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Scansion Guide

The Down and Dirty Guide to Scanning Verse: Some Hints to Help with Sounding Shakespeare's Words

by Kurt Daw


For actors about to speak a few of Shakespeare's lines aloud for the first time the most intimidating thing is rarely the depth of the characterization, or the memorization, or even the unfamiliar language. It is the scansion. Characterization can be debated. Memory can be improved. Odd words can be looked up, often right there on the page in the extensive footnotes. But somehow word has gotten out that there is a non-negotiably right way to scan verse. That way is (I frequently hear) a closely guarded secret and incredibly difficult even for those who are allowed to be initiated into its mysteries. Scansion cannot be finessed!

As an acting teacher I find such rumors cruelly overstated. My purpose in writing this guide is to help anyone facing this task for the first time to learn a few simple principles that will teach them everything they have to know to get started. The good news is that scansion isn't all that hard. I'll admit there are some fine points that can cow even the experts, but (for the actor) most of what needs to be done is quick and easy.

This guide assumes nothing. It is written for beginners. It will give the reader the details needed to get started, and much of what s/he will ever need to know, but it is truly down and dirty. Scholarly reference is kept to a minimum, and technical terminology is usually avoided. There are a few notes at the end that will help those who want to go further to find sources that explore this topic in greater depth. This guide is for those who are bold at heart and short on time.

What Not to Scan

Let us leap in right away. The first thing to know is that much of Shakespeare's writing is not in verse, and there is nothing to scan. Vast portions of his plays are in prose. You can tell prose on the page because the words go all the way to the edge of the line, and the new line does not start with a capital letter. (I told you this guide assumes nothing!) If you look down the left margin of your page and see that every lines begins with a capital then you are seeing verse. You might be surprised, however, (after hearing all your life what a wonderful poet Shakespeare is) how much of the plays are not written in verse form.

Prose doesn't require any special treatment. Just read what is set down for you. It is automatically right.

What Scansion Is

When you encounter parts of the plays that are in verse, then it is time to think about scansion. Scansion is the practice of checking the rhythm of speech written in verse. On a very fundamental level the purpose of writing a speech in verse in the first place is not to be "poetic," but to give it a pulse that makes it easier to speak and easier to hear. The actual sound of lines written in verse can be comprehended more easily by a listener than prose, because in addition to the tones and pitches, rhythmic clues help convey the message. (It is also marginally easier to speak because there are no unintentional tongue twisters as are so common in prose.) Scansion, despite the imposing sound of the word itself, is just the simple practice of checking the verse to be sure you understand its rhythm. (I frequently think that scansion would be less scary if we just called it "checking the rhythm.")

What kind of rhythm do Shakespeare's lines have? They get their pulse by alternating the natural patterns of accented and unaccented words or syllables. Shakespeare tends to arrange these patterns in a form starting with an unaccented syllable and following it with a stressed syllable. A typical line strings together five of these unstressed-STRESSED patterns. Here is an example of a famous line that follows this pattern:

He jests at scars that never felt a wound.
 1   2   3    4    5    6-7   8   9   10

By numbering the syllables of this line from 1 to 10, you'll notice that all the important words (those getting stress) are on even numbers. There is only one two-syllable word in this line, and we always say it the same way, with the accent on the first syllable. I've never heard anyone say "ne-VER" and I'll bet you haven't either. It is placed in the line so that its naturally strong syllable falls on an even number. Notice that you don't have to do anything to make the line follow this pattern. Shakespeare did all the work. If you just read it, it will have the pleasant natural pulse described above.

The technical name for lines that follow this pattern is "iambic pentameter," which is also called "blank verse" if the lines don't rhyme. You'll hear these terms thrown around so much that it is useful to have heard them, but knowing them is not essential to what you have to do.

Most actors in my experience have heard this much, and even know to beat the lines out saying something like,

"de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM!"

In doing so, they often find lines right away that fit this pattern, like:

The quality of mercy is not strained
And live we how we can, yet die we must.

In both these cases "scanning" the lines is just a matter of reading them, noticing the rhythm is exactly what is expected, and giving yourself a little pat on the back for knowing that. You don't make the lines fit the pattern, Shakespeare did that. You just read them. (The second one of these has a natural pause in the middle which we'll want to talk about more later.)


