Reading The Winter’s Tale after the Trump Years

With my novel finished, I’ve gotten back to work on some languishing poems. To get my head in the right space, I decided to read Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which I read years ago, and is replete with some of Shakespeare’s most transcendent poetry. What immediately struck me, though, was how much I disliked both Leontes and Polixenes. In truth, we’re supposed to dislike them. Each, in their turn, is vicious, cruel and tyrannical, but what disturbed me now was less their viciousness than the assumed prerogatives of wealth and class that allowed them to act without compunction or consequence—ostensibly a play about two rich and entitled men who inherited their wealth (and haven’t we had enough of those these last few years)?

The aristocracy and royalty were the oligarchical billionaires of their day, and almost uniformly corrupt. The Europeans who fled to the United States in the 18th century were damned well fed up with these kinds of families. At the founding of the United States, the following was added to the Constitution:

Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

If Prince Harry were to become a naturalized US citizen, he would have to renounce his title. But none of this has prevented the US from creating its own aristocracy. The only difference is that we call them one percenters instead of “Your Excellency”. And just as in the Europe of prior centuries, they wield outsize influence on the political process through their wealth and loyalists (read Royalists if you like). They are the Koch brothers, the Murdochs and the Trumps, rewarding their loyalists with the cash needed to maintain and share in their political power. The loyalists, in turn, reward these families with lower taxes, fewer regulations and the government levers needed to crush unions, depress wages, write laws that favor them or, more mundanely, seize federal lands for their own profit. The Trump years subjected the United States to a family who treated the US no differently than the various royals, aristocrats and theocratic mobsters of pre-20th century Europe—who asserted, in one form or another, their entitlement to rule and their entitlement to the wealth over which they ruled.

So when I read the first act of The Winter Tale, I felt like I was reading about a familiar family, class and wealth bracket. I was much less interested in their tender fates as compared to the first reading and wasn’t even sure I desired a happy ending for any of them. The play begins with Leontes suddenly seized by a rabid fit of jealousy that would have embarrassed Henry VIII. He suspects that his wife, Hermione, has been cheating on him with his childhood friend, Polixenes. What does a rich and entitled man with unimpeded power do? He considers murdering her as though her life were nothing more than a formality to be relievedly dispensed with:

Say that she were gone,
Given to the fire, a moiety of my rest
Might come to me again.

Winter’s Tale Act 2.3: 7-9 | Norton Digital Edition

He orders that his erstwhile best friend, Polixenes be murdered first, by poison, then that his pregnant wife and child be burned alive.

A callet
Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband
And now baits me. This brat is none of mine;
It is the issue of Polixenes.
Hence with it, and together with the dam
Commit them to the fire!

Winter’s Tale Act 2: 90-94 | Norton Digital Edition

It needs to be emphasized that Hermione, at this point, is nine months pregnant. Leontes’ comments are in response to Paulina, wife of a nobleman and vociferous defender of Hermione. What does Paulina get for defending Hermione against a rich man with absolute power? She’s all but called a bitch and her husband pussy whipped: says Leontes of Antigonus, “He dreads his wife.”

In short order, the character Hermione gives birth, off-stage, to Leontes’s daughter (presumably precipitated by the horror of Leontes’s jealous rage). When Paulina brings the newborn to Leontes, he also orders the newborn burned alive:

Thou, traitor, hast set on thy wife to this.
My child? Away with’t! Even thou that hast
A heart so tender o’er it, take it hence
And see it instantly consumed with fire.
Even thou and none but thou. Take it up straight.
Within this hour bring me word ’tis done,
And by good testimony, or I’ll seize thy life
With what thou else call’st thine. If thou refuse,
And wilt encounter with my wrath, say so.
The bastard brains with these my proper hands
Shall I dash out. Go, take it to the fire,
For thou sett’st on thy wife.

The Winter’s Tale Act 2.2: 130-141 | Norton Digital Edition

So. Shakespeare really piles it on. It’s clear that we’re not meant to like or feel much sympathy for Leontes. However, the play is considered a romance in the sense that there will be redemption and a happy ending. This is where I get tripped up. After witnessing four years of cruelty, corruption, banality, and incompetence, and after being subjected to the sneering lies of Trump and the Trump family, I’m not interested in redemption or, as the party of Trump cynically labels it: “unity”. Before having witnessed this kind of corruption first hand, the characters of Leontes and Polixenes were fairytale-like figures—the kinds of stock characters that simply serve as foils. The fabulists and tellers of fairy tales who riffed on Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses didn’t do so out of any love for these people, but because they were the Marvel super heroes of their day. They possessed unlimited power—not confined by poverty or social class. The story teller didn’t need to explain how or why a given character had the freedom to do X, Y, or Z. If they were a prince or princess, their extraordinary privilege was assumed, along with the extraordinary trials that confronted them. What evil fairy princess, after all, is going to waste her time cursing the daughter of some serf or peasant? What Prince is going to give a damn if some peasant girl is buried alive in a glass coffin by a bunch of dwarfs?

As it turns out, it’s just this dynamic that plays out in Act 4. In Act 2, Leontes orders Antigonus to take his newborn daughter (who he believes to be the bastard child of Polixenes) into the wild and leave her there (hopefully to be torn to shreds by a passing carnivore). As it turns out, the baby, Perdita, is rescued by a Shepherd. Act 4 moves us forward in time and Perdita is a marriageable, teenage girl. And as it happens, Polixenes son, Florizel, stumbles on her and straightaway falls in love. No one suspects that Perdita is actually the child of nobility and so Florizel’s amorous attention is a deadly threat to Perdita and she knows it.

