Antilabes: Weapons of Poetic Construction?

I tend to dive a little deeper into the poetic aspects of the play during my second reading of the play, and Much Ado About Nothing is no different. And if you’ve read this blog for more than just a few months, you know that I love antilabes.


What’s an antilabe?

The completion of one character’s poetic line (in Shakespeare, usually iambic pentameter) by another.

They’re worthy of study because they can give clues to the actors as to how to deliver the lines: if the line maintains its rhythm, then the actors should take that as a clue to not pause between the speeches. The most famous example of this kind of antilabe comes not from this play but way back in Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo spies upon Juliet on her balcony:


See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
Ay me!
She speaks:
O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
  • Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.23-26

And here, it’s not just a single antilabe, but a compound one: not just two speeches in a single poetic line, but three. This antilabe shows how Romeo and Juliet are sharing the same line and, in a sense, the same heartbeat (as the iambic foot sounds like a heartbeat).

If the resulting poetic line is longer than usual, and the only way to create regular poetic line is to overlap the speeches, then the clue is for the second speaker to interrupt or jump the line of the first. If the resulting line is shorter than usual, then the clue is to pause a beat (or two) between the speeches.

Those are the mechanics of how the antilabe can work. But what about the “why”?

Usually, the antilabe can show a connection between the two characters, like in the Romeo and Juliet example above. In others, it’s just a call (or question) and response, either in answer or rebuke. They can also be used to change the subject, especially in cases where there’s a between-speech pause.

In Much Ado, the uses are the same. Act Four, Scene One (the worst wedding ever) is filled with rebuking and confrontational antilabes, between Leonato and Claudio, Leanato and Hero, and Hero and Claudio, with an additional pair between Leonato and the Friar as the latter attempts to comfort and convince the former not to rush to judgment. In the same scene, they’re also used to show chaos (as between Benedick and Hero), as well as the usual call and response (as between Benedick and both Beatrice and Leonato).

In Act Five (in both the first and last scenes of that act), the use is the conventional call and response, beginning with those between Antonio, Leonato, Claudio and Pedro, and culminating the ones between our two couples Claudio and Hero, and Beatrice and Benedick.

I may need to go back and look at the other plays because I’m noticing a different use of the antilabe in this play that I don’t recall seeing before: to show a level of conspiracy. It’s very close to the primary use–to show a connection–but in these instances, there are either no other characters on stage, ones that are unaware of the statements or those who are excluded from the dialogue.

In Act Three, Scene One, there are two usages between Hero and Ursula, as they conspire against the onstage and spying Beatrice. In Act Five, Scene One, Antonio and Leonato respond to each other to the exclusion of Claudio and Pedro. And in the final scene, Leonato and the Friar agree to help Benedick in his desire to wed Benedick. And finally, the reunited couple of Claudio and Hero complete a single line as they publicly announce the conspiracy of bringing Beatrice and Benedick together by producing the written evidence of their two B’s love for one another.

It’s altogether fitting that this last conspiratorial use is the final antilabe in the play.

Fitting, too: that Beatrice and Benedick do not share a single conspiratorial antilabe in the play. They are the conspired-against, not the conspirators. Neither do they share an antilabe that shows a connection between the two characters.

It seems that their merry war precludes the use of the weapon of poetic construction…