The Rhythm is Going to Get You

Suzy Hunt and Bhama Roget, photo by John Ulman.
Suzy Hunt and Bhama Roget, photo by John Ulman.

As Shakespeare fans, we’re used to hearing the rhythm of iambic pentameter and occasional rhymed verse. So it may be a little surprising just how much the rhyme and rhythm of Tartuffe take center stage in this production. Unlike Shakespeare, the rhyme scheme doesn’t come and go. Why is that? Here’s a look at the language of Tartuffe from our Education Director, Michelle Burce:

Molière wrote during a time when French theatre was highly regulated. The Académie française, formed in 1635, was responsible for regulating French language, grammar, and literature. Beyond publishing the first French dictionary, they also had standards for what constituted “good” theatre, and in Molière’s time the preference was Neo-classical theatre.

Neo-classicism refers to theatre that is inspired by the classical art of ancient Greece. Specifically, the Académie française based their guidelines for good theatre on the writing of Aristotle. Aristotle wrote that a tragedy contains three unities: unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. Unity of time means that the entire play takes place in one day. Unity of place means that the play takes place in a single location. Unity of action means that all of the action in the play is related to the central plot of the play, and there are no diversions or sub-plots.

Beyond conforming to the three unities, French plays of this period were also expected to conform to a strict language standard. French plays were written in alexandrine couplets, or what the English would have called iambic hexameter in rhyming couplets. (Shakespeare wrote largely in iambic pentameter, but only a few of his lines rhyme. He often also wrote in prose.) Each line was to have twelve syllables, and every two lines were supposed to rhyme. Each rhyming couplet was to form a complete thought. In addition, it was also common for there to be a short pause in the middle of lines, between the 6th and 7th syllable. This is called a caesura.

Molière’s Tartuffe conforms to this standard in the original French, and the Wilbur translation used by Seattle Shakespeare Company makes only minor changes to the text meter. In translating Tartuffe, Wilbur preserved the sound and structure of the play, since it was so important to Molière in his time, but substituted iambic pentameter (10 syllables*) for the hexameter (12 syllables) used in the French. Other translations are more directly literal, but do not preserve strict alexandrine lines and rhyming couplets.

Look at the examples below. In the first, Molière’s original French has 12 syllables per line, and the two lines rhyme. In addition, there is a short pause, or caesura, between the 6th and 7th syllable in each line. This is easy to see in the second line, where the pause is indicated by a comma. Compared below is a quote from Madame Pernelle in original French and Wilbur’s English translation:

Rhyme and Rhythm - French

In the translated English, the lines are a little shorter, but they still have the same iambic meter.

*As a note, it is generally accepted that one additional, unaccented syllable may be added at the end of a line of iambic pentameter without it disrupting the verse. These lines also preserve the rhyme at the end of the two lines.

Rhyme and Rhythm - English