Finding these lines and recognizing them is rewarding and confirming. The first real scansion problem arises from the fact that actors immediately find even more lines that don't fit this pattern. That is because Shakespeare and his contemporaries regularly employed two variations on this pattern to keep it from becoming so rhythmic that it was boring.

At the beginning of a line it is not uncommon to find the first two syllables reversed so that the line has a surprising and vigorous beginning. The pattern them becomes DUM-de de-Dum de-Dum de-Dum de-Dum. Here is a line that employs this variation:

Now is the winter of our discontent
 1   2  3   4-5   6   7    8-9-10

This line, the opening of Richard III, starts with more energy than is usual in the pattern we had previously discussed, but the variation is slight enough to preserve the general feel of the rhythm while giving it a subtle new interest.

Here are a couple more examples:

Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night
Brutus, I do observe you now of late.

In both of these you can hear the strength of the opening. This variation goes by the technical name of "trochaic variation, or trochaic inversion" but even experienced actors tend to shy away from using those names. It is simply thought of as the variation that happens at the beginning of lines. Notice you still don't have to do anything about lines employing this variation. You are not going to say "bru-TUS." If you read the line as you naturally would you find that you have "scanned" it correctly, employing the natural variation.

The second variant form, like the first, requires no special action on the actor's part. It is a variation placed at the end of lines to break the monotony of marching up to a climactic final syllable every time. An extra unstressed syllable is placed at the line end (lengthening it out to eleven syllables) and creating a softened impact. The technical term for this is "feminine ending," but the sheer political incorrectness of that is making it fade from use quickly. It is perhaps best to think of this simply as the variation that happens at the end of lines. Here are a couple of examples of lines employing this variation, using an (E) to mark the final softened syllable:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him
 1  2   3  4-5  6-7     8   9   10   (E)
Her dotage now I do begin to pity.

Lines which employ this variation are very helpful in beating the problem created by every line banging to a halt in exactly the same manner. Rhythm is helpful in creating understanding, but it can become too predictable without subtle variation interspersed throughout.

Combinations and Caesuras

So is that all there is to it? Almost. You should know these two variations can be used in combination. Some lines start with the first variation and conclude with the second, like:

Free from the bondage you are in, Messala.
 1     2   3   4-5     6   7   8  9-10-(E)

One final point needs our consideration. Remember the line from above with the pause in the middle?

And live we how we can, yet die we must.

Pauses of this nature are very common in Shakespearean lines. Like everything else it has a technical name, "caesura," which is a word that turns out to mean "pause." These pauses are important, because both variations can happen around such a pause. That is to say, the extra syllable of the second variation can happen just before such a pause:

And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep
 1   2  3-4-5    6   (E)   7  8    9  10

The first variation can sometimes happen just after the pause. Here is a famous line that employs a combination of a strong beginning just after the caesura, and an extra syllable at line's end. (Note beats 7 & 8 are inverted.)

To be or not to be. That is the question.
 1  2 3   4   5  6   7    8  9   10-(E)

Lines sometimes include variations at both the pause and at the line end:

My father's brother, but no more like my father
 1   2  3     4 (E)   5   6  7     8   9  10(E)

This line actually has twelve syllables, but still meets the qualifications as normal blank verse working within the variations.

Two important points to remember: First, these variations are only employed in two places-- at the line end/beginning, or at the phrase end/beginning on either side of the caesura. They never occur elsewhere in the line. (For that reason there are never more than two examples of each kind of variation in a line.)

Second, they are temporary variations which only affect one small part of the line. In the beginning variation there is a strong syllable followed by a weak one (backward from the normal pattern) but the rest of the line immediately returns to the normal pattern. In the line ending variation there is an extra syllable at the end of the phrase or line, but at the next syllable the line pattern resumes it normal shape.

In all these cases, there is nothing for the actor to do but read the line. Normal pronunciation of the words will yield the pattern the playwright wanted. The verse can be incredibly varied, yet still retain an underlying sense of the pulse so beneficial to the listening audience.

