Vowel Movement Irregularities

So we’ve spent the last week or so looking at textual technical matters (rhyme, prose, meter and the like), and using these cocepts to help drive acting and directing decisions.

But what if the clues (what we find in the technical minutae) are of no help?  What if the clues are… well, wrong?

What do I mean?  Let’s take a look at Act Three, Scene One, of The Comedy of Errors which is filled with textual irregularities.  In the scene’s second speech, Dromio responds to Antipholus question regarding his strange behavior in the marketplace (AE had really met with DS in a scene not seen on-stage):

Say what you will, sir, but I know what I know;
That you beat me at the mart, I have your hand to show:
If the skin were parchment, and the blows you gave were ink,
Your own handwriting would tell you what I think.

— III.i.11-14

First of all, the line lengths vary: the first line is 11 syllables long, the second and third lines are both 13 syllables long, and the last line of the quatrain retuns to an 11-syllable length.  If these irregularities weren’t bad enough, look at the scansion of the lines:

 /    ~   ~   /     ~    ~  ~   /    ~  ~   /
Say what you will, sir, but I know what I know;
~   ~   /    ~ ~   ~   /    ~  /    ~    /    ~   /
That you beat me at the mart, I have your hand to show:
/   ~    ~   ~    /    ~     ~   ~    /    ~   /    ~    /
If the skin were parchment, and the blows you gave were ink,
/    ~   /    / ~    ~     /    ~    ~  ~   /
Your own handwriting would tell you what I think.

[and here I’m not enough of a scansion scholar to bet the farm on my guess at the meter, but I do know: it, sure as shinola, ain’t iambic pentameter…]

The meter is all over the place, so much so that one might assume that the passage was prose.  However, it takes just a cursory glance at the line endings to see that the rhyme (aabb) certainly points to poetry, not prose.

And while it’s tempting to look at this a some kind of rogue passage, continued close reading shows that the scene as a whole is filled with such passages.  This has lead some critics to stat that this scene (and Act Four, Scene Two as well) is filled with doggerel.

Is the poetry that bad?

Possibly.  Like I said, I’m not enough of an expert at meter and scansion to say defninitively, but I can say it’s awkward and has no regular flow or rhythm, despite the use of rhyme.

Then why is it the way it appears?  Is it a bad transcription?  Is it a poorly-written scene by a young playwright whose gifts are still in their infancy?  (do we put too much pressure on Shakespeare, expecting everything to be perfect? … and of course, there’s a flip-side to that, too: do we think so much of Shakespeare that we create rationalizations of any irregularites that we find, implying that he meant to do that?)

Is there a purpose or reason?  Or is it, as Dromio of Syracuse says, “The wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason” (II.ii.48).

For now, let’s file this under “irregular”… unless, of course, any of you are willing to venture a guess.  Maybe we’ll revisit this later (before the month ends and it’s time to turn our attention to Titus Andronicus)… or maybe it’s remain a mystery.

Comment?