Friday, March 22, 2013

How To Scan Your Verse Lines

Sometimes we get training on something where the trainer assumes we know the basics. In case you've never had the absolute basics on how to scan your lines, read on. (If you know how and want to know more about how to use the scansion, please see “Analyzing Scansion.”)

The purpose of this is to try to suss out the VERSE METER. This is ostensibly supposed to be "iambic pentameter" (see below) but usually is NOT. Shakespeare liked to mess around with the meter to create the sound of different personalities and different emotional states. So we have to figure out what the new meter is. 

You need to:

  • speak the line as you normally would, pronouncing words as you normally would
  • make marks on your script to indicate which syllables are stressed (or, on the "downbeat") and which are unstressed ("upbeat")
  • try to figure out what that means for your personality/emotional state (this is covered in "Analyzing Scansion")

You will make little marks over the syllables in your script, in pencil, as so:

x = unstressed [many use a mark I can't type, this shape: ( but on its side like a smile, here I'll use x]
/ = stressed

Remember to put a mark over every syllable, as it's easy to miss one. Keep in mind that by pronoucing a word differently, you may find different numbers of syllables in it, as in “diff-rent-ly” and “diff-er-ent-ly”. This is particularly true of proper names ("Iago" can be "ee-AH-go" or "YA-go"). If you are having trouble with a line, go to proper names first and then any polysyllabic words and mess around with pronunciation, see if you missed something.

Why would you have trouble with a line? Because it doesn't come out smoothly. It may not always be a uniform meter, but it should always roll off the tongue. If it doesn't, you're doing something wrong, probably pronouncing a word differently than Shakespeare did. For example, in Richard III he uses the word "adversaries". I pronounce this "AD-ver-SAR-ees" in normal conversation, but in this line, I always get tripped up trying to get it out. Then I remembered the Brits pronounce this word "ad-VER-sar-EES" and when I tried it, it smoothed out the line and made it flow better.

Back to some more tips on pronunciation:

  • Keep in mind that -ed at the end of a word (past tense of a verb) was usually pronounced in those days (we have since dropped this for all verbs except those that end in d's or t's). This was another place that Shakespeare could drop a syllable if needed. Sometimes this will be marked for you, as in “stopp'd.” However this is notoriously unreliable, as it is not consistent (marked ones are usually right, but unmarked ones may not be). If you're having trouble working out a line, try both pronouncing and dropping the -ed and see if it helps.
  • The suffix "-ion" comes from other languages, primarily French, wherein it is pronounced as two syllables, "ee-on". The Anglicization is "shun". Shakespeare seems to use either as it suits him, so sometimes the right pronunciation of "derision" is "der-IS-shun" and sometimes it's "der-IS-ee-ON". I personally dislike the sound of the "ee-on", as it tends to stick out like a sore thumb when you're using an American dialect to do Shakespeare, but I guess I can't quibble if that's what the meter is doing. 

How will I know if a syllable is stressed or unstressed?

Polysyllabic words usually follow the correct pronunciation. “Discontent” is typically pronouced DISS-con-TENT, not diss-CON-tent. It's unlikely that Shakespeare is intentionally mispronouncing the word, and more likely that the meter is off, so pronounce words as you commonly would and write down what you hear yourself say. If it is an altered pronunciation, you'll work that out in the next step.

Polysyllabic words that are made up of two shorter words might go the opposite of your expectations. "Myself" could be "my-SELF" (common) or "MY-self" (unusual, but could be used for effect), or "MY-SELF" (two stresses for effect). 

Invented words might have strange stresses.  While based on Latin, it is Shakespeare that sticks the prefix "un-" onto words to make new ones: un-natural, un-born, un-done, un-sex (that last one never took off, lol). Since then, these words have become commonplace, and we tend to stress the root word "un-DONE". But because Shakespeare was creating a new word, he might put the stress on "un-", as in "UN-done". Another example is "birthday", which Shakespeare coined in Julius Caesar to mean the anniversary of one's birth-- it could be "BIRTH-day", "birth-DAY", or "BIRTH-DAY", since it was new, it didn't have a "common" pronunciation at the time.

Monosyllabic words could go either way. (In “Analyzing Scansion” we'll see how you can use this to your advantage.)

Scanning Your Text

To start, assume that the line will be in the base form, the iambic pentameter line.

[pentameter= five metrical feet per line; iambic= the feet in the line are iambs, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.]

[oh yeah, and feet = groups of syllables, sometimes 2, sometimes 3. In this case, iambs are feet made up of two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed. Take a look at the bottom of this page for more kinds of feet.]
x  /  x  /  x  /  x  /  x  /
___   ____  ___   ___   ___
 1     2     3     4     5

If it does not fit this meter when you hear yourself say it, with your common pronunciations, have a try at making it fit. Check proper names, and polysyllabic words and messing with pronunciations as previously described. Try eliding some words, as “heav'n” for “heaven”, or “I'm” for “I am”. Conversely, try drawing things out, like “I am” for “I'm”. It may be that with a quick adjustment you find it is iambic pentameter after all.

