Scansion for Clues: Hitting Pause on Hamlet

With every play, just as I like to take a look at the stage directions hidden in the dialogue, I think it’s also a good idea to take a look at how verse can give an actor some performance clues. And so we go with Hamlet.

As I read the play, what I noticed immediately was a large number of short verse lines, ones that would necessitate long pauses. For example, within the first dozen lines of the play, Francisco, one of the sentries, says, “For this relief much thanks. ‘Tis bitter cold, // And I am sick at heart” (I.i.8-9). The second of the two lines ends abruptly, after just three of the five expected iambic feet. Barnardo’s response begins its own verse line, so the clue is for there to be a pause between the two speeches. Is Barnardo waiting for Francisco to explain himself and lacking that explanation goes on himself? Does Francisco get distracted (or afraid)? Less than two dozen lines after that, we get another shortened verse line. When Horatio asks if the Ghost has appeared, Barnardo answers, “I have seen nothing” (I.i.22). Does Barnardo expect a response from Horatio? Does Horatio expect more reportage from Barnardo? Regardless, it’s another stilted moment, in a scene full of them. By my rough count, there are eight such pauses in the first scene alone. This start-stop rhythm helps to set the tone of unease that kick-starts the play.

The next speech of metric interest for me is when in Act One, Scene Two, Claudius turns his attention to Hamlet and his mourning. The first sentence of his 30+ line speech lasts five and a half lines, ending with “To do obsequious sorrow” and beginning the second sentence with “But to persever” (I.ii.92). The meter here is of note:

~ / ~ / -~- / ~ || / ~ ~ / ~

To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever

The first sentence ends with three iambic feet (the third unstressed syllable of which is the elided “quis” [rather than “quee-us”], followed by what would seem to be the first syllable of the next (fourth) iambic foot, with the second syllable of “sorrow.” We would expect the next syllable to be stressed, to complete that iambic foot, and the next syllable (“But”) is stressed… but it’s not the second half of an iamb but rather the first syllable of a trochee foot (“But to”). So what we have here is a caesura or pause between the sentences. What’s created here is not only a long line (it’s really six feet long, as are two of the five lines that precede it), but one with a feminine ending, an extra unstressed syllable at its end. It’s as if Claudius has too much he wants to say to Hamlet to fit in a typical iambic pentameter line, but he also needs to pause before launching into his next sentence, because his tone shifts here from being supportive (Hamlet is “sweet and commendable” [I.ii.87] in the first line of the speech) to being more accusatory (Hamlet’s about to be called “obstinate” [I.ii.93]).

This next sentence lasts two full lines over the course of three verse lines:

~ / ~ / -~- / ~ || / ~ ~ / ~

To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

In obstinate condolement is a course
~ / -~- / ~ / || / ~ / ~ /

Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.
  • I.ii.92-4

Again, we get three iambic feet in the first half of the line (including again an elided syllable), followed by a caesura, and the second half of an iamb followed by two full iambs to end the line. Once again, a longer than pentameter line. Again, a caesura before another ratcheting up of Claudius’ rhetoric. Claudius, it’s obvious, wants to make a point, but his longer than typical lines and pauses show that he’s at least attempting to appear to be diplomatic about it.

The next metric anomaly that I find interesting is in Act Two, Scene Two, when Claudius and Gertrude are greeting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and giving the courtiers directions. Gertrude ends her speech with “Your visitation shall receive such thanks // As fits a king’s remembrance” and Rosencrantz’s speech begins with an antilabe, a finishing of her poetic line, “Both your majesties…” (II.ii.25-6). Only the line doesn’t scan as regular iambic pentameter

~ / ~ / ~ / ~

As fits a king’s remembrance
/ ~ / ~ /

Both your majesties

If it is to be a regular iambic pentameter line, the actor playing Rosencrantz would need to jump his cue and interrupt the preceding line. But would a courtier interrupt a queen? No. So the clue here is for a long pause. Is Rosencrantz taken aback by this offer of payment for doing a simple act of “good will” (II.ii.22)? It certainly could be played that way.

Later in that same scene, as Polonius prepares to tell the king and queen of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, he gives a long winded introduction then a single word line, “Perpend” (II.ii.105), followed by pentameter line. “Perpend” means to consider. Then he has a long pause. We’re ready for a statement of monumental importance, but he follows this up with “I have a daughter” (II.ii.106), which is decidedly not monumental. While not of grave importance (or maybe because of it), the “perpend” introduction makes this line a built-in joke.

