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IlanaSimons
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Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

[ Edited ]

I’m addicted to Deadwood, David Milch’s HBO series that was cancelled after three seasons (it ran from 2004-2007).  It’s a T.V. show about the wild American West of the 1870’s—with all its drinking, whores, stabbin’ and golddiggin’.  The thing’s also written in iambic pentameter.   

 

Or, close to it.  There has been a lot of online debate about whether or not this show really is in iambic pentameter, and I haven’t gone through all the transcripts, but I have watched some episodes closely enough to know that huge swaths of the dialogue do scan as blank verse, which is the non-rhyming structure in iambic pentameter that Shakespeare helped make famous. 

 

Deadwood is Shakespearean in lots of ways.  For one, it gloriously mixes high and low: In episode 1, there were 12 “f*c*”’s in the first 10 minutes; and there were about 2980  “f*c*”’s is the series.  The content goes high and low too: We get duels and disembowelment while dancing with the twangs of the human spirit. 

 

 For a small review of poetic law: Iambic pentameter is a literary rhythm that puts five iambs—or 2-beat phrases—in a line.  By a “2-beat phrase,” I mean a phrase that contains a first, unstressed syllable then a second, stressed syllable.  If read out loud like a song, a line of iambic pentameter sounds like this 

 

da–DUM    da-DUM    da-DUM     da-DUM    da-DUM 

 

When listening for the iambic pentameter in a line, you do need a loose sense of rhythm.  You sometimes squish words together and sometimes slow them down, to mine for the most natural, most human beat.  For instance, the phrase “friggin’ A-hole” can, depending on how fast it comes out of an angry or less angry mouth, be heard as anything from two to four syllables. 

 

Below are a few lines of dialogue from Deadwood.  Afterwards, I’ll try to put them into verse.

 

 

Hearst [a successful California businessman whose come to town wanting to mine for gold]: Shall I perceive you, then, as dangerous to my interests? 

 

Al [the local thug who has a stronghold on the goldmines]: As capable of inconvenience and of some damage and debt to those that would act against my interests, I cannot fu*k*n* argue with dangerous. Different from powerful, though, which speaks to potency longer term. I’d not have myself called powerful in your company or the captain’s. 

 

Hearst: Then I’ll hope that your insult is cured, to spare the camp any danger of however brief a duration. 

 

Al: And to look for one fu*k*n* instant out of the other end of the telescope — once placated, I’m meek as a babe. 

 

 

Here’s that dialogue in verse with five stressed syllables highlighted per line (gotta enter a western drawl, in which some words are squished into a grunt): 

 

Shall I perceive you, then, as dangerous to

my interests?  As capable of inconvenience

and of some damage and debt to those that would act against

my interests, I cannot fu*k*n* argue with dangerous.

Different from powerful, though, which speaks to potency

longer term. I’d not have myself called powerful in

your company or the captain’s.  Then I’ll hope

that your insult is cured, to spare the camp any danger

of however brief a duration.  And to look for one

fu*k*n* instant out of the other end of the telescope

— once placated, I’m meek as a babe.

 

 

That’s close to blank verse.

 

What’s also neat to notice about the show is how it uses other Shakespearean jigs to reach a density of language.

 

One of Shakespeare’s tricks was inverting a sentence to make it dense with meaning.  Ordinarily, an English sentence progresses by placing the subject first, then the verb, then the object of the verb.  For example, in an average sentence, we might say, “An Egyptian gave my mother a handkerchief.”  The subject [the Egyptian] does the action [gave] to an object [my mother].  But in Othello, Shakespeare writes this line: “That handkerchief did an Egyptian to my mother give.”

 

He does this partly to follow the demands of rhythm, but largely to shift our focus in the sentence.  The important player in this sentence is the handkerchief (at this moment in the play, Othello is explaining why losing the handkerchief would be bad luck.  The handkerchief is a sentimental memento).  So, Shakespeare makes the memento the first word of the sentence and puts the mother at the end of the line, to emphasize that crucial, while distant, link between the woman and her hankie.

 

See the following line of Deadwood, in which a man comes to stake his gold claim:  

 

“Not the U.S. government sayin’ I’m trespassin’ or the savage fu**in’ red man himself or any of these limber d*ck co*ksuckers passin’ themselves off as prospectors had better try and stop me.” 

 

That’s a long layered subject (including the government, Indians, and other prospectors) which holds us off from the verb.  Subjects are always convoluted or submerged in Deadwood sentences—because the verb, after all, is where the action is, and these sentences make us beg for the action.   