This step is primarily important when the lines around it are regular. One irregular line, especially one that seems to want to end in a stress beat and does not represent a change in subject matter, is unusual. If you can't make it fit, then that unusal line will have great meaning for you later, but try. You might have just missed something.

I recommend not getting hung up on a line. My first goal is to scan as much of it as possible, so I scan the iambic pentameter [IP] lines and just put a star in the margin next to anything that doesn't seem IP. This lets me get the whole lay of the land, a map of where the lines are regular and where they aren't. Then I go back and try to make the starred lines fit IP, and make sure I didn't miss anything. This gives me the vantage point of knowing if this line ought to be regular, because most of the surrounding ones are, or if I should expect trouble, because most of the passage is irregular.

Now I have a script full of scanned IP lines and starred irregular ones that I'm sure are irregular. Again, this is an excellent vantage point. Take a look at the CONTENT of your lines. Where does your meter break? In general. What words, images, or topics seem to set this off?

Emotional Temperature
Think of your character's emotions, (positive, negative, or ambiguous/mixed) as a thermometer. As the meter breaks, the mercury rises. (An alternate analogy I like is a line graph with spikes of activity. Take your pick.)

If it breaks a little, the mercury / needle on the graph moves a little. If it breaks a lot, it moves a lot.

If it breaks at the beginning of the line and then lowers / flatlines, you pulled yourself together. If it starts out ok and then breaks, your temperature is rising / you're starting to spike, emotionally speaking.

So, thinking about the content of your lines, something is causing your thermometer to rise or needle to jump. What are you talking about that could cause this?

What's Wrong With My Messed-Up Line?
Now go back and look at each starred line. Here is a handy list of some things that could be different about it.

It's too short. You're missing some feet. How lame! First, look around. Did another character take them? If so, it would look something like this:

CHARACTER A: x / x / x / ?
CHARACTER B:                      x / x / .

This is a shared line. You are to share this line like two rappers might. B comes in right after A, and I suggest maintaining their tempo, at least for that line.

Sharing a line is a giant clue about that moment. You don't take the time to consider before responding, you respond right off. Of course the next question is why, and that is up to you.

A shared line can be IP or irregular. Look at the whole thing together as if it were one line. The example above is IP. If your line is too, you are done, move on. However, if the line is still broken in some way, keep checking down the list for more help with it.

Nope, the feet aren't in another line, they're just gone.
CHARACTER A: x / x / ?
CHARACTER B: x / x / x / x / x /.

The feet with no words are still there, they are just silent, like a rest notation in music. One school of thought says the pause goes after the short line (so it's up to Character B to make it happen). Another is that the silent feet can be anywhere in the line (if before or within the spoken feet, then A controls it).

Depending on the circumstances, syllables may even be drawn out over more feet, as in this example:


might be said

CHARACTER A: Oooooooooooooooooooooh!

So that it's still the length of ten syllables, technically, but one word.

There is a lot of play in a short line.

Note: Two short lines can be changed to be shared, or a shared line can be changed into two short lines.This creates an entirely different moment. One has two giant pauses in it, the other has none. Always be careful when changing one of Shakespeare's moments, it could be that something is happening there that could open your eyes to the character or the scene. However, different versions of the play may differ in whether the same two lines are short or shared, so in that case, you can certainly take your pick. Furthermore, as long as it is done consciously and carefully, this is a a very common alteration for an actor, director, or dramaturg to make. But since it involves more than one actor, it is usually discussed and agreed upon as a group. So don't worry about this in your own scanning at home, but be aware changes may be on the horizon as you move into rehearsal.

It has 10 syllables, but they aren't all iambs. 

Stop right there. We must think in FEET, not syllables. My own personal theory is, THERE ARE ALWAYS FIVE FEET. If you look down at the list at the bottom of this page, you will see that there are many different kinds of feet, in groups of 2 or 3 syllables. Now, if you have 5 feet, and 3 of them are triplet feet, you're going to end up with 13 syllables in the line. But that doesn't really tell you as much as realizing where the triplet feet are. And when you're faced with a crazy-metered line, finding a way to break it down into five clear feet is much easier and more helpful to you.
And as I was saying above in the "Emotional Temperature" section, this is where the “good stuff” happens. When the feet aren't iambs, something is happening emotionally. We will analyze this in the next section.

For now, use the list to identify the feet in your line based off of the marks you made (which was based off of how you said it).

Some interesting things to look for:
 The famous “feminine ending”, which has four iambs followed by an amphibrach (x / x) in the 5th foot. Feminine endings are unique, in that 
  • the only alteration is at the very end, after the normal line has all been regular, 
  • it lifts at the end (rather than a stress beat), almost as if you are trailing off or asking a question,  
  • though it is the correct beat for the pattern of the first line, it creates an unstressed beat (at the end of the line) followed by another unstressed beat (at the beginning of the next line) which may be well suited for a brief pause between.
It may indicate that the word you just said has struck you in some way... made you think of something... or made you wonder to yourself if that was the right word to choose... or in other words, function much as the elipses have in this sentence. In that sense, it might be a more intellectual and cool form of broken meter, or just a very slight change in emotion, just one degree on the thermometer or a mere blip in the line graph. It's still an important clue in that something unusual is happening.