Oh, but sir,
Your resolution cannot hold, when ’tis
Opposed, as it must be, by th’ power of the King.
One of these two must be necessities,
Which then will speak that you must change this purpose,
Or I my life.

Winter’s Tale 4.4: 35-39 | Norton Digital Edition

By “I my life” she doesn’t mean my life will be changed, rather, I will lose my life. But that doesn’t stop Florizel who, until meeting Perdita, has presumably lived a life of entitlement. Despite her protestations, he insists that not only will he marry her but that he would rather surrender all the benefits of his wealth and station than not marry. Shakespeare intends the audience to appreciate Florizel’s earnest love, though not, perhaps, his naïvety. Sure enough, his father, Polixenes, shows up in disguise and susses out what’s going on. Things don’t end well. Polixenese, who, until this point, had been the sympathetic and wrongly accused childhood friend of Leontes, turns out to be just as much of a tyrannical SOB:

Mark your divorce, young sir,
Whom son I dare not call. Thou art too base
To be acknowledged. Thou a scepter’s heir
That thus affects a sheephook? —Thou, old traitor,
I am sorry that by hanging thee I can
But shorten thy life one week. —And thou, fresh piece
Of excellent witchcraft, who of force must know
The royal fool thou cop’st with—

SHEPHERD Oh, my heart.

POLIXENES —I’ll have thy beauty scratched with briars and made
More homely than thy state. —For thee, fond boy,
If I may ever know thou dost but sigh
That thou no more shalt see this knack—as never
I mean thou shalt—we’ll bar thee from succession,
Not hold thee of our blood—no, not our kin—
Far than Deucalion off. Mark thou my words.
Follow us to the court. [to SHEPHERD] Thou churl, for this time,
Though full of our displeasure, yet we free thee
From the dead blow of it. [to PERDITA] And you, enchantment,
Worthy enough a herdsman—yea, him too,
That makes himself, but for our honor therein,
Unworthy thee—if ever henceforth thou
These rural latches to his entrance open,
Or hoop his body more with thy embraces,
I will devise a death as cruel for thee
As thou art tender to’t.

Winter’s Tale 4.4:408-432 | Norton Digital Edition

Polixenes has learned nothing from his experience with Leontes. First he declares that Perdita, who everyone still thinks is the Shepherd’s daughter, too low class for his royal and aristocratic blood. His son “thus affects a sheephook?” he asks. Next he declares that he will hang the Shepherd (the girl’s father), regretting only that the Shepherd is so old as to make the effort hardly worthwhile. After that Polixenes declares that he will have Perdita mutilated: “thy beauty scratched with briars and made/More homely than thy state.” How dare any mere commoner presume to marry into Polixenes’ aristocratic/royal family? He further declares that if Perdita nevertheless pursues Florizel, he will have her killed as cruelly as possible.

All the while, Shakespeare plays around with a common trope (found elsewhere in his other plays) that there is something intrinsically superior to the aristocratic/royal class. (It’s easy to see how this very prevalent attitude eventually led to the race “science” of the Nazis.) Earlier, both Polixenes and his advisor, Camillo, comment on Perdita’s aristocratic bearing:

POLIXENES This is the prettiest lowborn lass that ever
Ran on the greensward. Nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,
Too noble for this place.

CAMILLO [to POLIXENES] He tells her something
That makes her blood look on’t. Good sooth, she is
The queen of curds and cream.

Winter’s Tale 4.4: 155-161 | Norton Digital Edition

She is “too noble” for this place. One need not imagine that the nobility of our own age fancy themselves intrinsically superior to the common run of human being. Trump has on numerous occasions made clear his contempt for dirty, low-class Americans (including those among the exceedingly gullible mob who stormed the capitol building); and has done so in just those terms. His family has also made clear that they share his contempt for the average American. There’s a reason Trump didn’t pardon a single protestor among those who stormed the capitol—they were dispensable. They weren’t worth his time. They were a means to an end (which didn’t materialize) and nothing more. They were like the easily dispensable peasants with whom European aristocratics waged war. True to form, Trump’s children all married within their class and station.

Florizel and Perdita flee, of all places, to Leontes (under the manipulative advice of Camillo who, literally, is merely looking for an excuse to see Leontes again). He couldn’t give a damn about Perdita, who, he well knows, will straightaway be murdered by Polixenes (once they catch up to the couple); but he knows that Polixenes will pursue Florizel and Perdita and so he’ll get a free ride to Sicilia. But what is that to the noble Camillo? As far as he knows (at this point in the play) Perdita is merely a dispensable means to an end; and once that end is achieved, she will be brutally and rightfully dispensed with. But so what? T’were as much as hang a dog from a tree. One wonders to what degree Shakespeare bought into all this. First thing to know is that this was not Shakespeare’s plot, but based on a story by Robert Greene (a deceased playwright and erstwhile rival). Was he just exploiting the literary tropes of the day? I think so. Shakespeare might have bought into the belief, to some degree, that class was intrinsic and not economic; but he was also keenly aware that the nobility didn’t behave any better than anyone else and wrote dozens of plays based on just that reality (Shakespeare had a keen nose for hypocrisy).

