A Pause to Discuss Stage Directions

Stage directions are a funny thing: they can tell you what to do and when, but if they’re not there, then what?  And even when they are there, can they be trusted?  (especially since critical opinion is that they–even more than the text itself–is the result of stage managers’ and actors’ memories rather than specified written directions from Shakespeare himself)

Better to stick with the text then, for both stage directions and acting clues.  What do I mean?  Well, let’s take a gander at some speeches in The Third Part of Henry the Sixth in which the verse forces a pause:

In Act One, Scene One, Henry attempts to argue his way back onto the throne, on which Richard Duke of York is sitting.  He discusses rights to the throne:

What title hast thou, traitor, to the crown?
Thy father was, as thou art, Duke of York;
Thy grandfather, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March.
I am the son of Henry the Fifth,
Who made the Dauphin and the French to stoop
And seized upon their towns and provinces.

— I.i.102-107

The meter and line lengths are interesting here.  The first three lines are a sentence on their own:

  /   /  ~  /     ~     /  ~    /  ~    /
What title hast thou, traitor, to the crown?
~   / ~      /   /    /   ~    /   ~    /
Thy father was, as thou art, Duke of York;
~   /   /  ~    / ~   /  ~ ~     /   ~    /
Thy grandfather, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March.

The speech kicks off with a spondee (two stressed syllables); the second line has another spondee in the center of the line (emphasizing the “as thou” in an attempt to diminish York’s title).  These first two lines are pentameter. But in the third line, as he mentions the name of a man who was regarded by many as a legitimate claimant to the throne, the meter falls apart and the line is filled with too much info (too much right to rule?) that pentameter cannot contain it; we now have six feet to the line, and three of those are trochee (stressed followed by unstressed–as opposed to our usual unstressed/stressed iambs).  Henry has lost control of his own argument.  He attempts to regain control and get the last word with his next line:

/ ~   ~   /  ~   /  ~  ~    /
I am the son of Henry the Fifth,

But it’s an awkward line, starting with the trochee (stressing the “I”), followed by two regular iambs, then an extra unstressed syllable before the final iamb “the Fifth.”  The line ends with a stress on “Fifth”… but it ends early, with only nine syllables.  It’s as if Henry thinks the name alone will end the argument.  I’d go so far as to say that because of the shortened line, the actor should pause after “Fifth.”  Wait for the others to bow down to the name, and when they don’t, then sheepishly retreat into the thumpingly regular iambic pentameter of the final two lines.

In Act One, Scene Three, when Clifford has captured Rutland and prepares to kill the boy, we get this exchange:

O, let me pray before I take my death!
To thee I pray; sweet Clifford, pity me!

— I.iii.35-37

Obviously, Clifford’s line is short.  Rutland’s response line is a full iambic pentameter, so this is not a case of an antilabe, or shared line.  That makes for a long pause… what should happen in that pause.  I would argue that in that pause, Rutland should kneel to begin his prayer.  What’s interesting here is that in the Pelican text, the stage direction “Kneeling” comes BETWEEN Rutland’s two lines.  But a look at the meter makes me think that action should take place a line earlier in what we see as a composed pause.

In Act Two, Scene Two, when the two armies have massed for a pre-battle parley and smack-talk:

I am his king, and he should bow his knee;
I was adopted heir by his consent:
Since when, his oath is broke; for, as I hear,
You, that are king, though he do wear the crown,
Have caused him, by new act of parliament,
To blot out me, and put his own son in.
And reason too:
Who should succeed the father but the son?
Are you there, butcher? O, I cannot speak!

— II.ii.87-94

Again, we get a short line by Clifford, but this time he follows it up himself.  He pauses for himself.  Why?  Let’s look at Richard’s response: “Are you there, butcher? O, I cannot speak!”  His appearance is sudden, and it is enough of a surprise to Richard that the crookback is speechless.  I would argue that the pause is to give Clifford time to step out of the mass of Lancastrian soldiers and reveal himself to the Yorkists before his delivery of the second line.  This revelation would then logically prompt Richard’s response.

In Act Four, Scene One, upon Edward’s hasty marriage to Lady Grey, George Duke of Clarence is upset:

My lords, forbear this talk; here comes the king.
And his well-chosen bride.
I mind to tell him plainly what I think.

— IV.i.6-8

Richard knows of George’s dissatisfaction, so when Somerset announces the arrival of Edward, Richard kicks off his response with the trochee “And his”… The “and” is a reminder to George that it’s not just their brother anymore, it’s their brother AND his bride.  Richard’s line then ends short, just two poetic feet, lingering in the air, waiting for Clarence to complete it.  He doesn’t, but the pause is enough for George to decide to “tell (Edward) plainly” of his dissatisfaction.

Later in the scene, Edward asks for their opinion,

Setting your scorns and your mislike aside,
Tell me some reason why the Lady Grey
Should not become my wife and England's queen.
And you too, Somerset and Montague,
Speak freely what you think.

Then this is mine opinion: that King Louis
Becomes your enemy, for mocking him
About the marriage of the Lady Bonne.

— IV.i.23-30

Edward, like his brother, ends his line short (three poetic feet).  This pause again prompts George to speak his mind.  George simply won’t speak on his own; he needs prompting.  We see this through scansion: the meter helps delineate his character.

In Act Five, Scene Five, after the York brothers kill Prince Edward, Margaret cries out,

O, kill me too!

Marry, and shall.

Hold, Richard, hold; for we have done too much.

— V.v.41-42

Here, we finally get the antilabe that many of our earlier examples seem to be calling for:

~   /    /  /
O, kill me too!

              /  ~   /    ~
              Marry, and shall.

Margaret’s first half of the line is two poetic feet (iamb followed by spondee).  There is, I would argue, no pause before Richard’s half-line as he jumps at the notion of putting knife to her as well; his two poetic feet are a trochee and an iamb… and notice here how the chaos of the moment is reflected in the non-regular iambic nature of the line).  But together, their antilabe adds to only four feet, not the regular line length of five.  HERE is where I think we get the pause. Richard says he shall kill her; Edward tells him to stop.  In that pause, Richard must start to (at least try to) kill her.  In the Pelican text, we actually get a stage direction in that spot (“[He offers to kill her]”), but by looking at the verse, we don’t need the stage direction.  The meter tells us what to do, and when.

Finally, in Act Five, Scene Six, we have another instance of an extant stage direction, but not where it should be.  In Henry’s cell in the Tower, the deposed king talks to Richard, claiming he knows that the crookback has come to execute him:
And, if the rest be true which I have heard,

Thou camest--

I'll hear no more: die, prophet in thy speech:

— V.vi.56-57

We get the short line at the end of Henry’s speech, followed by Richard’s full line calling for the deposed Henry to die.  Here, the stabbing (which in the Pelican text appears as a stage direction AFTER line 57–after Richard says, “speech”) should happen BEFORE Richard speaks, cutting off (pun absolutely intended) Henry’s speech and his life.

So what have we learned today, kiddies?  Pauses in the text can direct a director and an actor to actions.  There’s something in the nothings.

and sometimes there’s nothing in the something we see as stage directions

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