it? Pttthb!

Later, when Margaret is essentially saying that Elizabeth deserves all this pain (because, after all, these horrible events just mirror what the Yorks, lead by Elizabeth’s husband, did to her earlier), the speech fills with s sounds. Hissssss. “Thussss hath the coursssse of jusssstice whirled about…” And, having twisted the knife in Elizabeth’s wounds, she wallows in the schadenfreude: “These English woes will make me smile in France.” Catch the alliteration and consonance here? That’s right… mmm mmm mmm.

These aren’t the only juicy ways in which the words do Shakespeare’s work for him. There are many more examples sprinkled throughout the speech. The phrase “wails the name” for example, sounds like wailing if you draw out the a sound. Wail is onomatopoeic, and the a sound in name reinforces the “waaaaaah! aaaaaaah!” feeling of the line. Fun stuff, especially when you are acting it or reading it out loud.

We spend a lot of time as writers picking “the right words,” searching for just that nuance of meaning that hammers our point home. How much time do you spend on the sounds of your words? When you read your work aloud to hear how it flows, do you also listen for how it sounds, and whether or not the sounds reinforce the feelings you are conveying? Sometimes you’ll see it happening even if you didn’t plan it. Look for those instances. Revel in them. When your character’s “teeth chatter on a chilly day'” notice the ch ch ch of chattering teeth in that phrase. When your harried and hurrying character uses several words in a row starting with h, is it possible the hhu hhu hhu is showing you that he is out of breath?

Every once in a while, just give in to the words. Let them do your work for you. Let it be fun. Let it sound like what you mean as well as reading like what you mean. Enjoy the word play and enjoy the sound play. It’s a subtle thing, yes, but your writing will be the richer for it. And who knows? Maybe English students four hundred years from now will be pointing out these instances of word joy in lengthy essays or class discussions. So go for it!

In this post-NaNo season, my wish to all writers is: Joy to the Word!

“For what, we ask, is life without a touch of poetry in it?”
—The Pirate King, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.


Email: bellman[at]

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