 

The sentence also gains density by using words that look like nouns as verbs or adverbs.  When you read the word “sayin’,” above, it first looks like a verb, but it’s really a gerund; and then you get to “passin’,” and it’s the same thing.  You have to get all the way to “had” to get to the action.   

 

As you endure this linguistic frustration, you get more invested in the sentence’s meaning. 

 

A good Shakespearean sentence does the same: confuses you by making what looks like a noun into an adjective or a verb, so that you need to work a bit to figure it out.  Here’s a sentence from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: 

 

"Thy shape invisible retain thou still.”  You’ve got to work to figure out that “retain” is the verb.

 

And here’s a Deadwood sentence:

“I was right, not the Sioux killed her family, but road agents.” 

 

That verb is partly chopped off, so that we hit “not the Sioux” with some confusion.  We can soon figure it out, by skipping over the Sioux to the real perpetrator of the verb, the road agents. 

 

So: What we’ve got in HBO’s damndead Deadwood is a rich return to a time when the language worked more like a puzzle, making us dig hard for gold.

Message Edited by IlanaSimons on 03-25-2009 02:28 PM



Ilana
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Lurker
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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

I was just chatting with a friend, who shockingly has never read Catcher in the Rye, about the joy my 8th grade English teacher got out of teaching the book because, in discussing the scene in which Holden is sitting on the steps of Phoebe's school and looks down and sees "f**k you" etched on the stairs, my teacher got to say "f**k you" to all of us 8th graders.  I know that this week's blog was just an excuse to call us all "limp d*ck ck*cksuckers" wasn't it?

 

I like the Shakespearean take on Deadwood.  I've just started watching the series on Netflics.  I'll be on the lookout for Falstaff: after watching just two episodes, there appear to be several potential candidates.

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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

absolutely, you limp d*ck ck*cksucker.

this is just a chance to call you a

limp d*ck ck*cksucker.

 


Lurker wrote:

I was just chatting with a friend, who shockingly has never read Catcher in the Rye, about the joy my 8th grade English teacher got out of teaching the book because, in discussing the scene in which Holden is sitting on the steps of Phoebe's school and looks down and sees "f**k you" etched on the stairs, my teacher got to say "f**k you" to all of us 8th graders.  I know that this week's blog was just an excuse to call us all "limp d*ck ck*cksuckers" wasn't it?

 

I like the Shakespearean take on Deadwood.  I've just started watching the series on Netflics.  I'll be on the lookout for Falstaff: after watching just two episodes, there appear to be several potential candidates.


 




Ilana
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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

I haven't ever watched Torchwood (no HBO) so I can't comment as to that.

 

BUT I did pick up a Shakespeare Insults mug when we had them at Christmas (can't find the entry on BN.com but if you search "Shakespeare Insult mug" on google you can find it) - no one ever had better blank verse insults than the bard.  I personally love "the soul of this man is his clothes" and "elvish-mark'd abortive, rooting hog" :smileyhappy:

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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

I'll look for the mug!

will report back.

 


pedsphleb wrote:

I haven't ever watched Torchwood (no HBO) so I can't comment as to that.

 

BUT I did pick up a Shakespeare Insults mug when we had them at Christmas (can't find the entry on BN.com but if you search "Shakespeare Insult mug" on google you can find it) - no one ever had better blank verse insults than the bard.  I personally love "the soul of this man is his clothes" and "elvish-mark'd abortive, rooting hog" :smileyhappy:


 




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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

I was a huge fan of Deadwood, though more of the first season than of the other two, and I certainly noticed that the language had a very Shakespearen sort of sound to it even though i wasn't consciously thinking that it (or parts of it) was actually in iambic pentameter.  I think that influence is strongest in some of Al Swearengen's lines but moreso in the speech of E.B. Farnum, also one of the wierdest characters on the show.

 

E.B. Farnum: Hearst... is he Caesar? To have fights to the death for diversion, murder his workers at whim, smash passages in the f**king wall? A man of less wealth would be in f**king restraints!  

 

E.B. Farnum: Whatever night I give it, count on me not to mince words. 'Electors of the camp, as to who should serve as Mayor reasonable men may differ, but as to who should be Sheriff we all ought speak with one voice and our words should be turn out the maniac Bullock, who set upon the Mayor unprovoked, who beat him with merciless protraction. Bulllock should be murdered! We should rise up and murder Bullock! Thank you very much.'  