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 44

It’s my own belief that Shakespeare’s sonnets come closest to personal utterance. Those who exercise power without restraint, he suggests, though they might be deemed the very flower of their class and station, are “outbraved” by the basest weed in dignity. I personally doubt that Shakespeare would have had much sympathy for Leontes or Polixenes (neither could be said to have been like stone or to temptation slow) but he used the tropes of the day to dramatic effect. That said, it’s thought that Shakespeare endorsed the political hierarchies of the day. In his plays, at least, he comes down on the side of rule by aristocracy (which is really as much as to say that he preferred a functioning government—such as it was—to mob rule). Whenever Shakespeare gives voice to the common people they’re generally portrayed as a mob—as a dangerous and destabilizing force. That used to disappoint me, but having witnessed the mob instigated by the Trump family, I see it from Shakespeare’s perspective. It’s not that he thought particularly highly of the aristocracy, but he probably saw in them the closest thing to political and social stability that the Middle Ages had to offer. And why shouldn’t he? The enlightenment was still decades away.

When Perdita’s pedigree (as Leontes’s lost daughter) is finally revealed/discovered at the end of Act 4, then everything changes (though nothing about Perdita has changed). She was still raised by the Shepherd who discovered and saved her life (demonstrating incomparably greater integrity and kindness than any of the noblemen). Not only does Leontes recover his daughter (who he had threatened to burn on the very day of her birth and/or strangle with his own hands) but he also recovers his wife, Hermione—revealed to him by Paulina in the guise of a statue. (This is the same Leontes, in the same act who would have killed Perdita at Polixenes bidding prior to discovering her identity). All in all, I find it an undeserved happy ending for Leontes and Polixenes—or any of their venal hangers on (apart from Paulina). That said, if there’s a difference between Leontes and Trump, it’s that Leontes had enough self-awareness to spend his life, until his discovery of Perdita, regretting his wrongdoing and expressing humility. Trump isn’t even intellectually capable of the insight granted to a fictional pre-Christian King portrayed by a dramatist of the middle ages.

All this is to say, reading Shakespeare after the Trump years has changed everything. I now have a little taste for what life must have been like for those in the Middle Ages—ruled by entitled fools along with their retinue of corrupt courtiers, hangers on, grifters and opportunists. Some part of me still buys into the fairy tale tropes, but the greater part is not so inclined to overlook the venality of the nobility in The Winter’s Tale. If Leontes and Polixenes had accepted Perdita, as a Shepherd’s daughter, prior to discovering her true pedigree (probably an inconceivable outcome in Elizabethan England) then there might be some measure of redemption, but there is none. Both tyrants only accept the outcome after they get what they want. The prerogatives and entitlement of both men is reinforced rather than examined. That’s not redemption. No lessons are learned. I do recognize that Shakespeare’s job was to write a successful play and that involved fulfilling certain conventions and expectations. The Winter’s Tale should probably be read or watched as a kind of implausible fairy tale; and it’s success or failure should likewise be premised on its dramatic effectiveness rather than its moral or ethical assumptions. In that regard, I do get the sense that Shakespeare’s heart wasn’t really in it or that he was conflicted. He gives Paulina, who excoriates Leontes, all the best lines; so much so that the other characters comment on her unrealistic bravery (but maybe she speaks for Shakespeare). By the fifth act, rather than dramatize the revelation that Perdita is really Leontes’ daughter, Shakespeare assigns the revelation to a conversation between two Lords who rattle off the occasion with efficient and workmanlike prose. Should we read Leontes and Polixenes as little more than fairy-tale absurdities? One of the arguments Oxfordians put forward is that Shakespeare too accurately portrayed the court and court politics to have been, well, Shakespeare. But, as better scholars have pointed out (including near contemporaries), Shakespeare’s portrayal of the nobility and the court was patently inaccurate:

It follows, therefore, that the background of life in the plays is, and at the same time is not, the background of Elizabethan life. As an example — old Capulet is an admirable picture of a testy Elizabethan parent, and his behaviour to Juliet in the matter of the match with Paris reminds us instantly of the perpetually quoted account that Lady Jane Grey gives of her own noble father and mother. The human reality is faithfully portrayed, and at the same time the detail of the portrait is contemporary. If, however, we go on lightheartedly to assume that old Capulet in his behaviour as a “nobleman” bears any resemblance to an Elizabethan noble of similar standing we shall be hopelessly misled. If we compare him with the genuine article we realise at once that the intimate “realistic,” or Elizabethan, scenes in which he appears are purely “romantic,” or, if we prefer, untrue to the facts of contemporary noble life. Shakespeare may label Capulet the head of a noble household, who can treat Paris, “a young Nobleman, Kinsman to the Prince,” as his equal, and a proper match for his daughter; but when it comes to a scene like Act IV, Sc. iv, which shows the home life of this supposed nobleman, we realise that the setting is not Verona but Stratford, and that the most likely person to have sat for that very realistic portrait is John Shakespeare, or any of the good burgesses who were William’s father’s friends.

“The Social Background” | A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited Harley Granville-Barker and G. B. Harrison.