So what is the big deal about scansion? Why does everyone act like it is so hard? You can see from the above that it isn't really difficult, though it might take a bit of practice to learn to recognize lines which employ variations to the regular pattern. To help you, let's create a checklist of what we know so far:

1. Is the line ten beats long, alternating stress and unstress? (That's the normal expectation.)
2. If not, is there a surprisingly strong start, or start to the phrase just after the pause, or both? (Then, it's normal, employing the line start variation.)
3. Is there an extra syllable at the end of the line, at the end of the phrase before the pause, or both? (Then its normal, employing the end of line variation.)

All of these require recognition, but no special action. There are some times that the actor must take some action, however, and we'll turn to those now:

Choice Moments

Throughout Shakespeare there are lines which require some special attention on the part of the actor. These are two usual causes for this need. One is that we often write things down in a way that is slightly more formal than the way we actually speak them. The other is that occasionally things have changed since Shakespeare's time.

In the first case, it is very important to notice that some words look like they have more syllables than they usually do when we speak them. "Interest," for example, looks like a three syllable word. In-ter-est. But in daily use almost everyone pronounces it as a two syllable word. In-trest. Shakespeare writes formally, but assumes you'll pronounce things the way people normally speak. His usual habit is to treat the word in its shortest form. For this reason, speakers feigning a high British accent to class up Shakespeare often get it especially wrong. When counting syllables you'll notice that many words need to be treated a bit disrespectfully. (Just for the record, the technical name for this process is "elision.") Here are a couple of examples:

He hath more worthy interest to the state
1   2     3   4-5      6-7    8   9  10

Try saying this line treating "interest" as a three syllable word, and you'll instantly see the difficulty in speaking it. It is so much smoother when "interest" is elided as is normal in everyday speech.

An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.

Did you find the necessary change? If "being" is treated as a one syllable word it fits perfectly, and such is the way that people usually speak it when they are not trying too hard.

If elisions are formally noted in the text, we call them contractions. "I'd," "He'd," and "you'll" frequently appear in the text in their contracted forms, but sometimes it is left to you to elide the words, as in:

I had rather be a dog and bay the moon

In this line the first two words are intended to contract into "I'd." The rhythm makes that plain. Contractions often occur between two words, and not just words you're used to seeing printed in short form. "The" usually contracts into the next word if it starts with a vowel, for example: "th'interest" or "th'inconstant." Don't be too respectful or you can ruin the pulse. (One word of caution about contractions: a fair number of times the contractions which are marked in the text are wrong. The word or words need to be spoken fully to create the rhythm. There are elaborate theories why this may be so, having to do with printers introducing changes in the text to conserve space or scribes saving time. Don't worry about why, just count the beats. If you are one beat short, it is probably because the contraction is marked incorrectly. A bit later in this essay an example of this is given.)

So lets start a new checklist. Imagine you have encountered a line which isn't iambic pentameter, and which doesn't seem to conform to either of the two usual variations. Step one, then, is to:

1. Look for contractions or elisions.

If the line is too long, and the extra syllable occurs in mid-line rather than at the pause (caesura) there is probably an elision needed. Here are a couple of practice lines. See if you can find the needed corrections:

His noble kinsman - most degenerate king!
She is a virtuous and a reverend lady.

Below are the patterns of these lines in syllable counts. In the first line you can see that "degenerate" needs to contract to "degen'rate." In the second line you may have been temporarily alarmed to find thirteen syllables at first count. If you contract to "virt'chwus" and "rev'rend" you come down by two. The line then reads like a normal line, but also using both the beginning and the line end variations! Thus:

His noble kinsman - most degenerate king!
 1   2-3   4-5       6     7-8-9     10

She is a virtuous and a reverend lady.
 1  2  3   4-5     6 7   8-9   10-(E)

If the line is too short, make a quick check to see if there is an incorrect contraction marked.