 

In any case if you want to watch Ian McShane make some more great speeches you should check out that new show Kings.  Which I'm not sure I really like exactly, but McShane is great in it, its beautifully shot, and while I have my doubts about the show as a whole, I'd say its definitely worth checking out the first episode.

 

 

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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

My word those are examples of Shakespearean grammar and pace!

[please do note my own iambic pentameter above, sir]

 

love those examples

 

and yes, I'm still on the first season if Deadwood.  Sorry to hear it might not hold up thru season 3.

 

I just saw a review of Kings.  I might have to try it.

 

 

 


Jon_B wrote:

I was a huge fan of Deadwood, though more of the first season than of the other two, and I certainly noticed that the language had a very Shakespearean sort of sound to it even though i wasn't consciously thinking that it (or parts of it) was actually in iambic pentameter.  I think that influence is strongest in some of Al Swearengen's lines but moreso in the speech of E.B. Farnum, also one of the wierdest characters on the show.

 

E.B. Farnum: Hearst... is he Caesar? To have fights to the death for diversion, murder his workers at whim, smash passages in the f**king wall? A man of less wealth would be in f**king restraints!  

 

E.B. Farnum: Whatever night I give it, count on me not to mince words. 'Electors of the camp, as to who should serve as Mayor reasonable men may differ, but as to who should be Sheriff we all ought speak with one voice and our words should be turn out the maniac Bullock, who set upon the Mayor unprovoked, who beat him with merciless protraction. Bulllock should be murdered! We should rise up and murder Bullock! Thank you very much.'  

 

In any case if you want to watch Ian McShane make some more great speeches you should check out that new show Kings.  Which I'm not sure I really like exactly, but McShane is great in it, its beautifully shot, and while I have my doubts about the show as a whole, I'd say its definitely worth checking out the first episode.

 

 


 




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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

Well its not like it ever gets bad exactly, I mean I was always excited for the next episode all the way up to the end.  But there are some subplots for some of the characters that I thought not as interesting or wortwhile, and there are some oddly contrived moments and distractions here and there.  But its definitely worth watching the whole thing.

 

Unfortunately, as the show was cancelled, when it ends in Season 3 there's not exactly any sort proper ending for the show or resolution of most of the plots, it just.... stops.

 

 

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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

Yeah--HBO had promised David Milch that he could wrap it all up in a short movie to be shown on HBO (maybe two 1-hr slots, I think?).  I think he might have written the script, but there was no money for producing it.

 

 


Jon_B wrote:

Well its not like it ever gets bad exactly, I mean I was always excited for the next episode all the way up to the end.  But there are some subplots for some of the characters that I thought not as interesting or wortwhile, and there are some oddly contrived moments and distractions here and there.  But its definitely worth watching the whole thing.

 

Unfortunately, as the show was cancelled, when it ends in Season 3 there's not exactly any sort proper ending for the show or resolution of most of the plots, it just.... stops.

 

 


 




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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

Ilana,

 

What a wonderful post!  It's good to hear of the creativity in some of our current entertainments.

 

Sorry I've been so quiet - brain's tired.  I've been reading you though.

 

Keep up the great work.

 

tgem

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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood

Hey--thanks a lot for the kindness.  My brain's tired too.  I hope yours has been traveling over good terrain.

 


tgem wrote:

Ilana,

 

What a wonderful post!  It's good to hear of the creativity in some of our current entertainments.

 

Sorry I've been so quiet - brain's tired.  I've been reading you though.

 

Keep up the great work.

 

tgem


 




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Re: Week 91: Loving the Dirt In Shakespeare and Deadwood


IlanaSimons wrote:

Yeah--HBO had promised David Milch that he could wrap it all up in a short movie to be shown on HBO (maybe two 1-hr slots, I think?).  I think he might have written the script, but there was no money for producing it.

 

 


Jon_B wrote:

Well its not like it ever gets bad exactly, I mean I was always excited for the next episode all the way up to the end.  But there are some subplots for some of the characters that I thought not as interesting or wortwhile, and there are some oddly contrived moments and distractions here and there.  But its definitely worth watching the whole thing.

 

Unfortunately, as the show was cancelled, when it ends in Season 3 there's not exactly any sort proper ending for the show or resolution of most of the plots, it just.... stops.

 

 


 


Offically it's dead. All the actors contracts had a side clause about doing a movie later. ALL have now which expired. No more Deadwood.

 

But they did go through with the ROME movie release sometime before 2010.