So, one could treat Leontes’ and Polixenes’ entitlement and murderous threats as more figurative than literal (if one were to act the play as a contemporary city drama); and I could accept that. On those grounds I might let the play’s “happy ending” slide (and the poetry of Florizel and Perdita’s love for each other is to die for); but taken at face value? No. We don’t live in the Middle Ages. I’m not feeling the happy ending of The Winter’s Tale any more than were the corrupt billionaire Donald Trump to escape the consequences of his crimes.

up in Vermont | February 6th 2001

The Annotated “To be or not to be”

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150px-shakespeareAs far as this soliloquy goes, there’s a surplus of good online analysis. And if you’re a student or a reader then you probably have a book that already provides first-rate annotation. The only annotation I haven’t found (which is probably deemed unnecessary by most) is an analysis of the blank verse – a scansion – along with a look at its rhetorical structure. So, the post mostly reflects my own interests and observations – and isn’t meant to be a comprehensive analysis. If any of the symbols or terminology are unfamiliar to you check out my posts on the basics of Iambic Pentameter & scansion. Without further ado, here it is. (I’ve numbered the lines for the convenience of referencing.)


1.) The first line, in a single line, sums up the entirety of the soliloquy – as though Shakespeare were providing crib notes to his own soliloquy. There’s a reason. He wants to cleanly and clearly establish in the playgoers mind the subject of the speech. There will be no working out or self-discovery. Shakespeare is effectively communicating to us some of the reason for Hamlet’s hesitancy.  The speech, in effect, is the reverse of the Shakespearean Sonnet that saves its epigrammatic summing up for the last line. The Shakespearean Sonnet, as Shakespeare writes it, is the working out of a proposition or conflict that finds a kind of solution in the epigrammatic couplet at its close.

Metrically, the first line is possibly one of the most interesting and potentially ambiguous in the entire speech. I chose to scan the line as follows:

  • To be |or not |to be: |that is |the question
  • first-line-iambic

But if you google around, you may find the line more frequently scanned as follows:

  • To be |or not |to be: |that is|the question
  • first-line-trochaic

First to the disclaimer: There is no one way to scan a line but, as with performing music, there are historically informed ways to scan a poem. Shakespeare was writing within a tradition, was a genius, and knew perfectly well when he was or wasn’t varying from the Iambic Pentameter pattern of blank verse. To assume less is to assume that he was mindlessly writing a verse he either didn’t or couldn’t comprehend.

An actor has some latitude in how he or she wants to perform a line, but choosing to ignore the meter is akin to ignoring slurs or other markings composers provide in musical scores. Putting the emphasis on that subtly alters the meaning of the line. It sounds as though Hamlet were looking for the question, the conundrum, and once he has found it he says: Ah ha! That is the question. And this is how most modern readers read the line.

By putting the emphasis on is, in keeping with the Iambic Meter, the meaning of the line takes on a more subtle hue – as if Hamlet knew the question all along. He says: That is the question, isn’t it. The one question, the only question, ultimately, that everyone must answer. There’s a feeling of resignation and, perhaps, self-conscious humor in this metrical reading.

That said, William Baer, in his book Writing Metrical Poetry, typifies arguments in favor of emphasizing writing-metrical-poetrythat. He writes: “After the heavy caesura of the colon, Shakespeare alters the dominant meter of his line by emphasizing the word that over the subsequent word is. ” (Page 14)

How does Baer know Shakespeare’s intentions? How does he know that Shakespeare, in this one instance, means to subvert the iambic meter? He doesn’t tell us.  All he says is that “most readers will substitute a trochee after the first three iambs” – which hardly justifies the reading. Baer’s argument seems to be: Most modern readers will read the foot as a trochee, therefore Shakespeare must have written it as a trochee.

The word anachronistic comes to mind.

If one wants to emphasize that for interpretive reasons, who am I to quarrel? But the closest we have to Shakespeare’s opinion is what he wrote and the meter he wrote in. And that meter tells us that is receives the emphasis, not that.

Note: Baer later mis-attributes the witch’s chant in Macbeth (Page 25) as being by Shakespeare- an addition which most Shakespearean scholars recognize as being by Middleton. Not a big deal, but this stuff interests me.

Anyway, I prefer an iambic reading knowing that not everyone will.

The line closes with a feminine ending in the fifth foot. For this reason, the line  isn’t an Iambic Pentameter line but a variant within the larger Iambic Pentameter pattern. Compare the blank verse of Shakespeare to that of many modern Formalist poets. Shakespeare is frequently far more flexible but, importantly, flexes the pattern without disrupting it. Finding a balance between a  too-strict adherence to a metrical line and too-liberal variation from it is, among modern poets, devoutly to be wished for. But modern poets are hardly unique in this respect, compare this to Middleton’s blank verse (a contemporary who collaborated with Shakespeare.) Middleton stretches blank verse to such a degree that the overall pattern begins to dissolve. He is too liberal with his variants.

2-3.) Both lines close with a feminine ending. They elaborate on the first part of the question- To be. The elegance & genius of Shakespeare’s thought and method of working out ideas is beautifully demonstrated in this speech. The speech as a whole stands as a lovely example of Prolepsis or Propositio – when a speaker or writer makes a general statement, then particularizes it. Interestingly, I was going to provide a link for a definition of Prolepsis but every online source I’ve found (including Wikipedia and Brittanica!) fails to get it completely right. (So much for on-line research.)

OK. Digression. (And this will only appeal to linguists like me.) Here’s a typical definition of Prolepsis as found online:

  • A figure of speech in which a future event is referred to in anticipation.

This isn’t wrong, but it’s not the whole story. Whipping out my trusty Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, we find the following:

  • Propositio
  • also known as prolepsis (not to be confused with praesumptio)
  • Susenbrotus ( 28 )
    Scheme. A general statement which preceedes the division of this general proposition into parts.

