Twelfth Night: Stage directions in the verse

Yesterday, I talked a little about finding acting and directing clues (and stage directions) in the dialogue of Twelfth Night. Today, let’s see what we can find in the verse. Even though over half the play is in prose, there’s still enough poetry there to give us a hand. Save for the songs, the vast majority of the poetry is in blank verse (and here’s a good starting point if you need a refresher on iambs, spondees, trochees, pyrrhics and the like… or more than a refresher), and we can use that iambic pentameter, the way it works rhythmically, the variations of its meter, and the way it’s broken up over lines to help us out. And even if the right answers for performance aren’t always in the poetry, it may prompt us to ask the right questions in rehearsal.

When the play opens, our lovesick duke, Orsino, waxes poetic on music and love. And while music is consistent in its rhythm, his speech is less so:

If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again! It had a dying fall.
  • I.i.1-4

Even though the speech is primarily iambic pentameter, the speech is filled with spondees and trochees and feminine endings:


~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / / /

If music be the food of love, play on.
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / / ~

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / / /

The appetite may sicken and so die.
~ / ~ /   / ~  ~ / ~ /

That strain again! It had a dying fall.

 

There’s not a single line in that opening four that’s pure blank verse. Those variations speak to a disturbance in his mind, in his soul, and this is completely understandable. What is curious, however, is what happens when we get to the end of the speech. We get a short exchange between Orsino and Curio. We get iambs, but maybe not pentameter. In some texts, it’s a single poetic line, which would push the pace of that first scene, but other texts have it as short, distinct lines. Do we play it with pauses? If so, what is going on in the empty spaces? Is it distraction in our lovesick boy?

We get another couple of very short lines in the next scene as Viola and the sea captain discuss her fate and that of her brother. The captain says, “I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves // So long as I can see” (I.ii.16-7). Here, the first of the two lines is a regular iambic pentameter line, but the second line, while still iambic, has only three feet. Viola begins her four line response with another short line: “For saying so, there’s gold” (I.ii.18). As the standard meter for this scene is iambic pentameter, you might expect this to the an example of an antilabe, a situation where one speaker completes the poetic line/meter of another character with her own line. Only that won’t work, it would create a six-foot line… just unlikely (even more unlikely is her interrupting him; doing so would be cold and callous on Viola’s part, and she is anything but that). So we have two pauses. Why? Are there tears? Does this meter motivate the actor playing Viola to search for her purse to pay the captain? Is she waiting for a “thank you” before going into the remainder of her speech? All valid questions.

We get a couple of more short lines in this scene (often after a question), but we do (finally) get two antilabes when sea captain is telling Viola of Olivia:

CAPTAIN
They say, she hath abjured the sight
And company of men.
VIOLA
O, that I served that lady,
And might not be delivered to the world
Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,
What my estate is.
CAPTAIN
That were hard to compass
Because she will admit no kind of suit,
No, not the Duke’s.
VIOLA
There is a fair behavior in thee, captain…
  • I.ii.40-7

The first antilabe


~ / ~ / ~ /

And company of men.
VIOLA
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~

O, that I served that lady,

Here, it does make sense for Viola to interrupt him, as her focus is on the dead brother and less on the company of men; the trochee (accented first syllable of the foot–as opposed to the iamb’s stressed second syllable) at the beginning of her line jump-starts her line and prompts the jumping of his. In the second example, we get our first perfect antilabe of the play


/ ~ ~ / ~

What my estate is.
/ ~ / ~ / ~

That were hard to compass

The captain isn’t interrupting her, but he does complete the rhythm of the line, answering her quickly. A not-so-quick answer follows the captain’s short line “No, not the Duke’s.” It’s a short, two-foot line, and the first line of Viola’s response is roughly an iambic pentameter line. So there’s a pause there. There has to be. And it makes sense as she begins this speech leading into her plan. This pause could be when she devises the plan.

In Act One, Scene Four, the dialogue between Orsino and Cesario/Viola, has three instances (I.iv.18, 29, and 40) in which one character ends a speech on a short line and the other picks it up on a perfect antiabe:

ORSINO
~ / ~ / -~-

Till thou have audience.
VIOLA
/ ~ / ~ /

Sure, my noble lord,

VIOLA
~ / ~ / ~ /

I think not so, my lord.
ORSINO
/ ~ ~ / ~

Dear lad, believe it;

~ / ~ / ~ /

To call his fortunes thine.
VIOLA
~ / ~ /

I’ll do my best

As the iamb is the meter of the heart, we’re seeing the two share a heartbeat already.

