Scansion, Part Two

June 11, 2006

In Part One, I defined scansion and iambic pentameter, and gave examples of lines from Hamlet that fit the normal pattern of stresses — five feet, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. I should probably have also made the point that we all use stress or emphasis all the time in normal conversation. Emphasizing some words over other words is how we make sense out of sentences; we use this when we speak and we listen for it when other people speak. Writers today make use of this when they underline or italicize or put words in ALL CAPS. Shakespeare is doing the same thing on a systematic level.

It also bears repeating that the stressed syllable of one foot does not need to get the same amount of stress as the stressed syllable of a different foot. The actor is always free to make choices about which words are most important. Being attuned to the scansion informs the actor about those choices.

A couple more points about basic iambic pentameter. Sometimes, Shakespeare asks the actor to compress or expand words to make them fit the ten-syllable, stress-on-every-other-syllable pattern.

As he in his particular act and place

as HE / in HIS / parTIC / uLAR / act AND / place

this clearly doesn't work — try to say it out loud, emphasizing "and" more than "act" and "place". Also, it has eleven syllables. So we can tell it must be this:

as HE / in HIS / parTIC / 'lar ACT / and PLACE

…which isn't all that far from how you would naturally say the line — we compress words all the time when we speak quickly. Here's a similar line:

Whiles he the primrose path of dalliance treads,

while HE / the PRIM / rose PATH / of DALL / iance TREADS

("dalliance" being pronounced with just two syllables: "dallyance").

Similarly, -ed endings can either be pronounced (adding an extra syllable) or not, depending on what fits better. Some editors give you an apostrophe on all unpronounced -ed endings.

Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.

inDEED / my LORD / it FOL / low'd HARD / upON

By their oppressed and fear-surprised eyes

by THEIR / opPRESS / ed AND / fear SUR / prisED / eyes

…pronouncing both 'ed endings in this line clearly doesn't work.

by THEIR / opPRESS'D / and FEAR / surPRIS'D / eyes

…not pronouncing either isn't much better.

by THEIR / opPRESS'D / and FEAR / surPRIS / ed EYES

One gets pronounced, the other doesn't. No problem.

Here's a funny one:

They have proclaimed their malefactions;

The first pass at scanning it probably looks like this:

they HAVE / proCLAIM'D / their MAL / eFAC / tions

Nine syllables. Shakespeare often gives a short line of less than ten syllables as a way to tell the actor to take a pause (the remaining syllables are silent). But those lines are usually much shorter, so something else is going on here. One way to add a syllable is to pronounce the -ed ending, like this:

they HAVE / proCLAIM / ed THEIR / malE / facTIONS

Which technically fits, but it makes for a very strange pronunciation of "malefactions." It also puts stress on the word "their", which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. So this is probably what Shakespeare is asking the actor to say:

they HAVE / proCLAIM'D / their MAL / eFACT / iONS

Stretching out the -ion ending so as to make two syllables, "MAL-uh-FACT-shee-yuns". This happens from time to time in Shakespeare, and it's up to the actor and director how to handle it. Sometimes it can be pronounced this way quite naturally. Other times, it sounds funny and it's better to just go with a nine-syllable line.

Sometimes, two characters share a line of verse, and editors obligingly move the second speaker's lines over on the page. I can't get stupid WordPress to let me format it correctly, so please ignore the dots in the examples below.

HORATIO: It would have much amazed you.

HAMLET: ………………………………………….Very like.

it WOULD / have MUCH / aMAZ'D / you VER / y LIKE

This tells the actor not to take a pause between the lines!

HAMLET: Consent to swear.

HORATIO: ……………………Propose the oath, my lord.

conSENT / to SWEAR / proPOSE / the OATH / my LORD

So that's iambic pentameter; the basic starting point of scansion. If what I've covered so far was everything, it wouldn't be all that interesting or useful. Even just this much, however, does give you access to some direction from Shakespeare. Look at this line:

You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said

you NEED / not TELL / us WHAT / lord HAM / let SAID

In this example, Shakespeare is telling the actor not to stress the word "not," which is a common trap for actors today (the sense of the line is much more clear when you stress the word that "not" affects instead).