Praesumptio is the other meaning of Prolepsis, which is what you will find on-line. So, I guess you heard it here, and online, first. Prolepsis has two meanings.

Anyway, Shakespeare takes the general To be, and particularizes it, writing : Is it nobler “to be”, and to suffer the “slings and arrows” of life? The method of argumentation, known as a Topic of Invention, was drilled into Elizabethan school children from day one. All educated men in Shakespeare’s day were also highly trained rhetoricians – even if the vast majority forgot most of it. Shakespeare’s method of writing and thought didn’t come out of the blue. His habit of thought represents the education he and all his fellows received at grammar school.

4-5.) These two lines also close with feminine endings. Shakespeare, unlike earlier Renaissance dramatists, isn’t troubled by four such variants in a row. They elaborate on the second part of the of the question – not to be. Or is it better, Hamlet asks, to take arms and by opposing our troubles, end both them and ourselves? Is it better not to be?

6-9.) Up to this point, there has been a perfect symmetry in Shakespeare’s Prolepsis. He has particularized both to be and not to be. Now, his disquisition takes another turn. Shakespeare particularizes not to be (death) as being possibly both a dreamless sleep (lines 6 through 9) or a dream-filled sleep (lines 10 through 12). So, if I were to make a flowchart, it would look like this:


In line 7, natural should be elided to read  nat‘ral, otherwise the fifth foot will be an anapest. While some metrists insist that Shakespeare wrote numerous anapests, I don’t buy their arguments. Anapests were generally frowned on. Secondly, such metrists need to explain why anapests, such as those above, are nearly always “loose iambs”, as Frost called them – meaning that elipsis, synaloepha or syncope could easily make the given foot Iambic. Hard-core, incontestable anapests are actually very difficulty to find in Shakespeare’s verse. They are mitigated by elision, syncope or midline pauses (epic caesuras).

10-13.) Shakespeare now particularizes “not to be” (or death) as, perhaps, a dream filled state. This is the counterpart to lines 6-9 in this, so far, exquisitely balanced disquisition. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come – he asks.

14-27.) At this point, Shakespeare could have enumerated some of the fearful dreams attending death – a Dante-esque descent into fearful presentiments. But Shakespeare was ever the pragmatist – his feet firmly planted in the realities of life. He took a different tact. He offers us the penury, suffering and the daily indignities of life. We suffer them, despite their agonies, fearing worse from death. We bear the whips and scorns of time (aging and its indignities), the wrongs of oppressors (life under tyranny), the law’s delay, the spurns of office. Who, he asks, would suffer these indignities when he could end it all with an unsheathed dagger (a bare bodkin) to his heart or throat? – if it weren’t for the fear of what might greet them upon death? Those dreams must be horrible! And he leaves it to us to imagine them – our own private hells – rather than describe that hell himself – Shakespeare’s genius at work.

Line 15 presents us with a rhetorical figure Hendiadys. Interestingly, it’s in Hamlet that Shakespeare uses this figure the most:

  • For who would bear the whips and scorns of time?

The figure denotes the use of two nouns for a noun and its modifier. It’s a powerfully poetic technique in the right hands, and one that is almost unique to Shakespeare. Few poets were ever, afterward, as rhetorically inventive, adventurous or thorough in their understanding and use of rhetoric. It’s part and parcel of why we consider Shakespeare, not just a dramatic genius, but a poetic genius. He unified the arts of language into an expressive poetry that has never been equaled.

Line 16 presents us with some metrical niceties. I’ve chosen to use synaloepha to read The oppres|sor’s wrong as (Th’op)pres|sor’s wrong. I’m not wedded to that reading. One might also consider it a double onset or anacrusis (as some prefer to call it) – two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable in the first foot. Interestingly, metrists have historically preferred to consider this anapest a special variant and so don’t refer to it as an anapest. As a practical matter (considering how the line is likely to be spoken by an actor) I suspect that the first foot will sound more like an Iamb or a loose Iamb – which is why I scanned it the way I did. Line 16 closes with the word contumely. I think that nearly all modern readers would read this as con-tume-ly. A glance at Webster’s, however, reveals that the word can also be pronounced con-tume-ly. The difference probably reflects changes in pronunciation over time. In this case, it’s the meter that reveals this to us. An incontestable trochee in the final foot is extremely rare in Shakespeare, as with all poets  during that time. If you’re ever tempted to read a final foot as trochaic, go look up the word in a good dictionary.

In line 22 the under, in the third foot (under |a wear|y life), is nicely underscored by being a trochaic variant.

In line 25 the fourth foot echoes line 22 with the trochaic puzzles. This is a nice touch and makes me wonder if the reversal of the iambic foot with under and puzzles wasn’t deliberate – effectively puzzling the meter or, in the former, echoing the toil of a “weary life” and the “reversal” of expectations. But it’s also possible to read too much into these variants.

By my count, there are only 6 Iambic Pentameter lines out 13 or so lines (lines 14-27). The rest of the lines are disrupted by variant feet. That means that less than 50% of Shakespeare’s lines, out of this tiny sampling, are Iambic Pentameter. The Blank Verse of Shakespeare (an ostensibly Iambic Pentameter verse form) is far more flexible and varied than one might, at first, expect.

