Scansion, the act of marking out the unstressed and stressed beats in iambic pentameter, is often a revelatory experience. Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights used meter to convey information to actors – usually, a place to make a playable choice, something to do with a character’s emotions or expression.
One of my favorite examples of how scansion can illuminate character comes from the first scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theseus and Hippolyta begin in fairly regular meter, but when Egeus comes in, trailing Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius with him, all metrical hell breaks loose. This audibly changes the rhythm of the scene, from the mythic strains of two heroic figures discussing how the movement of the moon and stars affects their courtship to the mundane chaos of a family squabble. Just hearing that shift moves us from idyll to turmoil.
Egeus’s first two lines both begin with trochees – the inversion of an iamb, where the stressed beat starts instead of the unstressed beat. The “jumping-in” energy that trochees can create is appropriate for someone who is interrupting a private scene. Egeus manages to stay more or less regular while introducing himself, his daughter Hermia, and Demetrius, but when he gets to Lysander, he suddenly slips into a number of spondees (feet with two stressed syllables together) and mid-line trochees.
Clearly, something is affecting Egeus’s ability to speak in a controlled and even manner. An actor gets to decide precisely what and why. Are those rings and gawds really so offensive? Is Lysander doing something non-verbally to provoke Egeus further? Do the stresses punctuate the display of some physical props? There’s no right answer, but plenty of room to make a choice that will create a singular Egeus in performance.
Egeus’s metrics also reveal some information about his relationship with Hermia:
Check out all of those stressed pronouns (in parallel positions from one line to the next, no less!). Egeus is concerned with possession and with the transmission of ownership. Does he really view Hermia as nothing more than chattel to pass off, or is he simply at the end of his rope? I’m not sure – that’s for an actor to decide, but the metrics give him a jumping-off point.
The other metrically remarkable thing about this scene is Hermia. Everyone else’s meter is bouncing all over the place – Egeus’s irregularity seems to rub off on Theseus, who suddenly starts placing awkward caesuras and elisions in his previously-regular speech, and on Lysander, who engages Egeus in a battle of stressed pronouns, using them to stress comparisons between himself and Demetrius. Hermia, however, stays perfectly regular throughout the entire first part of the scene. Only when Egeus, Demetrius, Theseus, and Hippolyta depart does she dissolve into irregularity. What keeps her metrics in line until then? Is she calmly resigned to the thought of death over Demetrius? Or is she at that frazzled edge right before a nervous breakdown, where she has to keep a tight grip over herself just to keep from screaming? Either choice is valid – and either one would create a different Hermia, a different scene, and perhaps a different play.