The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.043  Tuesday, 21 January 2014


[1] From:        Ros Barber <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         January 20, 2014 at 2:46:25 PM EST

     Subject:    Re: Scansion 


[2] From:        Gerald E. Downs <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         January 20, 2014 at 9:05:41 PM EST

     Subject:    Scansion 



From:        Ros Barber <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         January 20, 2014 at 2:46:25 PM EST

Subject:    Re: Scansion


I am not going to reply to Gerald Downs; I have long ago learnt not to continue conversations where there is clearly no room for agreement, especially not such time-consuming ones. We must agree to differ.


But I simply cannot allow Robert Projansky’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to scansion to stand without comment. Could he please point us to ANY reputable scansion textbook where a caesura (a soundless pause) counts as a metrical beat?   


Readers unaware of the rules of scansion should ideally refer to a reputable source such as “The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary” by Frances Stillman (Thames and Hudson, 1966 or later editions). Many examples of various metres are given. None of them give a wordless ‘beat’ as a syllable; let alone a STRESSED syllable as Projansky suggests. Nor have I seen such a thing depicted in any of the many books I have read on the scansion in my seventeen years of writing, teaching and publishing metrical poetry.  The various types of caesura are dealt with on page 24 (1972 edition). As I hope Stillman makes clear from her examples, caesuras do not affect scansion (which is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables - not ‘beats’); only the way a line is read.


Projansky’s proposed method of scansion, if it weren’t problematic enough for going against all known rules of prosody, also creates SIX rather than five feet. The clue is in the name: iambic PENTameter. It has five feet, always five, whether all five of those feet are iambs, or whether one or two are anapaests, dactyls, trochees or spondees, as allowable variation decrees.  


Ros Barber



From:        Gerald E. Downs <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         January 20, 2014 at 9:05:41 PM EST

Subject:    Scansion


Peter Groves spoke of Ros Barber as sharing with


> the egregious Van Dam, that elision is an all-or-nothing affair:


Egregious: adj. Easy to say (GED). I have already noted that Groves misrepresents van Dam’s opinion, which is that elision is the same as it was then; syllable reduction.


> Syllables that form a feminine epic caesura cannot . . . be elided,

> and must be explained otherwise.  In case anyone remains

> skeptical of their existence, let me point out that Hamlet’s first

> soliloquy contains (appropriately) five of them:

>    His Ca|nnon 'gainst| Selfe-slaugh|{ter}. || O God|, O God|! 

>    Possesse| it meere|{ly}. || <That it| should come| to this|:

>    By what| it fed| {on}; || and yet| within| a month|? 

>    <Let me> not thinke| {on't}: || <Frailty>, thy name| is wo|{man}. 

>    My Fa|thers Bro|{ther}: || but no| more like| my Fa|{ther},

> I suppose all these could be dismissed as ‘corruptions’, but

> only by special pleading from someone with a barrow to push.


That reminds me of the guy at the diamond mine whose wheelbarrow was searched every day. Stealing wheelbarrows was a pretty good business; let’s see if I can make a go of it. Harold Jenkins observed that “Dover Wilson established Q2 [Hamlet] as the most authoritative text” (Arden2). Not only was Wilson more than a decade behind van Dam, he somewhat shamelessly denied that he owed any of his new ideas to his Dutch critic. But I agree with them all: Q2 is the go-to text. Let’s compare some lines from the 1.2 soliloquy:


            His Ca|nnon 'gainst| Selfe-slaugh|{ter}. || O God|, O God|! (F)

His cannon gainst seale slaughter, o God, God,         (Q2)


            Possesse| it meere|{ly}. || <That it| should come| to this|: (F)

            Possesse it meerely that it should come thus             (Q2)


Because one text is wrong in each instance, presumption lands on F’s extra syllables; so much for these FECes. A glance at the two versions of this speech ought to keep us skeptics happy; Q2 is imperfect, as F implies, but F’s changes are mostly meddling.


When Peter Groves and Robert Projansky scan F’s faulty text as if it is accurate they seem oblivious to the consensus of textual scholars and editors that F reprints Q2 Hamlet (and other quartos) while adding error and arbitrary changes, often by the compositors. The corruption is so great that one has to think the pauses, the caesura, and whatnot, lead these critics into extensive mistakes. I can imagine readings or performances where compositorial blunders pull the strings. The same illusions are carried to extremes by those who believe F’s punctuation is authorial instead of haphazard. When F’s copy-text is corrupt (as usual) such faith in the resultant text makes no sense. For example, as is well known, F 1H4 reprints Q5 which itself inherits alterations from all the preceding quartos. Shakespeare is removed by at least seven books printed in a careless, meddling, work-a-day age, and without authority. Shakespeare scholarship’s attitude that “anything goes and is trusted besides” is one of its greatest failings.


When one learns to distrust texts they become much more interesting than imaginary (dictated!) pauses. Why not let the actor (or his boss), decide when to pause? Early editors understood that they were dealing with massive corruption. Their efforts are now scorned, though often accepted. Because the notion that Shakespeare’s drafts are directly behind the texts (and “rough enough” to account for most anomalies) is apt to fade one day, editorial judgment may have a chance. Emending Shakespeare’s text is necessary, difficult, and interesting. I tend to agree with van Dam on these lines:


              So excellent a King, that was to this

              Hiperion to a satire, so louing to my mother,

              That he might not beteeme the winds of heauen

              Visite her face too roughly . . .


The phrase ‘to a satyr’ brings the line to fifteen syllables; it is probably a well-intended interpolation meant to clarify the imagery. But ‘. . . that was to this [‘this’ meaning Claudius] / Hyperion, so loving to my mother . . .’ is all we need for comparison; the “God of Watchfulness, Wisdom and Light” gets the point across far better by himself, and metrically so. The difference between a Titan and a King obviates the need for a satyr, unless we think the auditor doesn’t know Hyperion from a hole in the ground. It is a mistake to analyze these lines (especially F’s) as if they are pristine. Whether van Dam is correct or not, his recognition of probable error here and elsewhere begins the right method.


When the majority of lines are good, and when F shows how easy it is to screw up, then we can’t be surprised if Q2 also has an unhealthy dose of spoilage. Van Dam’s section on Hamlet interpolations (in both Q2 and F) is instructive. Add-ons are often easy to spot by common characteristics and by their curative removal. Take out the redundant conjunctions: ‘By what it fed on, [and] yet within a month’; ‘My father’s brother, [but] no more like my father’; and that’s that. We can pause whenever we like. Any agents may cause such errors, even if we can’t always find them or prove them (individually) to a certainty.


Gerald E. Downs


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