Words with "v" in the Middle

There is a kind of contraction commonly practiced in Shakespeare's time which has now gone completely out of use. This form causes so much trouble that it needs a special category on our checklist all for itself. This is the elision of "v"s from the middle of words. We are vaguely used to seeing this in poetry in the word ever, which is frequently shortened to "e'er." It shows up all the time in hymns and Christmas carols. It was very common to Shakespeare's period, in many words. Devil, evil, seven, and given are all words frequently shortened in verse. Here is an example:

From Athens is her house remote seven leagues.
 1    2-3    4  5    6    7-8     9     10

As you can see the line scans with seven as a one-syllable word, "se'en" pronounced something like "Sen." In cases like this, in consultation with your director and dramaturg, you must make a choice. The point of verse is easy intelligibility. In this case, however, honoring the rhythm may lead you to using a word that is completely incomprehensible to the listener. Most modern directors will instruct you to fully pronounce the word, but they'll appreciate you cheating it down as much as possible, to something like "sev'n." They'll also be impressed that you know about the "v" problem. So now our checklist looks like this:

1. Look for contractions or elisions.
2. Double check for "v" words.

Expanded Word Endings

Having done so, you may still find some lines that don't seem to scan. These lines are often too short. This is because there are classes of word endings that were pronounced in expanded forms in Shakespeare's time that are sometimes shortened in ours. These are words ending in "tion" and "ed." Words like "diseased" and "charmed" are sometimes pronounced "dis-ease-ed" and "charm-ed" in verse lines, because they were occasionally pronounced that way in everyday use in Shakespeare's time. Here are a couple of examples:

Death's pale flag is not advancéd there
I bear a charméd life, which must not yield

Likewise, "tion" words are sometimes expanded, as in this line which requires the pronunciation, "im-ag-in-a-she-un":

Such tricks hath strong imaginatíon.
The brightest heavens of inventíon

Here are a couple of lines from Mark Antony's eulogy for Caesar:

But Brutus says he was am/bi/ti/ous
 1   2-3    4    5  6    7-8-9-10
and Brutus is an hon/or/ab/le man.
 1   2-3    4  5   6-7-8-9    10

These lines will again require a consultation with the director, but the usual practice is to scan them fully, because, though their sound may be odd, their meaning is still perfectly comprehensible.

Now that you know about expanded endings, here is an example of one of those lines with an incorrectly marked contraction. Unwatchéd needs to be fully expanded in this line, even though it is marked as a contraction in the text. From Hamlet:

Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.

So now our checklist looks like this:
1. Look for contractions or elisions.
2. Double check for "v" words.
3. Look for word endings needing expansion.


A final category of check points is names. Names are notoriously variable in Shakespeare, changing in pronunciation from one context to another. For example, we usually think of Shakespeare's unfortunate lovers as Rome E. Oh and Jule E. Et, but at many points in the play you'll find their names must be pronounced more like Rome Yoh and Jule Yet. The most famous line in the play, for example, is the most often incorrectly scanned:

Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore art thou Romeo
 1-2    3-4      5-6     7   8   9-10

This line ends at thirteen syllables in terrible rhythm unless Romeo's name is pronounced as two syllables. (It's a bit odd even then.)

Time and time again, names in Shakespeare have a variable quality. Hermia (Herm-ya), Helena (Helen), Mercutio (mer-cu-show), and Titania (Ti-tan-ya) are just a few examples.

Our checklist, now, reads:
1. Look for contractions or elisions.
2. Double check for "v" words.
3. Look for "ed" and "tion" words needing expansion.
4. Consider all names carefully. They can vary from line to line!

All of this is simple, requiring no more than a bit of practice and patience. Over 99% of Shakespeare's lines (and those of his contemporaries, by the way) fit into these patterns. That is to say, within the bounds of the normal variations, and using the subtle adjustments listed above, they can be determined to "scan" normally.

On very rare occasion you will find a word which scans in an unusual pattern because it was pronounced differently in Shakespeare's time. We usually say "ré-ven-ue," for example, but in many cases Shakespeare said "re-vén-ue" with the stress on the second syllable.

My manors, rents, revenues I forgo;

Such deviations from contemporary practice are so rare that I have noticed they are usually footnoted in modern editions of plays. In any given play there are only three or four of these cases to be found. I was recently working on Brutus, and discovered this line of mine required an Elizabethan pronunciation:

Nor construe any further my neglect.

The second word has a first syllable stress, unlike its modern form, but this is actually the first line requiring such accommodation I have spoken on stage in a career nearing twenty years! It is quaint occasions like this that are trotted out to terrify young actors, but they are disproportionately rare in reality.

The "rules" then are rather short. There are just a couple of other things you ought to know to speed you on your way. The first is that you don't always have the complete line to yourself. Many lines of verse are split between two or more speakers. When you find these, they are usually arranged on the page in a way that indicates this to you. For example:

Orlando: I will not touch a bit.
                                                    Duke: Go find him out.