And this is just the beginning. Things get really interesting when you look at the ways in which Shakespeare deliberately breaks the pattern. There are several variations that writers at the time considered to be allowable — adjustments that a writer could make to the pattern of stresses. One of the most common is called a trochee (pronounced TRO-ki), which just means a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable — a backwards iamb. Sometimes Shakespeare uses a trochee instead of an iamb in a line of iambic pentameter.

Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!

WELcome / dear ROS / enCRANTZ / and GUILD / enSTERN

We know this line starts with a trochee, because the word "welcome" is pronounced with more stress on the first syllable. Here's a couple more:

Murder most foul, as in the best it is,

MURder / most FOUL / as IN / the BEST / it IS

Never to speak of this that you have seen,

NEVer / to SPEAK / of THIS / that YOU / have SEEN

In all these examples, the trochee replaces the iamb on the first foot of the line. Trochees are generally found either on the first foot, or on the third or fourth foot following some kind of pause like the end of a sentence.

Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me

adIEU / adIEU / HAMlet / reMEM / ber ME

Why did Shakespeare use trochees? It's not about trying to force words into the verse structure. By using variations like trochees, Shakespeare is giving his actors direction. There's no simple one-to-one explanation for what each individual use of a trochee means, but it always means something. If iambic pentameter is a heartbeat, then the character's heart skips a beat on the trochee. Something is happening, something unusual, and the word that falls on the trochee gets an extra bit of emphasis just by being set off from the typical rhythm. In the last example above (which is different in the First Folio and the Second Quarto, but we'll go with it anyway), maybe the Ghost is choosing to use Hamlet's name here to be sure Hamlet is really listening and understands the gravity of the situation — and the fact that he uses Hamlet's name is itself emphasized by the use of the trochee on those syllables. Shakespeare could have written:

Goodbye, and Hamlet, do remember me.

goodBYE / and HAM / let DO / reMEM / ber ME

The content of the line is the same, but something has changed — the weight of it is somehow different. The trochee breaks the rhythm and makes a particular word (and therefore a particular idea that the word expresses) stand out.

Sometimes trochees are less obvious — they can happen on words of just one syllable. These are always subject to interpretation, but a strong case could be made that Shakespeare intended these as trochees:

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

WORDS with / out THOUGHTS / NEVer / to HEAV / en GO

"Words" is placed in opposition to "thoughts", and thus deserves emphasis. Also in this line, "never" has to be a trochee, which tells the actor to take a short pause after "thoughts" despite the lack of punctuation (giving even more stress to both "thoughts" and "never"). Two trochees in the same line.

And so am I reveng'd. That would be scann'd:

and SO / am I / reVENG'D / THAT would / be SCANN'D

Maybe this is a matter of choice, but to my ear the line makes more sense with the emphasis on "that" rather than "would."

Trochees can happen on shared lines:

LAERTES: No more.

OPHELIA: ………….No more but so?

LAERTES: ……………………………….Think it no more.

no MORE / no MORE / but SO / THINK it / no MORE

I say that's a trochee because "think" is the verb, and a much more interesting and important word than "it."

Again, it's important to remember that the point of all of this is to discover Shakespeare's acting notes from beyond the grave — a trochee means something special is happening, something worth exploring a little further. When you notice a trochee, you explore the changed and deepened meaning that comes with shifting the pattern of emphasis.

Another very common variation is what's called the "feminine ending." It's also known as the "weak ending" — yes, kids, sexism is built right in to Shakespearean scholarship. A feminine ending is an extra unstressed syllable tacked on to the end of a line, making for a line of eleven syllables.