28-33.) These lines mark the true close of the soliloquy. “The native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Fear of the dreams that may inhabit death makes cowards of us all. Some modern readers might be tempted to read line 28 as follows:

  • Thus con|science does |make co|wards of |us all

But the Iambic Pentameter pattern encourages us (when we can) to read feet as Iambic. In this case it makes more sense to emphasize does rather than make.

  • Thus con|science does |make co|wards of |us all

One thing worth noticing, and it’s my very favorite poetic technique and one that has been all but forgotten by modern poets, is anthimeria – the substitution of one part of speech for another.

arts-of-language-color-correctedThe native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought

Sickly is an adverb that Shakespeare uses as a verb. In Sister Miriam Jospeh’s book, Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, she writes: “More than any other figure of grammar, it gives vitality and power to Shakespeare’s language, through its packed meaning, liveliness and stir. ” She herself goes on to quote another writer, Alfred Hart:

Most Elizabethan and Jacobean authors use nouns freely as verbs, but they are not very venturesome…. The last plays of Shakespeare teem with daringly brilliant metaphors due solely to this use of nouns and adjectives as verbs…. they add vigor, vividness and imagination to the verse… almost every play affords examples of such happy valiancy of phrase.

Finally, notice the imagistic and syntactic parallelism in “the native hue of resolution” and “the pale cast of thought”. It’s a nice poetic touch that adds emphasis to Shakespeare’s closing argument – our fears dissuade us from enterprises “of great pith and moment”.

Interestingly, even as Hamlet’s dithering ends, he never truly decides whether “to be or not to be”.

If this has been helpful, let me know.

Sonnet 145 – Shakespeare & Iambic Tetrameter

This is one of my favorite Sonnets by Shakespeare. And it is the one sonnet, of the 154, that some Shakespeare “scholars” consider to be apocryphal – which is to say, they think it isn’t by Shakespeare. I, drawing my line in the Vermont snow, say they are wrong. This sonnet, unless some letters are discovered,  is as close as we may come to hearing Shakespeare’s unscripted voice.

shakespeare-frontpieceThose lips that Love’s own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’
To me that languish’d for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end,
That follow’d it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’

The figurative language is straightforward – the simplest of his sonnets. (Figurative language is any that uses metaphor, simile or any of the other rhetorical figures.) But what is most unique is it’s meter: Iambic Tetramater –  the only one of Shakespeare’s sonnets not written in Iambic Pentameter. Some scholars say it must have been an early sonnet, which is possible.  The supposition, I suppose, is that Iambic Tetrameter is a warm up to Iambic Pentameter or that a more youthful poem will be less figurative. These are all possibilities, but the humor and ease of the sonnet feels more assured to me. It’s a friendly joke. I like to imagine that it was written after a marital spat as a kind of humorous peace offering. In that respect, I like to think it’s the most personal of Shakespeare’s verses and offers a little glimpse into his home life and the kind of temperament he possessed.

One other note: This is among the first sonnets that I read by Shakespeare (when in highschool) and it was the first that I immediately understood. For me, it opened the door to all his other sonnets and made Shakespeare human.

The scansion of the sonnet is fairly straightforward, but I’ll go with the assumption that some readers are coming to this for the first time. The first four lines would be scanned as follows:


These lines are all solidly iambic and there is nothing figurative in any of them – I’m willing to assert that in no other Sonnet by Shakespeare are there four consecutive lines of unadorned English.


Shakespeare mixes it up a little. The first feet of the quatrain’s first two lines are trochaic (a Shakespearean sonnet is divided into three quatrains – each four lines – and a final couplet). What’s more interesting is Shakespeare’s use of personification – a Shakespearean specialty found throughout his sonnets and plays. He personifies the heart and tongue as though they were dramatic characters – the single most telling aspect, to me, that favors Shakespeare’s authorship. Mercy, like one of the virtues in an older miracle play, comes to his lover’s heart and the heart chides the tongue: be more sweet to your poor William!


The final quatrain is all very straightward in terms of its poetic language. It offers the entirely straightfoward and ordinary observation that the “day doth follow night”, then follows that with a sort of simile or analogy comparing the night to “a fiend (From heaven to hell” flown away). The image is all but hackneyed, even in Shakespeare’s day, but it’s hackneyed in an easy-going sort of way.

(Notice that I’ve scanned the last line of the quatrain so that the second foot reads as an anapest. One could read the line as follows:


With this scansion, the iambic rhythm is maintained – heaven reads more like heav’n. I know this reading gives some metrists heartburn, but that’s the way poets write. Heaven is one those words that Shakespeare might have treated as a compromise between an iambic foot and an anapest.)

This isn’t a virtuosic show-piece and it’s clearly not meant to be. I get the feeling that he jotted this quickly, unselfconsciously for his own pleasure and the pleasure of his lover. And who was she? The final couplet, interestingly, may hold a clue.


Notice the trochaic foot in the final line before the iamb ‘not you’. I can’t help but think this little metrical jest is deliberate. He could have written “she said ‘not you‘”, retaining the “proper” iambic rhythm, but instead deliberately employed the trochaic foot, adding emphasis to ‘not you‘! Shakespeare breaths a sigh of relief.

The contorted syntax and grammar of the second to last line is ‘a little’ unusual for Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s day people didn’t talk this way. It could be for the rhyme but this idea strikes me as overly awkward even for a young Shakespeare – the greatest literary genius of our language. He was more resourceful than that. Something is up.

