Scansion Discoveries

I have begun work in earnest on the ASC Study Guides for the 2011-2012 artistic year. One of my first projects has been formulating our “Basics” section, the building-block skills of exploring Shakespeare: scansion, paraphrasing, rhetoric, using the stage, and using the audience.

As part of this process, and in conjunction with ASC Education’s intention to develop Unit Plans for teachers to follow, I’m preparing the first 100 lines out of each play as an example of the Basics for the teachers. I just completed the scansion for all six of the plays I’m building Study Guides for this summer — Hamlet, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard III, and Much Ado about Nothing, from our upcoming artistic year, plus Julius Caesar as a bonus. Doing these small blocks of text has reminded me why scansion is so important. It illuminates so many subtleties that could easily pass a reader or an actor by otherwise, and many of those distinctions give actors choices and opportunities to work with.

The first scene of Julius Caesar volleys between verse and prose, as Flavius and Murellus chastise the plebeians who have decked out for Caesar’s triumph. The interesting bits of scansion here are subtle, but crucial. Some telling pronouns fall into stressed positions — Murellus and Flavius stress “you” and “thou” more than is typical, indicating their accusatory tone. These instances could also give an actor the opportunity to single out an audience member: “Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft / Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements.” The first 100 lines bleed over into 1.2, and the oddity I noticed there is something that I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not, but either way, it amused me: Caesar uses an awful lot of caesuras (mid-line breaks). This doesn’t seem to be any key character indication, and I haven’t scanned enough of the play to know if the trend continues past the first few lines of 1.2, but, if this was intentional on Shakespeare’s part, I think it’s a pretty cute joke.

The most interesting thing about the first 100 lines of Hamlet, at least from a metrical perspective, are the number of shared and short lines. In many places, characters — particularly Barnardo and Marcellus — share lines, especially when discussing the Ghost or questioning Horatio. In some instances, the split occurs mid-foot, which indicates that the second speaker’s line really has to follow rapidly upon the first’s. In other places, the shared lines, put together, form an alexandrine — a 12-syllable line — which could indicate some overlap in speech. These lines have to come quickly, and that, in turn, creates the sense of panic, right on the edge of hysteria, that the watchmen experience when the Ghost appears. In contrast, in other parts of the scene, some lines fall short, indicating the potential for a pause. These irregularities seem to work with the darkness of the scene, allowing space for the watchmen to confirm identities when someone new enters. The other significant short lines fall around the Ghost’s entrance and exit, which makes me wonder if those breaks leave room for the trap opening, or for some special effect.

Henry V opens not with a scene, but with a prologue. The speech is a little trochee-heavy, but other than that, there’s not much irregular about it. The scansion does bring out some sly little delivery indications, however. Consider the following lines:

But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France?

The stressed “this” interests me because it places such immediacy on the physical space in which the actor delivers these lines — all the more intriguing when you consider that Henry V was probably the first play performed at the Globe. In the new building, reconstructed from the stolen framework of the Theatre, Shakespeare puts the stage itself foremost in his audience’s mind during this prologue. I also like the stressed “can,” which puts such strong emphasis on that question. An actor could do a lot with that little stressed “can” — it could be a real concern, with the actor looking to the audience for support, or it could be cheeky, a tease. The prologue is full of these little gems, and they’re particularly great when performing Henry V in an early modern space. The words call attention to the inherent qualities of the space and the staging conditions, giving the prologue a layer of meaning which loses force in a production that relies on elaborate sets and lighting designs. I don’t have as much to say about the 1.1 portion of the first 100 lines, except that Canterbury’s lines require some really odd elisions in order to scan something resembling normally. I would be interested to see if this remains true in his infamous “Salic law” speech in 1.2.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first thing I noticed is that while Egeus retains regular meter while he’s talking to or about Demetrius, his scansion suddenly goes wild whenever he has to talk to or about Lysander. Hermia, meanwhile, is the only character who remains perfectly regular throughout the scene (or, at least, throughout the first 100 lines). Her father is threatening her with death, the ruling Duke is telling her her only other option is a nunnery, her boyfriend is about three seconds away from engaging in fisticuffs with her father’s favored suitor, and yet Hermia remains completely composed. Those are both great clues for actors. Something about Lysander, clearly, just rubs Egeus the wrong way, to the point that he can no longer control his speech patterns. As for Hermia, it gives the actress a great choice to make — Is she just so sure of herself that she can remain entirely unflustered, or is she so scared that she’s gone numb, and can only allow herself to express emotion once her father, Demetrius, and Theseus have left the stage?

The scene as a whole also has a higher than usual percentage of stressed pronouns, in a way that focuses a lot of attention on possession, particularly of Hermia, but also of love, desire, and rights. Egeus can’t stress enough times that Hermia is his property: “As she | is mine, I may dispose of her” … “And what is mine my love shall render him. / And she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate unto Demetrius.” Lysander and Demetrius throw some stressed “him”s and “his”es around as they jockey for the Duke’s favor, while Hermia stresses her right to full knowledge of her circumstances, and ultimately, her right to make her own decision, whatever the consequences: “But I beseech your grace that I may know / The worst that may befall me in this case, / If I refuse to wed Demetrius.” The high number of stressed pronouns in the scene subtly underscores the interpersonal conflicts driving the plot.

In the opening of Richard III, the only thing that seems regular is the irregularity. Richard’s verse halts and limps as much as he does — or is it just that he disdains the proper way of speaking as much as everything else? His most frequent variants seem to be feminine endings, alexandrines (6-foot lines), and oddly-placed trochees — as though, while telling us that he is “deformed, unfinished… scarce half made up,” he compensates by cramming his lines full of extra syllables. Many lines have more than one irregularity, as in “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes,” which piles a spondee, a mid-line trochee, and a caesura together. There are also many lines with ambiguities, that could easily scan more than one way. Bardweb’s analysis and mine, for example, disagree on several points, largely because I try to stick to the iambs wherever possible, and they’re a bit free with the pyrrhics. Even with conservative application, however, there are still far more pyrrhic-spondee combinations and more mid-line trochees than seem usual. I’ve also never wished I believed in medial stresses as much as when working with this speech. The discrepancies, though, leave room for choice, depending on what an actor wants to emphasis in performance. The opening of this play is definitely one of those moments when there is no single right answer, just myriad possibilities.

As for Much Ado about Nothing — Well, its first 100 lines are in prose, like most of the play, so I didn’t have any scanning to do there. That doesn’t mean I won’t have plenty to get into with the other Basics, though, so Much Ado fans (like myself) have plenty to look forward to as my work continues.

3 thoughts on “Scansion Discoveries

  1. Great work! Thanks.I love the Caesar's Caesuras observation. Reminds me of the glut of feminine endings in the master-mistress sonnet, #20.

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  2. I think I remember reading that Henry V might also have been performed at… I think the Swan?… while the Globe was being completed (between The Theatre and The Globe), which would mean that the "this" might have been a sort of subtle slight to their rented space, sort of a "our new theatre will be way better than this one!"

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