I know, that sounds like a contradiction. It depends on the context. If all your other lines are regular, and then you suddenly have a feminine ending, making it the most broken line you have, that is important. It's not a huge emotional spike, but it sticks out in the regular meter, showing you are heating up a little. On the other hand, if most of the surrounding lines are more broken than this, so that it is the most regular line you have, it represents more of a cooling off. Many times you may have a fairly regular piece, but it's full... of... feminine endings... So they all trail off at the end as if followed by "..." but as they are all the same, not one of them is more "spiked" than another. You're just running on a low, steady hum of some emotion.

The Ghost Syllable. There is such a thing as a “ghost” or silent syllable. It's typically one that would normally be unstressed anyway. You would think these would be tricky to find, but they are pretty obvious if they are needed, because it won't work out without them. One exists in this extremely common pattern that I call “the soldier's rhythm” because I first noticed it in Hotspur, when he remembers former battles (although I've seen it a lot).

   /    x   x     / (x)  /  x   /  x   /
Breathless and faint,  leaning on my sword

It's a slight hitch in the middle of the line, not a pause, really, but a quick break that separates "faint" from "leaning". While I will constantly encourage you not to break up a metered line with pauses, there are times, such as in this one and in short lines, in which a pause is actually written into the meter itself.
Another "hitch" was developed by Matt Radford, to be used in the condition where the end of the sentence comes in the middle of a metered line, AND the line is a feminine ending:

x / x / x . (x) / x / x / x
[I wish I had an example line of this, but I don't. He calls it a “murmur”.]

Now you have scanned your text. But that is useless unless you analyze it and figure out what clues it holds. We've already seen some clues-- where you have broken meter and where you don't, when you come in quickly and when you pause. But analyzing the weird feet you've discovered is the next step.

METRICAL FEET (the promised list)

notation      name                        sounds like                                            
/ / /              molossus                  DO. NOT. WANT.                               

/ /                spondee                   GET. OUT.                

/ x /             cretic                        Yes you will!       

/ x               trochee                     Listen!            

/ x x            dactyl                       Stop it please... 

x /               iamb                         okay.                   

x / x           amphibrach               oh, sorry....     

x x /           anapaest                    I'm a jerk.        

x x             pyrrhic                       help me...                   

I used to use little jokes for the "sounds like", such as all political names, or names of cities. But since I also believe that more stresses= more force, it made sense to try to convey that sense of "in your face" and "backing off meekly". As if the speaker had decided to stand up against his roommate, only to be reminded that his roommate is a body builder, before retreating meekly away. :) 

In terms of that continuum, I sometimes change my mind about the order of the ones in the middle. Don't sweat it if you disagree and would move one up or down the line, so would I on any given day.

Also, take note that we do so much writing nowadays on the internet, in which we are trying to convey our natural speaking styles. We are used to putting. periods. after. words. to indicate all those words have equal stress, or using italics or CAPS or bold to indicate stressed words. And we see this all the time in modern scripts. Shakespeare's scripts are only unusual in that instead of using these visual clues, he puts his stresses in the meter.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Curtain Theatre, Found!
Archaeologists say they have discovered the remains of an Elizabethan theatre where some of William Shakespeare's plays were first performed. Experts from the Museum of London have uncovered a yard and gallery walls from the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, just east of London's business district.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Connecting Thoughts in A Verse Line

I've made the case before elsewhere on this blog that it's important to hold (not break up with pauses or stops) the metered line. I'm not going to defend that idea here, but rather, take a look at how studying what is in each metered line, and where the line breaks appear in the sentence, can teach you about your character.

Why Kit Marlowe was the Steve Jobs of London Theatre, and why Shakespeare is like your iPhone skin

Marlowe brought form to the fore, but Shakespeare found individuality in manipulating the form.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Boys Being Girls

An interesting discussion with Ann Ciccollela recently got me to researching why women weren't on stage until after the Restoration of Charles II.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

False Friends

I stumbled across this phrase on wikipedia while reading about something else-- and realized these "false friends" are old friends of mine, Shakespeare introduced them to me!

A Year Later...

...I've finally updated some of the pages on this blog! "How To" has had its first revamping, and the new page "Operatives" has gone up. Feel free to leave a comment on this post if you'd like clarification, or have a suggestion or a question. It's a work in progress, and I appreciate your patience!

About Crafting Shakespeare

Welcome to Crafting Shakespeare, a blog where actors, directors, and other theatre professionals can discuss the craft of performing Shakespeare. This blog is just getting under way, so if you would like to post a question about Shakespearean performance, or if you have an idea for a topic, please write me at jill at austinstages dot com and I'll do my best to get it answered promptly. Thanks! (Also, feel free to comment on posts and let's get a discussion going!)