There is speculation, and I agree with the speculation, that Shakespeare was emplying a pun. ‘I hate’ from hate away‘ could be read as  ‘I hate’ from Hathaway ‘ or, to spell it out, ‘I hate from Anne Hathaway.’

And in case you don’t already know it, Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife.

If you enjoyed this and are looking for more information on meter, check out my Guides to Meter and another analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, Spenser’s Sonnet 75 and Milton’s Sonnet: When I consider….

Iambic Pentameter & Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

  • January 10 2011 Updated Scansion.
  • March 19 2009 John Donne & his Sonnet Death be not proud… . [This sonnet is so misread by contemporary readers that it might as well be a companion to this post on Shakespeare’s sonnet.]
  • A companion guide to this one is the Annotated To be or Not to be. Don’t forget to check out some of my poetry while you’re picking my brains – I do write some good stuff. And let me know if this was helpful or if, especially, there’s a question you would like answered. I have written other posts on Iambic Pentameter including guides to the scansion of Iambic Pentameter (with more examples  from Shakespeare) and a look at Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter. I just completed a guide to Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets. I’ve also written a detailed guide to Haiku (if you’re interested). (Further links on other Sonnets are at the bottom of this post.) According to my Stats page, this has become one of my most popular posts; and no one is commenting! Just say hello or thanks – I like hearing from readers.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a color coded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
  • April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts. :-)

william-shakespeareWhat possible use could scansion be?

A masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. In Shakespeare’s hands, the meter tells us about the writer, the speaker of the sonnet – something we might easily miss.

Meter is of no use to free verse poets or reader’s of free verse. But to poet’s writing meter, it provides a tool, an extra layer of meaning, counterpoint and play. And to readers of metered poetry, knowing that there’s an underlying pattern informs the language and meaning of the poem. In the hands of a skilled poet (Shakespeare, Keats, Wilbur, Frost, Browning), the tension between language and meter is an art form.

I’ll look at other poets and poems, because it’s fun to do, like sleuthing, but I wanted to start with Sonnet 116 because it’s so famous and so frequently misread. These days, I suspect most readers, without a knowledge of meter, would read the poem as follows:


This reading would be acceptable if this were a free verse poem. Since there’s no metrical pattern in free verse one is free to put the emphasis (ictus) wherever one wishes (within reason) , depending on ones subjective interpretation of the poem. But, in Shakespeare’s day, so many variants in so short a space would have landed him in critical hot water with his contemporaries and with the reading public. (In his shorter poems, at least, Shakespeare was much more conservative, leaving the more daring flights of metrical variation to his contemporary, John Donne – who was, regularly, skewered for his turgid meter and blank verse.)  But the first line’s two trochaic feet (Let me | not to ) would have been daring even for Donne – (trochaic feet are the reverse of iambic feet in that the stressed syllable is first and the unstressed second). Two such variant feet at the start of a sonnet was practically unheard of. Only one of John Donne’s Sonnets, the most controversial metrist of the day, could be construed to begin with two trochaic feet.


Yet even here, knowing that Donne was a skillful master of diction and meter, one could consider an alternate reading (and one should, whenever diction appears to run against a meter’s pattern):


Stressing the preposition of isn’t as awkward as it might seem. Even in modern speech we sometimes stress the preposition of – as in: Well, you know, part of the fun is getting drunk. It’s a sort of sly tone of voice which, in the case of Donne’s sonnet, fits with his argument. It’s a tone of voice Donne could be angling for, made possible only if one considers the meter. The same can be said of the second line. The temptation is to read Son as strongly stressed and Thy as weakly stressed. But in keeping with the tone of the first line, putting the stress on Thy reinforces that Donne is addressing “Father” and doing so with a direct, knowing tone of voice. There is no way to know whether this is actually what Donne intended, but the reading is reinforced by the poem’s Iambic pattern.

Likewise, there’s a tone to Shakespeare’s sonnet that we miss if we fail to take the meter into account. Here is how Shakespeare most likely expected his sonnet to be read.

  • January 10, 2011: I decided to bring this scansion “up to date”.  As opposed to before, I’ve left all Iambic feet unmarked so the scansion is less cluttered. I’ve chosen to mark the “weak” Iambic feet, marked in yellow with weak stresses, as Pyrrhic feet, although others might be inclined to mark them as Iambic. The two feminine endings, ne|ver shaken and be taken are marked green. The Spondaic feet are purple.

The sonnet takes on a different tone and, to a certain extent, meaning. Where the first scansion has a sort of elegiac sound to it – a sort of contemplation on love – the second reading gives it a more inflected sound, as if the poet were writing with an unspoken agenda – (Shakespeare was nothing if not a dramatist).

For example, in the iambic version, the line sounds almost defensive: Let me not admit impediments – as if he were responding to some sort of accusation. Don’t accuse me of denying true love. Here is what I believe. In this wise, taking into account the pull of the iambic meter, we are already starting with a very different tone to the sonnet – in keeping with the other sonnets of his collection. They are all written as though in conversation – as though the speaker of the poet were responding to another speaker, or character, whose statements we can only hear through Shakespeare’s responses. Each one is like a monologue in a play.

Consider the change in line two:




The first is how a modern reader usually reads the close of the second line. The second reading follows the Iambic pattern of the sonnet. The second reading, putting stress on the verb – isadds emphasis to Shakespeare’s argument, emphasis which a modern reading lacks.