In Act One, Scene Five, Cesario ends his “willow cabin” speech with a short line “But you would pity me” (I.v.265). Only three iambic feet, and opportunity for an antilabe, but Olivia’s response is a full poetic line, beginning with “You might do much” (I.v.266). Viola already has “do(ne) much”… she has stopped Olivia in her tracks; she cannot respond as quickly as she should or would like to. How thrown off is Olivia? Take a look at the opening of her speech following Cesario’s exit:

“What is your parentage?”
“Above my fortunes, yet my state is well.
I am a gentleman.” I’ll be sworn thou art.
Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit
Do give thee fivefold blazon. Not too fast! Soft, soft!
  • I.v.278-82

In the first two and a half lines, she recounts her earlier conversation with Cesario, with the pause in the second half of the first line standing in for the change in speakers. But look at what happens after the recalled conversation. There’s a caesura or pause after “gentleman” which makes sense:


~ / ~ / ~ / || / ~ / ~ /

I am a gentleman.” I’ll be sworn thou art.

Only, it’s six feet, but at least they’re fairly iambic feet. The next line is roughly iambic pentameter.


~ / ~ / ~ / / ~ ~ / ~

Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit

Here, we get a trochee (AC-tions) and an feminine ending to the line (SPIR-it), but not too bad. But that next line?


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

Do give thee fivefold blazon. Not too fast! Soft, soft!

Three spondees–double stressed syllables–(FOLD BLA, TOO FAST, and SOFT, SOFT!) and a pyrrhic–double unstressed syllables–(zon not) make a mess of the meter, so much a mess that she doesn’t notice that she’s well past five feet, into six. She tries to slow herself but she can’t. Her heart beat is skipping and pounding hard. She has caught the “plague” (I.v.284) of love.

There’s a nice moment between Orsino and Cesario in Act Two, Scene Four, when Orsino asks how old Cesario’s “woman” is; on a single line, Viola’s response is “About your years, my lord” (II.iv.28). Three iambic feet. The next line by Orsino is a full one, so the choice for the actor playing Viola is where to put the pause. Put it before, and it seems as if Viola has to think about how far to push this masquerade; place it after, and maybe, just maybe, Orsino is making the mental connections. Later in the scene, after Orsino orders Cesario back to Olivia, Viola’s response is a single four-beat line, “But if she cannot love you, sir?” (II.iv.87). There’s a beat pause there, as if he doesn’t get it. But then he pushes through:

I cannot be so answered.
VIOLA
Sooth, but you must.
  • II.iv.88

And for the first time in the play, Viola interrupts Orsino.


~ / ~ / ~ / ~

I cannot be so answered.
VIOLA
/ ~ ~ /

Sooth, but you must.

There’s a slight overlap between the two halves of the line for it to scan properly. This moment is important. When Orsino goes off on his “women can’t love like men” speech, he ends it with

And that I owe Olivia.
VIOLA
Ay, but I know—
ORSINO
What dost thou know?
  • II.iv.103-4

If Orsino doesn’t elide Olivia’s name (thus pronouncing it o-LI-VEE-AH instead of o-LIV-ya), then again Viola has to interrupt. Orsino is on such a high horse now, that I believe he would stretch out that word, and Viola cuts him off again, but this time he challenges Cesario with the question “What dost thou know?” Just four syllables. That’s a big pause before Viola speaks again. She may have gone too far, or not far enough, but either way, this is a beat for reflection. And at the end of her speech, Orsino interrupts Cesario, slightly, overlapping an unstressed syllable:


/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
/ ~ ~ / ~

I should your Lordship.
ORSINO
~ / ~ / ~ /

And what’s her history?
  • II.iv.108-9

Only here, the rationale for the jumped cue is not aggression but concern and curiosity: Orsino wants to know more about Cesario. And if Viola’s first interruption of Orsino in this scene is important, this one is just as important.

In the cat-and-mouse game between Olivia and Viola/Cesario, the antilabes are one-way only in the first half of the scene. When Olivia ends a speech with a shortened line, there’s a pause before Cesario responds (III.i.95, 109); when the situation is reversed, however, Olivia always completes Viola’s shortened line with a break-less antilabe (III.i.105, 122). The only time in the scene where Viola completes Olivia with an antilabe is when Olivia excuses Cesario to leave:


~ / ~ / ~ /

There lies your way, due west.
VIOLA
~ / ~ /

Then westward ho!
  • III.i.133

A perfect antilabe, not because there’s true love between the Olivia and Viola, but because Viola cannot wait to get out of their interview.

Of course, Viola’s brother is a different matter altogether. The first time he and Olivia meet and they share a line,

SEBASTIAN
/ ~ ~ /

Madam, I will.
OLIVIA
~ / ~ / / /

O, say so, and so be!
  • IV.i.62

it is a perfect iambic pentameter antilabe. True love? or just fate? There’s no definitive answer, but it’s a great question for rehearsal.

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