He does confess he feels himself distracted

he DOES / conFESS / he FEELS / himSELF / disTRACTed

How all occasions do inform against me,

how ALL / ocCA / sions DO / inFORM / aGAINST me

The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

the QUEEN / caROUS / es TO / thy FOR / tunes HAMlet

I was originally taught to view the feminine ending as another variation like the trochee, another sign that something unusual is going on or as an energistic stepping stone up to the next line. But I recently came across John Barton's (quite amazing) book Playing Shakespeare, which says that feminine endings are merely a writer's convenience, an allowable way for the writer to get a word with an extra syllable into a line, with no special meaning for the actor. I have to say, this explanation feels right to me — a feminine ending doesn't change the feel of a line of verse in anything near the same way as a trochee. Either way, feminine endings are extremely common throughout Shakespeare.

Just as the trochee can happen on the third or fourth foot following a pause, so the feminine ending can happen on the second or third foot preceding a pause (most mid-line pauses in Shakespeare happen after the second or third foot).

To our most valiant brother. So much for him.

to OUR / most VAL / iant BROther / so MUCH / for HIM

that one could also be

to OUR / most VAL / iant BRO / ther SO / much FOR him

(moving the feminine ending to the end of the line, which shifts the stress on the final feet)

or

to OUR / most VAL / iant BROther / SO much / for HIM

(keeping the feminine ending on the third foot, and playing a trochee on the fourth)

…I think the feminine ending belongs on the third foot in that line. Here's a line with a trochee on the first foot and a feminine ending on the second:

As of a father: for let the world take note

AS of / a FAther / for LET / the WORLD / take NOTE

At the very least, a mid-line feminine ending tells the actor to take a pause after it — again, it only happens on the end of a thought (the same way a trochee happens at the beginning of a thought or phrase). In the last example above, it could help to signify that the King shifts from speaking privately to Hamlet to speaking publicly to the assembled court.

Two somewhat less-common variations are often found together: the pyrrhic and the spondee. A pyrrhic is two unstressed syllables, and a spondee is two stressed syllables. You usually find a pyrrhic on a foot immediately preceding a spondee.

We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart.

we'll TEACH / you to / DRINK DEEP / ERE you / dePART

It's hard to say that line without putting some emphasis on "drink," as well as "deep" especially since Shakespeare gives you some alliteration to play with (repeating the initial consonant D). The fourth foot could be a trochee, a pyrrhic, or just an iamb in which neither syllable gets very much stress compared to the other feet in the line.

I shall th’ effect of this good lesson keep

i SHALL / thefFECT / of this / GOOD LES / son KEEP

Similarly, I call this a spondee because "good" is a much more interesting word than "this" within the context of this line. Unless Ophelia is comparing THIS lesson to some OTHER lesson, there's no reason to emphasize the word "this."

Earlier, I mentioned that Shakespeare sometimes uses a short line to imply a pause. Here's a fun example of this:

A villain kills my father, and for that
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge!

Hamlet has happened upon the King at prayer, and is thinking about what will happen if he takes this opportunity to kill him. Shakespeare gives the actor a three-syllable line and a seven-beat pause (or two and eight if 'heaven" is one syllable, as it often is in Shakespeare). During that long pause, Hamlet makes a decision. This is a huge variation in the rhythm, and always means something important is happening.

An actor who can identify all these variations eventually becomes sensitive to them. Following the pattern of stresses that Shakespeare has laid out becomes instinctive. At first, it's very heady and cerebral, and that can be destructive to the actor's process. Once it's incorporated, though, it opens up whole worlds of possibilities — on the most practical level, it helps the actor figure out what the character is doing on a moment-to-moment level. And in the long run, it helps the audience understand the language. Actors who are sensitive to the scansion can play Shakespeare more naturalistically, more directly, than actors who try to ignore it.

I'll try to wrap it up in Part Three.

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3 Responses to “Scansion, Part Two”


  1. […] « inspiration and analysis; freezing time Scansion, Part Two » […]

  2. Jill Says:

    Not only is the John Barton book invaluable, but the video tapes that went along with the book…I saw one in some class long ago, and would like to see them all now.

  3. Star Kwafie Says:

    Hahah awesome! I love scansion. One line I like (that has a weird rhythm) is from Laertes in 5.2 – “Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric; / I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery.”


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