All’s Well That Ends Well: Scanning the scansion for clues

Much of Shakespeare’s poetry is blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter. We know that. So when he deviates, there’s got to be a purpose. Let’s take a quick look at few such moments in All’s Well That Ends Well.

In the opening scene, save for a Hamlet-like aside, our heroine’s first speech is a verse soliloquy:

O, were that all! I think not on my father,
And these great tears grace his remembrance more
Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
I have forgot him. My imagination
Carries no favor in ’t but Bertram’s.
I am undone. There is no living, none,
If Bertram be away. ’Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
Th’ ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. ’Twas pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour, to sit and draw
His archèd brows, his hawking eye, his curls
In our heart’s table—heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favor.
But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics. Who comes here?
  • I.i.81-100

Her words demonstrate a distraught state and the confused meter of her verse supports this. In the first six lines (nearly the first third of the speech), there is not a single regular iambic pentameter line:


/ / ~ / / / / / ~ / ~

O, were that all! I think not on my father,
~ / / / / ~ ~ / ~ /

And these great tears grace his remembrance more
~ / ~ / ~ / / ~ ~ /

Than those I shed for him. What was he like?
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

I have forgot him. My imagination
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Carries no favor in’t but Bertram’s.
/ ~ ~ / / ~ / / ~ /

I am undone. There is no living, none,
~ / ~ / ~ /

If Bertram be away.

The first line is a wonder, an explosion of monosyllabic thought and emotion: three spondees (O, were || I think || not on) plus an extra unaccented syllable. It’s as if she’s feeling so much that ten syllables cannot contain it. And this won’t be the last feminine ending we see in this section: lines four and five, too, have that extra unaccented syllable. Line two brings with it a spondee (great tears) and a trochee (grace his). And while line three begins more modulated, we get a trochee (What was) in the second half. Line four kicks off with a trochee (I have) and ends with the feminine ending. Line five, too, kicks off with the trochee (Carries), but more importantly note that this is a short line. There’s a pause after “Bertram’s.” Not only does it give the actress playing Helena to catch her breath, gather herself, but it also allows the audience to catch up with her (a HA! Bertram’s the cause). Line six begins with another trochee (I am) then later another (there is) then a spondee (no living). Only with the seventh line do we get regular iambic rhythm.

And it is at this point that her focus turns from her father (whom she should be mourning–thus her upset state), to Bertram. The remainder of the speech is mostly regular blank verse, save only for two spondees in which a single syllable adjective describing Bertram gets equal stress to the attribute it describes (line ten’s bright radiance and line eighteen’s sweet favor), a spondee where the single syllable heart pounds hard in line seventeen (heart’s table), and a trochee in line eleven (not in) that reinforces her unworthiness for him. Even the feminine endings fade, with the same number in the last fourteen lines that appeared in the first six.

It’s a wonderful example of how the verse can show the actor where the beat changes take place.

Sometimes the rhythm doesn’t reveal characterization but support the situation found in the text. Look at the king’s speech in Act One, Scene Two, when he’s sick:

Would I were with him! He would always say—
Methinks I hear him now; his plausive words
He scattered not in ears, but grafted them
To grow there and to bear. “Let me not live”—
This his good melancholy oft began
On the catastrophe and heel of pastime,
When it was out—“Let me not live,” quoth he,
“After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses
All but new things disdain, whose judgments are
Mere fathers of their garments, whose constancies
Expire before their fashions.” This he wished.
I, after him, do after him wish too
  • I.ii.52-64

For a moment, ignore the meter; just look at the breaks in sentences and clauses. In the first four lines, two have breaks mid-line, and the other two have breaks both mid-line and at the the end. And no word has more than two syllables (and there’s only five of those). It would be hard for any actor to get any rhythm or momentum going. This makes sense. The king is sick and dying. The next three lines, while having fewer breaks and more multi-syllabic words, are a mess of meter:


/ ~ / / ~ / ~ / ~ /

This his good melancholy oft began
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /  /

On the catastrophe and heel of pastime,
/ ~ ~ / / ~ / / ~ /

When it was out—“Let me not live,” quoth he,

Trochee and spondee in that first line (this his good melancholy), trochee kicking off the second (on the) and a extra syllable at the end of it (stressed this time), and two trochees (when it || let me) and a spondee (not live) in that last line continue to keep the actor from gaining any rhythm. Then note what happens: the iambic pentameter fades in, gaining strength. And why? because these are not the king’s own words. These are his remembrance of another (and younger) man’s words.

Compare that to his first post-cure speech:

Go, call before me all the lords in court.
Sit, my preserver, by thy patient’s side,
And with this healthful hand, whose banished sense
Thou hast repealed, a second time receive
The confirmation of my promised gift,
Which but attends thy naming.
  • II.iii.45-50

Regular iambic pentameter, save for a spondee and a trochee strongly kicking off their respective lines (Go, call || Sit, my). Stronger sentence structure: orders, not memories. This is a man with a passion for life, not a wish for death.

Finally, one last symbolic clue in a speech from the countess. In Act Three, Scene Two, when she attempts to comfort Helena after her poor treatment at the hands of Bertram, she says,


  ~ / ~ /

 He was my son,
~ / ~ / ~ / / ~ ~ /

But I do wash his name out of my blood,
~ / ~ / ~ / -~- / ~ / ~

And thou art all my child. Towards Florence is he?
  • III.ii.65-7

Straightforward iambic pentameter save for a trochee in the middle line. But it’s where the stresses fall that I find interesting. In the first line, “was” is stressed; in the last, “is.” The first line cements the past status of Bertram; he was her son. The last supports his current state–moving away. Note, too, that the extra syllable at the end of the line: “he” is unstressed. He is no longer the important one; Helena is now her child.

Rhythm, line-breaks and single word stresses… If you’re an actor and you trust in it, it can set you free.

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