Measure for Measure: Scansion-hidden acting/directing clues

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in poetry; in the case of Measure for Measure, nearly 60% of the lines are in verse. When the verse is metrical, and mostly, we’re talking about blank verse–unrhymed iambic pentameter–then variations from that regularity can often point out something to help us as actors and directors. And as I do with every play, let’s take a look at acting direction we get from the scansion.

In most cases, the clues we get are in two forms: pauses and interrupts.

In pauses, we get lines shorter than the iambic pentameter’s ten syllables, either by shortened lines within a speech, or a line shared by two (or more) speakers that when combined are still too short for a regular blank verse line.

The first major pause comes just 42 lines into the play. In the midst of his speech, deputizing Angelo as his substitute, the duke has a single line that is just three (heavily-stressed) feet long: “Hold, therefore, Angelo:” (I.i.42). This short line can serve either (or both) of two purposes: allow the duke some time to ruminate over his decision before announcing it, or the pause can act as an aural “focus” for the audience, causing them to lean in on the deputizing to follow.

In the scene at the cloister when Lucio is trying to convince Isabella to plead Claudio’s case, Isabella’s labeling of Juliet as her cousin prompts Lucio to say the very short line, “Is she your cousin?” (I.iv.46). Again this can be played two ways: either with the pause before it, as Lucio tries to wrap his head around the concept (especially if Juliet has been portrayed as a brothel-worker), or with the pause following it, as Isabella attempts to phrase her response most appropriately (and this, too, could be if Juliet’s chosen profession is the moral polar opposite from Isabella’s). At the end of the same scene, as Isabella agrees to speak with Angelo but Lucio prompts her to do so “speedily” (I.iv.84), she says, “I will about it straight, // No longer staying but to give the mother // Notice of my affair” (I.iv.85-7). The pause at the end of the line is interesting: the line begins quickly, speedily, but then there is a pause at the end of the line. Is she having second doubts? Does she feel put out by the request?

In the first scene between Isabella and Angelo, she tells Angelo:

 Well believe this,
No ceremony that to great ones ‘longs,
Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe
Become them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does.
If he had been as you, and you as he,
You would have slipped like him; but he, like you,
Would not have been so stern.
  • II.ii.58-66

As I mentioned when discussing Isabella’s righteousness, there are a couple of things of note here. She front-loads that speech with five human examples, all of which apply to Angelo (“great one,” “king” [he is the ruler now], “the deputed” [as the duke’s deputy] “marshal” [bringing law], and “judge” [obviously]), but she appeals not to the power of his position but to the divine “grace” of mercy. And with that point, she pauses; it’s a short poetic line. It’s as if she wants Angelo to respond, but when he doesn’t, she drives forward, moving beyond generalities and straight into specifics, linking Angelo to her brother. Her brother would have been merciful, she argues; thus, Angelo should be the same in return. It’s the moral thing to do.

In this scene, as well as the second scene between Isabella and Angelo–Act Two, Scene Four–there are a number of pauses in their conversational duet. All of the latter scene’s appear between speeches, allowing for an awkward back-and-forth: she’s unsure of where this is going; he’s unsure as to how to proposition her.

When Isabella breaks the news to Claudio, he attempts to subtly convince her that the sin a little one, ending with the three-foot line, “To what we fear of death” (III.i.131). Her line (completed by Claudio’s antilabe) is the short “Alas, alas” (III.i.132), but the pause between, this is the moment that she realizes what it is that he is asking her to do. That “alas” carries two different meanings, both of which apply here: disappointment and dismay (“alas, int. and n.; A.1 and 2, respectively” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 10 November 2015.).

In the final scene, when the duke asks Angelo if he had been contracted to Mariana in marriage, between the question, and the duke’s speech that follows, is the two-foot response by Angelo, “I was, my lord” (V.i.374). Here, the line is so short that the pause can come both before (as Angelo pauses before his admission, a silent “gulp”), AND after, as the duke measures his words carefully. Later, in the scene, in the midst of her final speech, the one in which she begs for mercy for Angelo, Isabella, has a long pause after “For Angelo” (V.i.448). So much must be going through her head. It only makes sense for her to pause in an effort to make sense of it all.

On the opposite end of the scansion spectrum are those instances where two characters share a line, but the line is too long to be appropriately metrical. In these cases, it’s obvious that some kind of interruption must take place.

When the duke is in Friar Thomas’ cell, explaining why the duke needs a friar’s disguise, we get the following transitions between speeches:


The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
/ / ~ / ~

Goes all decorum.
Friar Thomas
~ / ~ / / /

 It rested in your Grace
To unloose this tied-up justice when you pleased;
And it in you more dreadful would have seemed
~ / / / ~ /

Than in Lord Angelo.
/ ~ / / / ~

 I do fear, too, dreadful.
  • I.iii.30-5

In both cases, each interrupts the other. In the first, the friar, taking righteous superiority, interrupts the duke (but just slightly, the overlap is but a syllable), and in the second, the duke uses his social rank to allow for his interruption of the friar (much more of an interruption; it’s interesting here that though he interrupts the friar there is the implication of agreement, in the homophone of “I”–”aye”).

This kind of social rank interruption is seen when the provost announces the arrival of Isabella to Angelo:

Ay, my good lord, a very virtuous maid,
And to be shortly of a sisterhood,
/ / ~ / ~

If not already.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~

 Well, let her be admitted.
  • II.ii.20-2

Angelo, the superior, easily interrupts his subordinate.

What happens when Angelo meets Isabella, though, is fascinating. He begins by interrupting her short lines:

I am a woeful suitor to your Honor,
/ / ~ / ~ / ~

Please but your Honor hear me.
/ / ~ /

 Well, what’s your suit?
  • II.ii.28-9

But then later completes her lines without interruption:

For which I must not plead, but that I am
~ / ~ / ~ / /

At war ’twixt will and will not.
/ ~ / ~

 Well, the matter?
  • II.ii.32-3

He no longer lords his position over her. He’s not ready to grant her anything, but he is now willing to listen, as he continues to do:

/ / / /

Must he needs die?
/ ~ ~ / ~ /

 Maiden, no remedy.
  • II.ii.48

As the scene comes to a close, however, Angelo interrupts her again, but now for a completely different reason:

From fasting maids whose minds are dedicate
~ / ~ / -~-

To nothing temporal.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~

 Well, come to me tomorrow.
  • II.ii.154-5

Angelo interrupts her again, but now it’s got nothing to do with their relative social rank; it has everything to do with the fact that he now wants to see her again. He cannot wait either to see her or to even let her finish.

By end of the play, however, their moral ranks–if not their social ranks–have changed:

She hath been a suitor to me for her brother
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~

Cut off by course of justice.
~ / ~ / ~

 By course of justice!
  • V.i.35-6

She is morally superior and can interrupt Angelo with impunity.

I love to find this sort of acting/directorial clues in the scansion…

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