Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Scansion

“Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth
That thou art even natural in thine art.”- Timon, Timon of Athens V.i.82-83

Verse is a form of expression which has been utilized for millennia as a means of allowing mankind to articulate its emotions from the profound to the playful. During the sixteenth century, many playwrights adopted verse as their dramatic voice. This provoked mixed reactions from their peers. English satirist Stephen Gosson published an anti-theatrical tract entitled Schoole of Abuse, containing a pleasant invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters and such like Caterpillars of the Commonwealth in 1579. In it, Gosson exults the music and poetry of ancient Greece and Rome while bewailing the quality of verse heard in early modern theaters. Acting companies, he claimed, “abroche straunge consortes of melody, to tickle the eare, costly apparel, to flatter the sight; effeminate gesture, to ravish the sence; and wanton speache, to whet desire to inordinate lust. […] But these by the privie entries of the eare, slip downe into the hart, and with gunshotte of affection gaule the minde, where reason and virtue should rule the roste.”[1] Such invective found an appropriate counterpoint in Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, where the author proclaims that “the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”[2]

Scansion is nothing more than the act of reading, or “scanning,” a line of verse in order to understand its rhythm. It is interesting to study Shakespeare’s own approach to verse across his plays. Author Cary F. Jacob states that Shakespeare strove primarily for a natural feeling in his writing, rather than deferring to the influences of classical writers, as was in vogue in the early modern period. This would make scansion more natural and intuitive for an actor performing one of Shakespeare’s roles. The rhythm in Shakespeare’s plays changed depending on what is taking place in the scene. Hamlet’s soliloquies are predominantly intellectual and the phrasing is irregular, mimicking a realistic speech pattern. In Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, the romantic scenes are strongly lyrical and the “regularity of phrasing attends this luxuriance of emotion.”[3] Jacob also compares the reader of these lines, the actor, to a musical artist interpreting notes from a sheet of music. Yet, there is also looseness to this interpretation which is not present in music. Scansion, unlike music, calls for only a fundamental and not detailed agreement.[4]

This is in no way a new discovery about Shakespeare’s work; his contemporaries were aware of his unique skill in crafting lines. In a poem addressed to Ben Jonson, fellow playwright Francis Beaumont wrote, “here I would let slippe / (If I had any in mee) schollershippe, / And from all Learninge keepe these lines as [cl]eere / as Shakespeares best are.”[5] In fact, an in-depth study of Shakespeare’s verse has long been used in establishing a chronology of his plays and, in turn, his artistic development as a writer.

A nineteenth century study conducted by F.G. Fleay for the New Shakespeare Society, analyzed the frequency of rhyme in Shakespeare’s plays and set forth the results as a means of determining a chronology for their creation. While this chart (below) is more accurate in some sections than in others, it provides an example of the emphasis that has consistently been placed on Shakespeare’s verse structure and scansion of his texts.[6]

Closely tied with Shakespeare’s use of rhyme is his use of end-stop and run-one lines. End-stopped lines are lines in verse in which a comma or other punctuation mark compels the speaker to pause in his reading of the line. One example of this is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a speech that Theseus makes: “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,And won thy love, doing thee injuries;But I will wed thee in another key,With pomp, with triumph and with reveling” (I.i.16-19). The punctuation indicates to the actors when he should pause and take a breath before continuing; in this case, at the end of each line in this speech.

A run-on line, on the other hand, has no punctuation to incite the speaker to pause, often creating a more naturalistic flow of speech. Prosper’s lines in The Tempest are an example of this:

“To have no screen between this part he played

And him he played it for, he needs will be

Absolute Milan” (I.ii.107-109). 

Like the frequency of rhyme, Shakespeare’s utilization of end-stop compared with run-on lines is often tied with the chronology of his works (with A Midsummer Night’s Dream being one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and The Tempest one of his latest).[7] Scholar Sidney Lanier concludes that, for the player, “the versification of the late plays is freer, more natural, and larger in music than that of the early plays.”[8] 

The most common form of scansion is known as graphic scansion and is done by marking the stressed (') and unstressed (˘) syllables in a line, the divisions between metrical units (|) and any caesuras or pauses (||).

