Scansion, Part One

June 11, 2006

This is the first part of at least two posts on the topic of scansion. If anyone reading this wants to use what I'm writing here in a Shakespeare acting class, please feel free — but please also credit me for compiling this information, and let me know you're using it. I learned scansion originally from Bill Lacey, Bob Chapline, and Michael Buster at Boston University, and picked up more from Joe Vincent and others at the California Shakespeare Festival. The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Hollywood has a helpful packet on scansion, which has been useful to me. And John Barton's book Playing Shakespeare is simply wonderful — I only came across it recently, and I wish I had had it by my side for the last eleven years.

Scansion is the word actors use to talk about analyzing the structure of Shakespeare's verse — the pattern of stresses that Shakespeare consciously, intentionally made use of in all his plays. We talk about "scanning" a line of verse, by which we usually mean marking which syllables are meant to be emphasized or given stress by the actor, and which are not. I'm going to try to break down how scansion works, and why it is a useful tool for actors.

Writers in Shakespeare's time were experimenting with verse structure. I'm not an expert on this, but my understanding is that the University Wits — a group of playwrights out of Cambridge and Oxford, immediately preceding Shakespeare — developed the basic structure that Shakespeare employed. Shakespeare (who was not apparently University-educated) took this structure much further, using it more skillfully and with greater depth than anyone else before or since.

The particular pattern that Shakespeare used is called "iambic pentameter," and there's a reason it was this pattern and not another (like, say, "trochaic hexameter") that Shakespeare seized on. An "iamb" means simply an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable — da-DUH. "Penta" of course means five, so iambic pentameter means that each line has five pieces which we call feet, and that each foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable:

da-DUH / da-DUH / da-DUH / da-DUH / da-DUH

…which sounds a bit like a heartbeat. It also, not coincidentally, fits very well with the natural rhythm of the English language.

We're out of beer; I'm going to the store.

we're OUT / of BEER / i'm GO / ing TO / the STORE

My birthday? It's September twenty-first.

my BIRTH / day IT'S / sepTEM / ber TWEN / ty FIRST

Many lines in Shakespeare fit this pattern exactly (I'm going to try to find examples only from Hamlet):

But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.

but BREAK / my HEART / for I / must HOLD / my TONGUE

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

thus CON / science DOES / make COW / ards OF / us ALL

This should be obvious, but it's worth stating anyway: this rhythm need not be overemphasized on stage. The point here is that it fits our natural pattern of stresses anyway. With any of the lines above, most actors would naturally choose to emphasize the stressed syllables more than the unstressed syllables — and especially when you consider that the unstressed syllable of one foot can sometimes get more emphasis than the stressed syllable of a different foot (so, in the last example above, "of" can get less emphasis than "make", so long as it gets more emphasis than the second syllable of "cowards", especially since the repeated consonant K at the end of "make" and beginning of "cowards" implies a very short pause between them).

Confused yet? Remember this: it's all subjective, and it all comes back to meaning. Again, most actors will naturally choose to emphasize the same syllables that Shakespeare places in the stressed positions. And meaning is communicated by the degree to which each syllable is emphasized.

thus CONscience does make COWards of us all

has a different meaning than

thus conscience DOES make cowards of us all

and yet both of these fit Shakespeare's pattern. The choice of which stressed syllable gets the most stress is still up to the actor — and needs to be determined by the meaning of the line (in the example above, I'd encourage the actor to stress the words being held up in opposition, "conscience" and "cowards").

Also, there are many different ways to place emphasis or stress on a given syllable. The most obvious is probably volume — raising the volume on the stressed syllable. Another important one, though, is length — extending the vowel sound on the stressed syllable, or possibly by making the stressed syllable shorter. Sometimes pitch can be a way to emphasize a syllable. Sometimes dropping the volume can do it. Usually it's some combination. The point is that working within the verse structure is not limiting; this kind of work should open up possibilities for the actor.

This is just the beginning. The next part will cover the common variations that Shakespeare uses to break up this standard pattern — how they work, and what they mean for actors. I also still need to talk about the difference between verse and prose and the reasons Shakespeare switches between them (in some scenes, Shakespeare writes dialogue that does not use iambic pentameter or any other pattern; the characters just talk).

Part Two

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6 Responses to “Scansion, Part One”

  1. JMC Says:

    this is all wrong… your BIRTHday IS sepTEMber TWENty SECond.

  2. joshcostello Says:

    I didn’t want to introduce feminine endings just yet. Nice catch. Wait for Part Two.

  3. Zay Says:

    Josh, I love you. This is the kind of clear, basic stuff that never, ever gets written down.

    Continue to be clear and accurate.

  4. joshcostello Says:

    I never understood why this stuff is so hard to find. You see a lot of photocopied pages that teachers have thrown together, but there doesn’t seem to be a book that really breaks it down. John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare is definitely the closest I’ve seen — it’s a little more loose and less technical than I’m being here. Which is probably better for actors in the long run. I like rules and logic problems, so the technical challenge of scansion appeals to me for its own sake as well as for what it means for the play.


  5. […] Shakespeare gives actors so much to work with. It’s a shame when they don’t use it. […]


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