Updated: Apr 20
When you apply to drama school, your classical selections typically need to be in verse in order to demonstrate your ability with heightened language. So what is verse? And how can scansion help you, the actor?
Verse is essentially poetry: language arranged with a metrical structure or rhythm. This is in contrast to prose, language in ordinary form.
While Shakespeare’s plays are largely written in verse, prose is also used by certain characters and in certain instances. The mechanicals, for example, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream mostly speak in prose, which reflects their lower (bumbling) status. However, Othello in Othello, who typically speaks in verse and has high status, also uses prose on occasion. In 4.1, shortly before his epileptic fit and also later when he’s spying on Cassio and Bianca, Othello breaks into ordinary language—a reflection of his mental deterioration over the course of the play.
Clearly, knowing when a character is speaking in verse or prose is important, as it gives the actor clues about social status, education, relationship, and even emotional state of being. So how do you identify verse?
Shakespeare is written in iambic pentameter. An iamb simply consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. And pentameter means that there are 5 (penta) iambs per line. Therefore, in every regular line of iambic pentameter, there are 10 syllables, 5 unstressed and 5 stressed, with an alternating metrical structure. Check out the diagram below for an example!
The diacritics for unstressed ˘ and stressed / show you the rhythm of the line, like this: ba bum, ba bum, ba bum, ba bum, ba bum. And the vertical lines | separate each iamb or foot. This is called scanning the text!
BUT WHO CARES?! You’re an actor, not an English major. So why do you need to know this? Well, have you ever heard someone say, “Shakespeare gives you everything in the text”? It’s true! And here’s what they meant.
By knowing what words are stressed and unstressed, you can decipher the operative word(s) in each thought. This is crucial to understanding what you, the actor, are doing. Shakespeare says it best, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” By knowing what word is operative, it helps you choose actions that are appropriate to the character’s intention.
Furthermore, not every line of verse is regular. Sometimes a line may contain too many or not enough syllables, or not follow the iambic rhythm at all! Often, these irregularities—such as trochees, feminine endings, missing or extra feet—also point to some kind of importance. But if you haven’t scanned the text, you’ll miss Shakespeare’s clue!
For example, the well-known line from Hamlet: To be or not to be that is the question. If you scan the line, you’ll find an extra unstressed syllable in the final foot: “the question.”
This is called a feminine ending. Often, they indicate that a character is uncertain or questioning something.
In fact, Hamlet’s first four lines of this soliloquy are all feminine endings, which makes sense, considering his state of being at this point in the play. Regardless whether you interpret that as suicidal or homicidal toward Claudius, it’s clear that Shakespeare has disrupted the regular rhythm of Hamlet’s language to reflect some kind of internal struggle for him.
Here’s another example of irregularity: When a verse line has fewer than 5 iambs (or 10 syllables) and both follows and precedes regular verse lines, then the line in question is missing feet. In other words, if you’re scanning a soliloquy, and suddenly, one of the verse lines is way too short, often this is an indication of an omission.
So why is this important? Unlike modern playwriting, Shakespeare didn’t use stage directions.
Missing feet are a way to convey a pause or some kind of physical action that occurs during those beats of silence.
WARNING: not all short lines are missing feet. Some fragments are actually part of shared lines between two or more characters that, when added together, make up a regular verse line. Let’s look at an example from Othello that contains both a shared line and a verse line with missing feet.
In this example, Iago’s first verse line is a feminine ending (or 11 syllables). The following two lines are an instance of a shared line: Iago’s “Know of your love” and Othello’s “He did, from first to last”. When those two fragments are scanned together, they complete one regular verse line (10 syllables).
Othello’s next line, however, “Why dost thou ask?” is missing feet. We know this because “Why dost thou ask?” has only 2 iambs (or 4 syllables), and Iago’s line immediately following is regular (or 10 syllables). Therefore, Shakespeare has written a pause 3 iambs in length after Othello’s question. But if the actor playing Iago hasn’t scanned the text, he'll miss it!
This is the first scene in which Iago plants suspicion of infidelity in Othello’s mind. When Othello asks why Iago inquires about Cassio, Iago pauses…and then responds with "No reason really," which makes his response even more suspicious. In essence, Iago is leading Othello on. And in fact, Iago pauses a number of times in the scene, causing Othello to exclaim: “Therefore these stops [pauses] of thine fright me the more.” Shakespeare has built into his text how Iago goes about manipulating and deceiving Othello, but it can only be uncovered if you’ve scanned the verse.
Ultimately, I’m a proponent of scansion. While it may sometimes feel academic, and the irregularities can prove difficult at times, the actor can unearth important directions in Shakespeare’s writing. He tells you exactly how to act his text in his text!
By John R. Colley
John is a graduate of the MFA Yale School of Drama (Class of 2019) and CEO at How To Get Into Drama School. @johnrcolley