 ' ˘ ' ˘ ' ˘ ' ˘ 

Double, | double, | toil and | trouble -Macbeth IV.i.10

˘ ' ˘ ' ˘ ' ˘ ' ˘ '

He is | a dream|er; || let | us leave | him: || pass. -Julius Caesar I.ii.24

There are many terms to know about verse before marking a line: 

  • foot: the basic unit of blank verse, usually two syllables
  • iamb: a metrical foot containing an unstressed beat, then a stressed beat. 
    • As in: expense, before, admit, compare, degree
  • trochee: a metrical foot containing a stressed beat, then an unstressed beat. Shakespeare’s most frequent variant on strict iambic pentameter is to begin a line with a trochee, and most given names are trochees.
    • As in: beauty, error, vanish, lovely, Richard, Henry
  • spondee: a metrical foot containing two stressed beats. Spondees may occur in hyphenates or with exclamations.
    • As in: O Fool; well-loved; Peace, ho; careworn
  • feminine ending: an additional unstressed syllable at the end of a line.
  • elision: the merging of two syllables into one
    • As in: heaven becoming heav’n, never becoming ne’er, the important becoming th’ important, do it becoming do’t.
    • In some places, you may notice an early modern expansion of a form we generally elide in modern American English:
      • A word like profession may be four syllables or three depending on its usage: "pro-fess-ee-un" or "pro-fes-shun". When you see "-ion" ending a word, check the scansion to see if it elides or not.
  • caesura: a hard break in the middle of a line.
    • As in:  But soft! || What light through yonder window breaks?
    • Or:      Set him before me; || let me see his face.
  • end-stop: a line that ends with a period, a semicolon, a question mark, or an exclamation point, concluding the thought or sentence.
    • As in: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
  • enjambment: a line or series of lines without end-stops, continuing the thought from one line to the next.
    • As in: How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame → Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose, → Doth spot the budding beauty of thy name.
  • shared line: when two (or more) characters share one line of iambic pentameter between them. Depending on the text your class is using, the style of printing may or may not make the shared line apparent.
    • As in: Lady Macbeth: They must lie there; go carry them, and smear The sleepy grooms with blood. Macbeth: I’ll go no more.
Links to the ASC
In the context of rehearsal and performance, scansion means that an actor must pay attention to the rhythms and sounds of syllables as s/he speaks the line. In an early modern context, the art of knowing when and where to stress each word would have been a highly valued one, and, as they spoke their parts, actors would have made sure they were following the proper patterns. For modern players of Shakespeare, on the other hand, the goal is to sound as natural and “normal” in speech as possible. Basic guidelines, however, such as not stopping for breath in the middle of a line, still hold true, since stopping in the middle would palpably ruin the rhythm of the line. Verse should generally be spoken faster than prose. Contrary to speaking prose, a line of verse should grow in intensity, with the highest energy reached at the end. This constant ebb and flow of the verse keeps the audience involved. In a Director’s Packet from the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, predecessor of the current American Shakespeare Center, a command was given about pronunciation: “Actors must be encouraged to say every word clearly, including the final syllable (which Americans tend to drop). We are not interested in acting which counts on swallowing, tearing, drowning, whispering, or exploding the words.”9 Scansion is the primary device by which such ends would be achieved.Before arriving for a season, actors are encouraged to have their scansion completed so they know to pronounce certain words. Based on the meter of a line, Shakespeare often 9Director’s Packet, Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. stresses suffixes such as –ed, and actors need to be aware of this before beginning the play in production.

[1] Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse (London, England, 1579), e-text at Renascence Editions: 
[2] Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598), quoted in “Appendix B: Records, Documents, & Allusions,” The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 1844. 
[3] Cary F. Jacob, “Concerning Scansion,” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 19, No. 3 (July 1911), 360.
[4] Jacob, 359-362.
[5] Francis Beaumont, “To Mr. B. J.” (1615), quoted in “Appendix B: Records, Documents, & Allusions,” The Riverside Shakespeare, 1845.
[6] For a detailed analysis of a probable chronology of Shakespeare’s works, see G. Blakemore Evans, “Chronology and Sources,” The Riverside Shakespeare, 47-56.
[7] Sidney Lanier, Shakespere and His Forerunners: Studies in Elizabethan Poetry and its Development from Early English, Volume II (New York, NY: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1902), 207-230.
[8] Lanier, 224