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Scansion: shock and ahhh… shakespeare news The Shakespeare Standard theshakespearestandard.com shakespeare plays list play shakespeare

I have noted before (many times) now how Shakespeare’s plays are mostly written in poetry; here, in the case of Othello, nearly 80% of the lines are in verse. When the verse is metrical–and typically, we’re talking about blank verse/unrhymed iambic pentameter (you can check this out for a refresher course on scansion)–then variations from that regular meter can often point out something to help us as actors and directors.

With most plays, I take a look at acting direction we get from the scansion; but with Othello, I’m going to take a different tack: I’m going to take a “macro,” rather than “micro” view. I want to focus on two speeches and how their contrasting scansion helps define character and his linguistic strategy (not just the tactical choices of single words).

In Act One, Scene Three, Othello must defend himself against the charges of seduction through witchcraft, which Brabantio feels is the only way his daughter Desdemona would marry the Moor. Earlier in my discussions of Othello’s use of language, I said that in Othello’s speech to the “great ones of the city” (I.i.8), he knows his audience, knows their status and education, and crafts his message accordingly. But it’s not just his diction but his deviations from the basic iambic pentameter that helps create the “shock and awe” of his attention-grabber of a speech:


/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / / / ~

My very noble and approved good masters,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / / / ~

That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,
/ / / / / / ~ / ~ /

It is most true; true I have married her.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

The very head and front of my offending
~ / ~ / / / / ~ / / ~ /

Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,
~ / ~ / / ~ / / ~ /

And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace;
~ / / / ~ / ~ -/- / /

For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,
~ / ~ / / / ~ / ~ /

Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Their dearest action in the tented field;
~ / ~ / ~ / / / ~ /

And little of this great world can I speak
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

More than pertains to feats of broil and battle;
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

And therefore little shall I grace my cause
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
~ / / / ~ / / / / /

Of my whole course of love—what drugs, what charms,
/ / ~ / ~ / / / ~ / ~

What conjuration, and what mighty magic
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

(For such proceeding I am charged withal)
~ / ~ / ~

I won his daughter.
  • I.iii.76-94

What we see here is fascinating. Of the speech’s 19 lines, only three are perfect iambic pentameter (or just under 16%); even if you allow for shortened lines and those with feminine endings (extra unstressed syllable at the end of the line), only a little over a third of the lines (36.8%) are conventionally iambic. On the other hand, we get nearly half of the lines–9 or over 47%–with multiple deviations from iambic pentameter. Over the course of the speech, there are three trochees that change the rhythm of the line, and a whopping 18 spondees that add extra stresses to the lines. That’s quite a bit of emphasis being hammered home. Of course, he has to hit this hard and fast: his life is facing the “bloody book of law” (I.iii.67).

That being said, while he needs to grab their attention, he has to be careful not to pound them into submission. It’s fitting that only two of the additional stressed syllables begins with a plosive consonant sound (“good” in the speech’s second line and “true” in the fourth). The rest are either nasals (like the first line’s “most”) or fricatives (like “soft” in line seven of the speech) or vowel sounds. It makes those extra stresses seem less like verbal explosions, more like pleas than threats. The only two relatively violently enunciated initial consonant sounds happen within the first quarter of the speech; file this under “shock.” The rest are for emphasis; and you can file that under “awe.”

Compare this to what we see in his next major speech, the “case he makes” following his “opening argument”:


~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Her father loved me, oft invited me,
/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Still questioned me the story of my life
~ / ~ / / ~ / ~ / ~

From year to year—battles, sieges, fortunes
~ / ~ /

That I have passed.
~ / ~ / -/- ~ ~ / ~ /

I ran it through, even from my boyish days
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

To th’ very moment that he bade me tell it.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Of moving accidents by flood and field;
~ / ~ / ~ / -~- / ~ /

Of hairbreadth ‘scapes i’ th’ imminent deadly breach;
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / -~- /

Of being taken by the insolent foe
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

And sold to slavery. Of my redemption thence
~ / ~ / ~ / -~- / ~ /

And portance in my traveler’s history,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / / / ~

Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,
/ ~ ~ / ~ / / ~ ~ / ~

It was my hint to speak—such was my process;
~ / ~ / -~- / ~ / ~ /

And of the cannibals that each other eat,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ || / / ~ /

Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to hear
~ / ~ / ~ / -~- / ~ /

Would Desdemona seriously incline;
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

But still the house affairs would draw her thence,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

She’d come again, and with a greedy ear
~ /~ / ~ / ~ || ~ / ~ / ~

Devour up my discourse. Which I, observing,
~ / ~ / ~ -/- ~ / / /

Took once a pliant hour, and found good means
~ / ~ / ~ -/- ~ / ~ /

To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

But not intentively. I did consent,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

And often did beguile her of her tears
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

When I did speak of some distressful stroke
~ / / / ~ || ~ / ~ / ~ /

That my youth suffered. My story being done,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

She gave me for my pains a world of kisses.
~ / ~ / / / / / ~ /

She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
/ / ~ / / / -~- / ~ /

‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
~ -/- ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

I should but teach him how to tell my story,
~ / ~ / ~ ||~ / ~ / ~ /

And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
~ / / / ~ / ~ / ~ /

And I loved her that she did pity them.
/ / ~ / ~ / / / ~ /

This only is the witchcraft I have used.
/ / ~ / ~ / / / ~ /

Here comes the lady. Let her witness it.
  • I.iii.128-170

Here, we find a speaker in full control of the rhythm of the verse. Of the speech’s 43 lines, nearly half (21, or 48.8%) are perfect iambic pentameter; and if you add those lines that are shorter, longer, or have feminine endings but which are still iambic, you’re up to 31 lines or just over 72%. That’s a huge difference from the previous speech.

Only six lines of this speech contain multiple variations from iambic pentameter (only 14%). The first two are back-to-back in the 14th and 15th lines of the speech: the first has two spondees, the second two trochees; and the pair come at the point in the speech when he states how he spoke to Desdemona (“such was my process”); the break from metrical convention makes sense here. The next two multi-variation lines are also consecutive, in lines 33 and 34: two spondees in each line or four repeated uses of “’twas.” Plosives, yes, but attributed to Desdemona herself (“She swore in faith, ’twas strange…”); Othello’s words aren’t phonetically violent, Desdemona’s are. And the final pair of multi-variation lines come at the end of the speech, with the spondees seemingly punctuating his argument with the following words: “this” “craft” “here” “her.”

Compared to the “shock and awe” opening argument, this statement of Othello’s case is poetic, lyrical, and almost soothing in its consistent rhythm. It’s no wonder the duke says, “I think this tale would win my daughter, too” (I.iii.171).

The post Scansion: shock and ahhh… appeared first on The Bill / Shakespeare Project.

Read more here:: http://thebillshakespeareproject.com/2016/02/othello-scansion-shock-and-ahhh/

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