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Scansion: An Introduction to Breaking Down Shakespeare's Text

Updated: Mar 1



Shakespeare.


Incredible storyteller.


Arguably the best playwright of all time.


Yada yada yada....


But man, he's hard to understand!


If you're a young actor and who's looking at auditioning for top drama schools, you've GOT to get a good handle on your Shakespeare monologues.


Scansion will help you!

A guest teacher named Gary Logan (now a faculty member at top school Carnegie Mellon) came to my high school for a week-long Shakespeare workshop and taught us everything an actor needs to know about scansion and analyzing the bard. It was so helpful!



I would personally recommend that "person-to-person" learning as you go deeper because there is no authoritative work on scansion, and an actor needs tangible feedback as they learn this type of stuff.


SO...this post is a great way to get a solid foundation on scansion as you work your Shakespeare pieces and understand more fully what the text is offering you!


You need to be aware of these concepts and if you've never heard of the term "scansion", you're in the right spot.


This post will get you started on the right foot when it comes to breaking down Shakespeare's text!!



First, make sure you know the difference between 'Prose' and 'Verse'


Shakespeare primarily wrote in one of two styles. Prose and verse.


Prose is the way people speak when not speaking verse.


Verse is classified as “heightened” speech. Prose is “plain” speech, in so much as anything Shakespeare wrote could be described as “plain”.


Notice how they look different on the page?



Prose looks like "blocks" of text. Verse does not.


Verse is written in meter. Meter is a structuring of words in a line that gives the line a rhythm. There are many types of verse. Shakespeare's verse of choice is "Iambic Pentameter".



Iambic Pentameter


It looks big and scary but its really small and fluffy. Let’s start with the 2nd word. It should look familiar.


PENTAMETER- This word breaks down into two words; Penta and Meter. We should recognize ‘meter’ already, as we are talking about ‘verse’, which is a “heightened’ speech, written in ‘meter’. So this word, pentameter, is a meter, made up of five parts. How do we know it's made of five parts? Because the first part of the word, PENTA-, is the Greek word for five. So a pentameter is a meter made up of five parts.


The 1st word.

IAMB- A metrical foot that contains 2 syllables in the line. Iambs are the building blocks of the line. There are five iambs in a pentameter (10 syllables total in each line).


Thus...Iambic Pentameter.


Iambic Pentameter has a distinct rhythm, and you should not only be able to identify it on the page, but you should be sensitive to it when you're speaking the language.

If you look at each syllable in a verse line, the rhythm will follow an "unstressed, stressed" pattern.


The unstressed syllables can be marked with a "u" and the stressed syllables can be marked with a "/"


A regular iambic pentameter line reads as follows:



That's the pattern. Unstressed (u), stressed (/).


Can you feel it?


Shakespeare chose this kind of verse because it most closely mirrors how we actually speak!


You'd be surprised at how much you speak in iambic pentameter. For example...


"I think I'll take another cookie please."


That's an iambic pentameter line, and one that I use often!

This whole process of scanning the lines and the patterns within them is called Scansion.


Regular lines create a regularity to the rhythm in the subconscious ear of the audience and make irregularities more impactful when an actor identifies and uses them.



Scanning for Irregularities in the verse


In order to stay as true to the intention of the line as possible and to maintain the natural rhythms of the play, actors search for irregularities in the verse.


These offer clues to changes in the scene and even changes in the character.


Although scansion of lines is pretty much agreed upon, the actor always has the last say as to how the line is said.


It is your job to learn all of the different ways in which a verse line can be irregular. That way, you can see everything the text is offering and make interesting choices that tell the best story BASED ON THE TEXT!


Here are just some irregularities in the verse:

-feminine ending

-trochee

-monosyllabic

-abutting consonants

-and many more



Where to go from here?


As I said, I learned Shakespeare from Gary Logan, an experienced mentor on the subject, and you can get training directly from him as well!

Gary leads our Shakespeare online course which is the best option to help you perform Shakespeare confidently, quickly!


Remember, if you're not really putting it into practice and getting feedback, you're not really learning scansion as an actor, you're learning it as an academic, and that's not going to serve you as much on stage.


I can be a mentor for you, but it's on you to get the conversation started! Email me at anthony@howtogetintodramaschool.com with a question you have about this post or Shakespeare, in general.


Each individual actor will have a different interpretation of how different lines scan. This is based on: A) the actors interpretation of the character’s arc and B) what the director and cast have agreed on story wise that supports one interpretation of a line of text over another.


In the end, scansion is not the LAW. It serves as guide. A tool. If it is ever confusing, always go back to your instincts based on the words you understand and the choices you are making.


Scansion is a powerful tool for unlocking classical text. Understanding everything about scansion in a blog post is like unboxing a powerful telescope and automatically having a good grasp on just how powerful it is.


Understanding such a powerful tool takes time, consistency, undying curiosity and knowledgeable mentorship.


The goal of this post was to help you understand where scansion comes from, why it's important and hopefully stoke your curiosity enough to go study it on your own and apply it to your work!


You may not be able to read the stars yet, but you can definitely have a close look at the moon. For that, you just need to understand the basics.



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