At the start of the third line we have another choice:




While a pyrrhic foot isn’t unheard of in sonnets of the time, the iambic reading adds emphasis to the argument of the sonnet. Love doesn’t alter when it alteration finds. The emphasis almost lends a tone of sarcasm or perhaps scorn. Again, the iambic pentameter acts as a sort of prompter, hinting at how the sonnet should be read, in what tone and inflection.

Line five tends to be misread by inexperienced readers, especially when reading unaccented versions of the poem, which frequently print the word fixéd as fixed:

O no, it is an ever fixed mark.


The accented é indicates that the -éd of fixéd makes the word two syllables rather than one. Even in an unmarked edition, however, experienced readers of Iambic Pentameter, simply through familiarity with metrical poems, will quickly hear the missing syllable and instinctively read fixéd as two syllables.


The seventh line is the next that typically diverges between modern readers and the iambic pattern. The iambic reading renders that line as follows:


Notice that, once again, the verb is is accented. While modern readers might read this first foot as being pyrrhic (two unaccented syllables), accenting the verb adds emphasis to Shakespeare’s argument. No, he seems to be saying, it is the ever fixéd mark, it is the star. It almost feels as though he is disagreeing with someone who claims that love isn’t any of these things. And notice too, the -ery of every is elided, making it a two syllable word -though most modern readers would read it this way.

The eleventh line is the next where the emphasis differs between the iambic line and modern readers. Notice the emphasis on his implied by the iambic meter.


It’s the equivalent of saying: His brief hours and weeks won’t alter love! Once again, it’s a difference of emphasis. The iambic reading is more emphatic and more dynamic. Immediately following is a line that most would read as a variant iambic line – reading even as two syllables. Although Shakespeare doesn’t use syncope to change even to e’en, the tradition of eliding these words is well-enough established, especially in poetry of this period, that we can safely do so.


If a line can be read so that it conforms to an iambic pentameter reading, especially in poetry during this period (and for the two centuries following too) then it probably should be read that way. (Note: Robert Frost took to calling these feet loose iambs, by which he meant that a foot could conform to an iambic rhythm depending on pronunciation.  It’s a useful term and reflects a convention that metrical poets have known about for hundreds of years.) Anyway, the elision of words in metrical poems is like the performance of trills in baroque and classical music. It was simply assumed that the reader (or performer in the case of music) understood the conventions of the day. Those conventions didn’t need to be spelled out. That was a long time ago, though. Nowadays, those conventions need to be relearned if one wants to read a poem the way it was read in its day. In a similar vein, and during the last thirty years, old conventional practices were relearned and rediscovered in classical music performance. These days, such performances are called Historically Informed Performances. Likewise, reading a Sonnet or Blank Verse passage with an awareness of the metrical pattern underlying it, might as well be called Historically Informed Readings.

[Just as an aside. Tooting my own horn. Helen Vendler states the following: “No reader, to my knowledge, has seen Let me not to the marriage of true minds as a coherent refutation of the extended implied argument of an opponent, and this represents an astonishing history of critical oversight.” Well, I’ve been reading this sonnet (most of them for that matter)  in just this fashion for over 20 years. Her book was published in 1997. So, Helen, if you should read this blog, take comfort. You weren’t the first.]

So far,  the rhymes have alternated ABAB, CDCD, EFEF. Now comes the final couplet, GG – a Shakespearean Sonnet. Shakespearean Sonnets heat the metal through the first 12 lines then, when the working out of the argument is white hot, he lays it to the anvil and strikes:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

My intention hasn’t been to interpret the poem, though some interpretation arises simply by reading it through the lense of meter. Many critics are troubled by the series of negatives in this poem and in its last line – never, nor, no. I’m not as troubled by the negatives. Shakespeare’s last line is almost a dare. I dare you to prove me wrong! Even in offering the possibility that he could be proved in error, he (almost sarcastically) refutes the possibility by offering the impossible retort that proving such an error would mean he never writ and that no man ever loved. Since we know already that he wrote and that men have loved, Shakespeare urges us toward the inevitable conclusion that he will never be proven in error.

The one metrical nicety to notice is in the final line. An iambic reading urges the following:


Notice the iambic emphasis on no. The modern reader might be tempted to gloss over the third foot as pyrrhic (see the “modern” scansion above), putting the emphasis on man. The iambic reading gives extra force to no, lending to the poet’s voice a kind of anger – as if both daring to be proven wrong and contemptuously dismissive of any effort to try. Go ahead, he seems to say, try! Prove me wrong! If you do, then no man ever loved! The equanimity of a modern reading, of an innocent love poem, vanishes. This is a sonnet with a transcendent axe to grind.

Reading the poem by the meter, we discover a very different kind of poem – one of refutation, of a speaker refuting an unspoken argument, not of impersonal definition. In this third post on Iambic Pentameter, I wanted to demonstrate just how powerfully a knowledge of scansion can inform and alter a poem’s meaning. If you have any questions or comments, please post.

February 4rth 2013: I was asked if I could read 116. What follows is about my 21rst try.  I wanted to communicate the sense that this is half of an argument, like a speech in one of Shakespeare’s plays. See what you think:

I’ll be examining more poems as time permits – especially Robert Frost.

Follow up posts:

Thomas Middleton’s Blank Verse

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter

Shakespeare & his Sonnet 145

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

Spenser’s Sonnet 75

John Milton’s Sonnet: When I consider…


Check it out…