Yesterday, I talked a little about mining the text for acting clues in the scansion of the verse lines in All’s Well That Ends Well. Today, I want to shift gears just a little, and take a look the clues we get not from the rhythm of the lines but the rhymes at the ends of the lines and (sometimes) the breaks within them.
While we see a string of rhyming couplets in Helena’s soliloquy at the end of Act One, Scene One (after Parolles leaves her), the first interesting bit of rhyme comes two scenes later after the countess has learned of the girl’s feelings for Bertram, with the countess commenting upon Helena as she enters. Instead of a series of rhyming couplets, we first get an A-B-A-B quatrain followed by two couplets:
If ever we are nature’s, these are ours. This thorn
Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong.
Our blood to us, this to our blood is born.
It is the show and seal of nature’s truth,
Where love’s strong passion is impressed in youth.
By our remembrances of days foregone,
Such were our faults, or then we thought them none.
We’ve discussed in the past the rationale for rhyming:
- singling out an entire body or block of content
- singling out a couplet of content (for emphasis, particularly at the end of a speech)
- content from outside the play itself–poems, songs, even entire plays that are performed within the context of the scene
- portrayal of other worldly-entities
And in this case, I think we’re dealing with the first reason. Verse is, in and of itself, heightened language, and while couplets would set this this block apart from the rest, the more complex rhyme scheme makes it special. This speech connects the countess and Helena, not just (surrogate) mother (-in-law in the future) and daughter, but as women. Its special content needs a kind of special analogue in form.
We’ve also discussed the concept of how rhyming can be used as an “answering” device, showing how one character can answer or “top” another in response. A great example of this is Helena’s first conversation with the King of France, as she attempts to convince him to allow her to try her cure on him. As she begins her argument, we get speech-ending couplets from both characters. Then, as the king tells her that it’s of no use, they begin to speak exclusively in couplets. Then he attempts to end the argument:
Thy pains, not used, must by thyself be paid.
Proffers not took reap thanks for their reward.
She responds, “Inspirèd merit so by breath is barred” (II.i.149); not only does she complete his couplet in form (reward [pronounced more like “re-warred” in Shakespeare’s day] | barred), but she answers the content and beats his argument. When she finishes her speech, it is with a couplet (sure | cure), so there’s nothing for the king to refute. When he does attempt to challenge her by saying,
Hop’st thou my cure?
She answers his question, beginning her responding speech (“The greatest grace lending grace” [II.i.161]) not only by finishing his rhyme (space | grace), but by completing his poetic half-line in an antilabe, as well. Again, she counters and bests his argument. At the end of her speech, she uses another un-toppable couplet (fly | die). When the king then tries to not only challenge her confidence, but also demand an answer,
What dar’st thou venture?
she again completes the rhyme, line and antilabe with the beginning to her responding speech, “Tax of impudence” (II.i.171). Every response of hers counters his statements.
Their argument continues, but she wears him down, convincing him to let her try. Again, she ends her speech with a couplet (extended | ended). Then–as if learning from her–the king ends his response with couplet (try | die); I can only imagine this is in hopes of getting in the last word. No such luck, though, as she begins her next speech with a couplet that rhymes with his as if she’s still answering him (property | die):
Of what I spoke, unpitied let me die,
And well deserved. Not helping, death’s my fee.
But if I help, what do you promise me?
Make thy demand.
But will you make it even?
Ay, by my scepter and my hopes of heaven.
Something fascinating happens here at the end of the sequence. She ends her major speech with a couplet (fee | me). The king responds with a half-line. And while Helena completes the antilabe with “even,” it is with a single line, just hanging there. And the king takes advantage, answering and topping her rhyme for the first time with “heaven.” His power is returning, and he is able to answer her. It’s as if her cure is already working.
This kind of rhyming responsive completion continues in Act Two, Scene Three, only this time we add Bertram to the rhyming partners. When Helena speaks to her prospective suitors, she does so in rhyming couplets. This continues as she turns her attention to Bertram (give | live), but then she ends her speech with the unrhymed “This is the man” (II.iii.103). The king’s response, “Why then, young Bertram, take her; she’s thy wife” (II.iii.104), comes not in a sound rhyme answer, but a content answer: man | wife.
Bertram’s response ends with the half-line “The help of mine own eyes” which the king completes into an antilabe with “Know’st thou not, Bertram” (both II.iii.107). It’s interesting that Bertram’s last word is “eyes,” a near-homophone of his own personal pronoun, while the last word of the king’s line is the antecedent of that “Bertram.” This is immediately followed by the king ending his speech with the half-line “What she has done for me?” which Bertram turns into an antilabe with “Yes, my good lord” (both II.iii.108). Still no rhyme, but another antilabe; only in this case, Bertram matches the king’s “me” with the count’s addressing of the king, “my good lord.” Each answers the other in a confrontation with no rhyming resolution. It’s a standoff.
In fact, rhymes don’t return in this scene until the king begins his long, reasoned (literally) speech in which he outlines why Bertram should take Helena as his bride; after five unrhymed lines, one couplet, and then a single-line outlier, he then concludes the speech with ten straight couplets. The speech ends with a couplet (she | me) that incorporates the other two parties in this standoff, allowing Bertram a wide berth for his response, which the king must assume will be conciliatory and fully-formed (i.e. in couplets of his own). It is not; rather it’s a single defiant line: “I cannot love her, nor will strive to do’t” (II.iii.144).
Whatever momentum generated by the king’s couplets is killed, and we don’t get another couplet–a poetic marriage of two lines–until the ending of the king’s speech, nearly forty lines later, as he ushers the pair off to their wedding after Bertram’s forced consent.
So there we have two great examples of how the rhyming form can support verbal and motivational function. But at the beginning of this entry, I promised not just rhyme, but pauses, too. And thus,
wait for it
here are two (quick) examples of that, as well (with no further ado…or pauses).
In Act Four, Scene Two, as Bertram tries to seduce Diana, we get sixteen changes of speaker before Bertram gives up his ring; of those sixteen, over half (nine) take the form of antilabes. It’s an oral and aural fencing match. And when he does give her the ring, that speech, too, ends with a half-line, “And I’ll be bid by thee” (IV.ii.53), a three-foot line, ready for a two-foot response to an antilabe.
Only we don’t get it. Diana’s response is a full line, and one that kicks off a thirteen-line speech. So what goes on in that pause? Is she seduced by the French lord’s proposal? Is she taken aback by his actions, predicted by her mother “as if she sat in’s heart” (IV.ii.70). Or is this a moment to gather her strength before she launches into a speech that will make her an accomplice to the Bed Trick? Maybe a mixture of all three… I’d love to see an actress pull that off!
The last example, too, raises some questions. In the final scene, as Bertram’s possible marriage to Lafew’s daughter is presented to the count, the king’s question ends with the half-line “The daughter of this lord” (V.iii.43), seemingly ready-made for an antilabe completion. But not only is this not in the offing, but even Bertram’s first line is incomplete: “Admiringly, my liege. At first” (V.iii.44), a four-foot line. A long pause before Bertram speaks, and another as he starts his response (with a stop). Does the first pause demonstrate a kind of wariness borne from the last time the king offered him a wife? Is the second pause a kind of aural “gulp” before he launches into his first lie of many in this final scene–that is, if you don’t believe his story of loving Maudlin before his marriage to Helena; if you do believe the story, then is this a “gulp” before making his revelation? We don’t know for certain, but that pause should give the actor pause.
Rhymes and metrical pauses. Again, more tools for the actor’s toolbox.