Stage Directions, Episode 2: Via the Verse and Meter

A few days back, we talked about As You Like It in regards to how stage directions can be conveyed by hints in the dialogue. Today, let’s focus on how the verse and the meter can give hints to the actor (if you need a little verse refresher, check out our earlier posts THAT Discussion (or, The King of Repurposing Strikes Again!), THAT Discussion, Part Two, and Poetry Review/Preview: To the Iamb, and Beyond!).

When the characters are speaking in verse (which in this play is NOT all the time), they are usually speaking in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter (unrhymed lines of ten syllables, broken up into five “feet” of two syllable chunks, called iambs, which is an unstressed syllable followed a stressed one). When two characters share a poetic line, it’s called an antilabe (with one speaker starting the line and the second completing it, and it should still follow the same rhythmic pattern). When the line in question,though, varies from the iambic, it can be a clue to the actors how to approach it.

Let’s take a look at some instances in As You Like It (with some lines scanned):

In Act One, Scene Two, Rosalind gives Orlando a chain and says,

Wear this for me, one out of suits with fortune,
That could give more, but that her hand lacks means.
/ ~ / /

Shall we go, coz?
CELIA
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Ay. Fare you well, fair gentleman.
  • I.ii.233-5

There’s no way for the line to work as pentameter unless the first foot of Celia’s response completely overlaps Rosalind’s second foot. But how can it? Celia wouldn’t know how Rosalind’s question would end, so how would she know how to answer it? The reading, more likely, is a four beat pause, allowing Celia’s response to be the last four feet of a pentameter line. So why the long pause? We find out just a few lines later when Orlando says in an aside that he’s tongue-tied like a “lifeless block” (I.ii.238). In other words, the exchange should play AWKWARD. This is still the case five lines later when Rosalind’s good-bye “Have with you. Fare you well” (I.ii.243) is met with another two beats of Orlando silence before they finally leave. And when he does finally explain his plight


~ / ~ / ~ / / ~ / / ~ /

I cannot speak to her, yet she urged conference.
  • I.ii.245

his meter is nowhere near an even, measured iambic pentameter, instead we get both a trochee (stressed, followed by unstressed; YET she) and a spondee (back-to-back stresses; URGED CON [ferENCE]). The scansion helps expose his awkwardness.

In the next scene, Duke Frederick enters and proclaims,

Mistress, dispatch you with your safest haste
~ / ~ / ~ /

And get you from our court.
ROSALIND
/ / ~

Me, uncle?
DUKE FREDERICK
/ / ~

You, cousin
  • I.iii.40

The line works as pentameter with a feminine ending (an extra unstressed syllable at the end of the line), but only if Frederick overlaps Roslind’s line by a half-beat. His first part of the line consists of three regular iambs. Her response is a spondee followed by the beginning of an iambic foot (ME, UNcle), but that beginning is spoken over by Frederick’s own spondee, resolved by the feminine ending (YOU, COUsin). And this works to push the pace of the line and emphasizes the sudden banishment of his niece.

Upon his exit, Celia announces that they both shall flee the court and Rosalind asks, “Why, whither shall we go?” (I.iii.104). It’s a short three-foot line. Celia’s response is a blank verse line of its own “To seek my uncle in the forest of Arden” (I.iii.105). I don’t think Celia had the answer ready, or if she did, she teases out the answer, as if testing her cousin.

When, three scenes later, Adam comes to warn Orlando to flee, the old man’s first speech ends with a shortened, three-and-a-half foot line: “O, what a world is this, when what is comely // Envenoms him that bears it!” Orlando doesn’t immediately respond, but rather begins his own blank verse line, “Why, what’s the matter?” And Adam completes the antilabe, without a pause finishing the younger man’s first half of an iambic foot: “O unhappy youth!” (II.iii.14-5)j. Something causes Orlando not to respond with speed to the old man, but the old man rushes to finish the begun line, showing the contrasting senses of urgency of the two characters.

When Orlando interrupts the meal at Duke Senior’s camp, he is greeted with kindness, and when he is offered food, he says that he needs to get Adam first, and until then, “(he) will not touch a bit” which begins a poetic line with three iambic feet; Duke Senior completes the line with “Go find him out” (II.vii.132). There is no pause between Orlando’s portion and that of the duke. This conveys Duke Senior’s understanding of the urgency of the situation.

This is similar to when Oliver arrives to tell Aliena and Ganymede about the missing Orlando, and the bloody napkin:

OLIVER
Some of my shame; if you will know of me
What man I am, and how, and why, and where
~ / ~ / ~ /

This handkercher was stain’d.
CELIA
~ / ~ / ~

I pray you, tell it.
  • IV.iii.94-6

Again, without a pause, a sense of urgency is achieved–in this case, the urgency to find out what happened to Orlando.

Sometimes, the use of meter can inform the actors on how their characters relate to another. Often, when Silvius speaks to Phebe, and ends his poetic line early, Phebe doesn’t complete his line, but rather pauses to start her own:

SILVIUS
Sweet Phebe, pity me.
PHEBE
Why, I am sorry for thee, gentle Silvius.
  • III.v.84-5
SILVIUS
By giving love your sorrow and my grief
Were both extermined.
PHEBE
Thou hast my love: is not that neighborly?
  • III.v.89-90

There are long pauses, as Phebe is not paying attention to Silvius.

Again, these are just a few examples… can you think of any others?

Comment?