Scansion: An Introduction to Breaking Down Shakespeare's Text

Updated: Apr 6, 2020


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 from the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. 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 repetitive structuring of words in a line that gives the line a continuous 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 its 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. A foot is a building block of the meter. The iamb is a type of foot that contains two syllables. There are five iambs in a pentameter, thus Iambic Penta meter.

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, the rhythm will follow an "unstressed, stressed" pattern.

A regular iambic pentameter line reads as follows:

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

The reason it's in this pattern is because it 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 one of my favorite lines in the English language!

Having this structure in place creates a regularity to the sounds and rhythm in the subconscious ear of the audience and makes 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.

This process of scanning the lines for changes in the pattern is called Scansion.

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:

-feminine ending