Still later in this scene, when Hamlet soliloquizes after the arrival of the players, he interrupts his own speech with three separate short line/pauses, and each marks a turning point in the thought process of the prince. In the first section of the speech, he speaks of wonder at how the First Player is able to bring up emotion for his speech “for Hecuba!” (II.ii.496). This concludes the first portion of the soliloquy, and the long pause that follows allows Hamlet to make the connection between the Player and his emotion for a fiction, and his own very real situation. At the end of this section, we get another short line, “Yet I” (II.ii.505), which after its pause begins the next portion of the speech where Hamlet derides himself for his lack of action. This third section concludes with a full line ending “About, my brains” (II.ii.526), as he prompts himself to change his thinking. And he does change his train of thought. The next line is the single sound (it’s not even a word), “Hum – “ (II.ii.527). You can almost hear the wheels turning in his mind. When he speaks next, it’s with a sense of revelation: he now has a plan, and “the play’s the thing” (II.ii.543).

There’s some interesting metrical stuff happening in “the speech” (the “To be or not to be” soliloquy), but as I’m going to cover that in a separate blog entry (how could I not spend three months on Hamlet without giving that particular dog a walk around the park?), let’s skip it for today.

When a post-Mousetrap Claudius delivers his first soliloquy, he has a wonderful use of caesura three lines in. . . just as he’s confessing his crime:

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /–

O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
~ / ~ / ~ || / ~ ~ /

A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Though inclination be as sharp as will.
  • III.iii.36-39

Three of the four lines are fairly regular iambic pentameter (though it may be argued the first line kicks off with the double-stress of a spondee). But look at that third line. It starts off iambic, two and a half feet of it to end the sentence, then the next sentence begins with two non-iambic feet (could be a trochee followed by an iamb, might even be two spondees). Regardless, there’s a built-in pause in the line. The caesura compels the actor playing Claudius to pause, and this lets the audience allow for the confession to sink in.

A few entries back, I discussed the speech in which Gertrude delivers the account of Ophelia’s death. Here, even a cursory scan of the meter reveals a tormented speaker:

/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

There is a willow grows askant the brook
~ / ~ / / ~ ~ / ~ /

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
~ / -/- / ~ / ~ / / / ~

Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
~ / -~- / ~ / ~ / ~ /

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
~ / / / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / -~- /

There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
/ ~ ~ / ~ / -~- / ~ /

Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

When down her weedy trophies and herself
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
~ / / / ~ / ~ / ~ /

And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
~ / ~ / ~ /||/ ~ / ~ /

As one incapable of her own distress
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Or like a creature native and endued
/ ~ ~ / ~ / / / ~ / ~ /

Unto that element. But long it could not be
/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
/ ~ / / / ~ ~ / -~- /

Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
~ / ~ /

To muddy death.
  • IV.vii.164-81

I would argue that there are only two lines out of the 18-line speech that are purely iambic pentameter; all others have either an elision, a feminine ending, and/or some combination of trochee and spondee feet. Since the exceptions are always more fun to discuss, let’s stick with those here. And here, I’m maintaining my position from earlier that Gertrude herself witnessed the event, possibly even assisting Ophelia in her quasi-suicide.

The first line in the speech that seems even close to iambic pentameter is the fifth line, “That liberal shepherds give a grosser name.” “Liberal” is elided to become “lib’ral” and this puts focus on the word, which in this context means “unrestrained by prudence” (“liberal, adj. ; 3.a.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 21 May 2015. Imprudence. One could argue that it was imprudence that led to her sexual relations with Hamlet, her pregnancy, the attempted chemical abortion, and finally the desperation that brings her here.

The next line that is purely iambic is the ninth line “When down her weedy trophies and herself.” Of course, this line references Ophelia’s “weedy trophies” or flowers, and as I argued before, I believe Ophelia was sending a coded message to Gertrude by choice of flower. It was those “weedy trophies” that brought Gertrude to this scene.

The next line of note is line thirteen: “As one incapable of her own distress.” Here, it’s he forced, non-punctuated caesura that takes place mid-line which is of interest. There’s no way to go from the three regular iambic feet of “As one incapable” to the five syllables of alternating stresses and non-stresses (“of her own distress”), without either resorting to claiming those final five syllables are two trochees followed by an extra-stressed syllable (if an extra unstressed syllable at the end of a poetic line is “feminine,” would this be a “macho” line ending?), or – more likely – a forced caesura after incapable. And this caesura, much like the one that followed Claudius’ confession earlier, would put focus on that word. If Ophelia was incapable, of what was she incapable? Of making sound choices? And if that’s the case, might that rule out a true suicide, allowing for full religious rites at her funeral?

The very next line is also the last purely iambic line in the speech: “Or like a creature native and endued.” Ophelia is like a creature native to the water. Ophelia is of the water, an element that can symbolize life and life-giving. Ophelia is going home, and Gertrude can say this without any verbal tics or hiccups.

I hope I’m not the only one who finds this kind of scansion and close reading fascinating (as then I will have wasted your time today). I just feel that text exploration of this sort gives the actor and director so many options in approaching the character.

One Reply to “Scansion for Clues: Hitting Pause on Hamlet”

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