The toolkit for analyzing these ten passages is not terribly extensive, nor does it require a Ph.D. in literature to operate. I've used two basic methods to explore the texts: scansion and close reading. The point is that by starting with the basic text on a line-by-line basis, you can work through Shakespeare's meaning and understand how verse and meaning come together.
Scansion is the process of analyzing poetry's rhythm by looking at meter and feet. A foot is a two- or three-syllable division of stresses. Meter is the predominant rhythm of a poem based on the type and number of feet per line.
Syllables are marked either as stressed (/) or unstressed (-) depending upon the pronunciation of a given word within the line. For instance, the word "example" would scan as:
- / - ex am ple
Common Metrical Feet in English
- - /
/ - -
As stated before, meter is defined by the predominant type of foot and the number of feet within the lines of a poem. For instance, much of English dramatic verse was written in iambic pentameter, or lines of five iambs, because the rhythm most closely approximated natural speech patterns. In fact, unrhymed iambic pentameter was so popular, it had a term of its own: blank verse.
Although these speeches are all written in blank verse, there are other meters as well:
- monometer—lines consisting of 1 foot
- dimeter—lines consisting of 2 feet
- trimeter—lines consisting of 3 feet
- tetrameter—lines consisting of 4 feet
- pentameter—lines consisting of 5 feet (blank verse)
- hexameter—lines consisting of 6 feet (alexandrine)
Lines of more than six feet are rare in English poetry.
Other Helpful Poetry Terms
- assonance—repetition or a pattern of similar sounds, especially vowel sounds
- caesura—a natural pause or break in a line of poetry, usually near the middle of the line
- consonance—repetition of similar consonant sounds, especially at the ends of words
- couplet—a pair of lines of the same length that usually rhyme and form a complete thought
- enjambment—the running on of the thought from one line, couplet, or stanza to the next without a syntactical break
- feminine ending—an extra unstressed syllable at the end of a line
- masculine ending—an extra stressed syllable at the end of a line
- versification—the system of rhyme and meter in a poem
Close reading is the foundation for studying literature. In the case of these readings, we're looking at the basic definitions of individual words, their literal and figurative uses, fundamental grammar and syntax, and the context in which words or phrases are used. In addition, these readings are all dramatic works; unlike novelists, playwrights are basically limited to dialogue and stage directions to tell their stories. That means the text is more subject to interpretation. We're looking for clues to meaning within the speeches. First, we make our observations. Then, we make inferences based on patterns that we see.
With Shakespeare, it's helpful to combine close reading with scansion because the verse itself can often help you understand the salient words within a speech. It gets much easier the more you are exposed to it. The following materials will help immensely when doing a close reading of Shakespeare:
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The Bevington edition or the Riverside Shakespeare will do nicely. It's often helpful to use an annotated edition with plenty of editorial material about the works to help with basic context for the material. One of the best online editions is The Folger Shakespeare.
- Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, by Alexander Schmidt. This should be your starting reference point when looking up words and phrases in Shakespeare's works. It's in two volumes in print; you can also find it online.
- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Since most of us don't have immediate access the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, this is a good start. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary and the The American Heritage Dictionary are two of the best online dictionaries I've found.