King John Prep, Day 2: Scansion by (support my work)
Published: Thu, Sep 11, 2014; Updated: Sun, Mar 13, 2022
Reading time: 4 minute(s) (900 words)

King John Prep

Day 2: Scansion

This is part of a series on preparing my role for a ShakesBEERience reading of King John.

On my second day with the Bastard’s cue script I spend a pleasant hour scanning the poetry.

Bastard's cue script

Shakespeare wrote his plays largely in iambic pentameter: five iambs, or feet, each consisting of (in order) an unstressed and a stressed syllable. A common practice when preparing a role from Shakespeare is to scan the text, noting down exactly where the playwright followed this metre and where he deviated.

Not only is it important to be generally aware of the meter when performing, a line with eleven syllables instead of ten indicates something special in the thought of the playwright – ranging from “I can’t think of a line with ten syllables to go here” to “this weak line will indicate the character’s confusion.”

So I go through the script, dutifully noting each stressed and unstressed syllable while muttering the lines in exagerrated rhythm which I also pound out on the desk with my free hand – when you work on scansion in public, people tend to give you a wide berth.

My impressions:

The entire thing’s in verse! There are no prose sections in my part. Is the entire play this way? We’ll see on Sunday, first rehearsal. But I thought that Richard II was the only play entirely in verse?

The first scene is shaking, warbling all over – lots of irregular lines, eleven syllables instead of ten – all with weak endings, i.e. they end on an unstressed syllable.

I suspect inversions – lines which begin with DAdum instead of daDUM – at the head of many lines, but I don’t mark them. I’ll try them out as regular lines on Sunday, and only switch if I can’t make them work. For instance, the line “Talks as familiarly of roaring lions” is irregular, weak, and with a possible inversion. It could be read:

Talks as familiarly of roaring lions

But I’m going to see if I can hit as instead of talks. It contrasts nicely into the next line, which starts with “as” unstressed:

Talks as familiarly of roaring lions As maids of thirteen do of puppy-dogs!

Not such a big surprise:

The first scene, as I mentioned, is full of irregular lines with weak endings:

Bastard's cue script

Note all my little elevens scratched to the left. The entire first scene is this way; perhaps a third of the lines are weak. What does it indicate? Excitement? Insecurity? Discomfort?

Almost every irregular line is a reference to: 1) his father, 2) his mother, or 3) his brother. The lines cluster particularly in the second half of the scene. The rest of the characters have exited, and the Bastard celebrates something – being knighted, I think – and also bemoans (a bit) the loss of his inheritance. It is a moment of great excitement for him: upheavel in his life, thoughts for the future, the pride of the advantage he’s gained.

And once Lady Faulconbridge (his mother) enters the scene, this energy & frenetic drive is redirected towards her. The rest of his lines are 75% irregular; he is questioning her about his true parentage, asking after the identity of his biological father.

And then finally, the shift – you can see it in the image above – she’s revealed the secret and “With all my heart I thank thee for my father!” is the Bastard’s last irregular line in the scene.

And oddly enough, it’s one of his last in the entire play. This shift comes on page 3 of 13 in my cue script – he finds out who his father is and speaks in regular, perfect, ten-syllable pentameter for the rest of the play, with only a few exceptions.

Bastard's cue script, page 9

To the right is page 9 of my cue script – mostly my lines and with only two irregular lines on the page.

To me, it’s as convincing reminder as any that Shakespeare was consciously crafting the meter of his verse in order to create character. The Bastard enters the first scene of the play with an enormous chip on his shoulder. Every time he speaks about his family, or about his status as an illegitimate son, he gets agitated, excited – unsure of himself or uncaring about the impression he makes.

But as soon as the mystery is solved, as soon as he wheedles his father’s identity out of his mother, he changes completely. He becomes sure, confident, strong – and fully capable of cowing Kings with his rhetoric.

By the way, because I don’t have Lady Faulconbridge’s lines in my cue script, I still don’t know precisely who the Bastard’s father is, though it seems his name is Richard.

But the wonderful thing is: on Sunday I get to hear her tell me for the first time.

Read the next post in the series.