The indentation of the Duke's line is an indication that he is completing a verse line begun by Orlando. You must scan the whole line to understand your part.

The second is that prose lines are sometimes thrown in, right in the mddle of verse passages. This is usually apparent because they are no longer arranged as verse on the page, but a line shorter than a usual verse line will leave no indication. It begins with a capital and doesn't stretch to the margin. A totally arrhythmic line is a powerful acting note, but it can be disconcerting to the beginner.

Of course, there are always exceptions to all the above. Magical beings usually speak lines which are only eight syllables long in Shakespeare, and normal characters occasionally speak lines of twelve. There are a few lines that even the most dedicated scholars can't quite figure out. If you have gone through the checklist and looked at all the possibilities, and you still cannot make sense of the line's form, then treat it as an acting note. A deliberately strange line is sometimes introduced to create a strange effect. The purpose of scanning is not to regularize the verse, but to understand it. If you encounter an oddity, relish it!

If you want to know more about this subject, I recommend :

Brubaker, E.S., Shakespeare Aloud: A Guide to his Verse on Stage. Lancaster, Penn: Published by the Author, 1976.

This little book (from which many of the examples in this paper are taken) covers the whole subject in greater depth, but is still clear enough to be accessible to beginners. For those interested in the advanced lesson, look at:

Spain, Delbert. Shakespeare Sounded Soundly: The Verse Structure & the Language. Santa Barbara: Garland-Clarke Editions/Capra Press, 1988.

Very Brief Words About Speaking Verse

Scanning verse and speaking verse are very different subjects, the latter being much more complicated. Mastering verse speaking will probably require that you spend some time studying with a good theatrical voice teacher at some point. I can only offer a few quick pointers to get you started, and at the end of this paper I'll direct you to a title or two which might help.

1. The first thing for you to know is that most beginning speakers of verse break it up into units of meaning, but in doing so they distort the form so much that all the advantages of verse disappear.

To be,
or not
to be.
is the question.

Such a reading is not uncommon, but in good verse speaking, it is useful to keep the rhythm and flow going so that the listener can "hear" the form. Read to the end of the line. If the unit of meaning stops there, then take a breath at that point. If the phrase continues into the next line, then lift (or stress) the final word in the line, but continue without pausing.

This practice eliminates much unnecessary waiting. I've seen a rehearsal cut fifteen minutes out of its previous running time, just by eliminating unnecessary pauses.

2. Verse can, and should, be spoken faster than prose. I've seen performances of Shakespeare spoken at 1200 lines per hour, as opposed to the equivalent of normal speech, which is about 700 lines per hour. I find this a tad fast for my taste, but 1000 per hour is a perfectly comfortable speed. Audiences, in fact, are rarely aware of the speed. The verse seems exciting, not rushed!

When practicing your verse, work at speeds that are comfortable. By your final rehearsal, however, you need to push yourself to speak faster than you are comfortable. Your listeners will be ahead of you if you choose to talk at the same speed as you do in everyday conversation.

3. Keep the energy going to the end of the line. Verse lines are almost always climactic, meaning their point sits in the last word or two. In everyday speech, however, we usually put all the important stuff in the beginning and let our sentences trail off.

When you are working with verse it is important to reverse your usual habits. A line should grow in intensity:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.

This creates a sense of connection and involvement in the listener. The opposite habit, where lines trail off in the end, dismisses the listener's attention. I have often attended shows which were criticized for a slow pace which were, in actuality, traveling fast enough. The "end-drop" syndrome, however, made them seem interminable.

These three simple starting points are just the tip of the iceberg, but by following them you will find the structure of the verse (which you have worked so carefully to scan) will be clear to the listener.

For those wanting more information about verse speaking I recommend the following works on the subject:

Berry, Cicely. The Actor and the Text. Revised Edition ed. New York: Applause Books, 1992.

Berry, Cicely. Voice and the Actor. 1st American Edition ed. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Linklater, Kristin. Freeing Shakespeare's Voice. New York, New York: Theater Communications Group, 1992.

Linklater, Kristin. Freeing the Natural Voice. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1975.

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