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Much ado about nothing: a comedy online

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SB 253 M7b








Hontion :

















Hontfou :






[HE distinctive and original feature of theprojected
and indeed prepared, edition of Shakespeare,
of which this play is' a specimen, is the re-
covery and exhibition of the proper character
of the speeches hitherto uniformly printed
for pure prose, as being in truth metrical, composed by
the poet in a very definite form of blank verse.

This metrical character, as peculiar as it is decided, is
demonstrable not merely in particular cases of these
speeches, but universally ; by the recognition of it, a new
light is thrown on the resources of English versification,
and for the first time we attain to a full sense of the
harmonious and expressive emphasis which Shakespeare
imparted to his language, by a command of these resources,
as infallible as it seems spontaneous.

It is certain that no one play of Shakespeare was
printed with the benefit of the author's supervision ; it
remains impossible, therefore, to tell in what form he
would have cast the speeches in question, had he
survived to publish his own works. It does not appear
that Ben Jonson, or any other of the leading contem-
porary dramatists, recognised any intermediate form of
blank verse, between the normal line of ten or eleven
syllables of five accented feet, the so-called heroic verse,
and pure and simple prose, more or less familiar and
colloquial. Nay, it may be admitted as even possible,
that had Shakespeare himself printed " Much Ado about
Nothing," he might only have given the form of verse to
speeches which accommodate themselves to the familiar
heroic line. But, nevertheless, it would remain consistent
and conceivable, in regard to the rest of his work, that
while writing a continuous text, he still, with music in his
soul, instinctively adopted and adhered to specific rhyth-
mical types as prompted by the spirit of particular
characters and scenes ; that a speech so written should be



found on examination to fall into lines systematically
divisible, would be no more strange than that a melody
hastily noted by a composer should be susceptible of duly
inserted bars.

The verdict of the ear is in both cases decided and
decisive ; under the suggestion, and then under the
guidance of an ear for systematic metre, a principle
becomes apparent that proves susceptible of the very
largest application. It is found that the poet, in these
speeches of reputed prose, retained for the most part the
principle of giving five .accented feet to a verse, as in his
distinctly heroic verse ; but he did so with a difference : he
renounced the limitation of lines to ten or at most twelve
syllables, and boldly broke into systems of lines in which
the five accents were connected with feet consisting of
three, four, or even more syllables, as frequently as of two.

It must be said that this revelation of a momentous
secret of Shakespeare's dramatic skill and power, is not
without confirmation, by no means insignificant, in the
original printed texts. Not a few speeches, which the
editors with one consent have reduced to plain prose,
appear in the quartos and the folio in form of metre to which
they have true claim if only duly distributed. But accurate
distribution lamentably fails ; and, from the ruling pedantic
notions respecting versification, this semblance of metre has
been misconstrued; it has been on all hands too easily
ascribed to the carelessness and confusion which in other
cases miserably disarranged lines that should take order of
themselves as blank verse of the strictest type.

All metre depends, at last, upon equality of successive,
well-marked divisions of time ; but the equality of the
intervals between marking accents is manifestly open to
be maintained by equable, or accommodated by variable,
rapidity of pronunciation ; so it is, that associated bars in
music are occupied by variable numbers of notes, and
indeed of syllables to be sung to them, making up equiva-
lent time. This variability, like any other, becomes an
element and instrument of expression.

Milton was a master of the harmonies of versification,
but the stateliness of his theme did not encourage laxity ;
even so we have such exceptional lines as these :

Wallowing, unwieldy, enormous in their gait
Of sorrow unfeigned and humiliation meek


The licence admitted here is scarcely less than that of
such lines as

How many gentlemen have you lost in this action ?
Better bettered expectation than you must expect

associated with a line as regular as
But few of any sort and none of name.

The variety in rapidity and the rhythmical contrasts which
the dramatic poet thus gained command of, are of extra-
ordinary compass and value ; scenes once read as prose,
not improved by shocks of unexpectedly stumbling into
occasional rhythm, are found, when their metrical regula-
tion is made manifest, to flow on with a full and unchecked
tide of admirable music, from beginning to end.

The accurate division of the lines of any poetical text
of a dramatic text especially is of great importance
for guidance to inflection of voice and emphasis, whether
in reading or declamation. It is characteristic of English
blank verse, that proper rhetorical emphasis most fre-
quently reinforces the accent of the first foot of the verse,
with the natural result of involving the reduction in force
of those which ensue :

To be or not to be, that is the question ;
Whether 'tis better that the body suffer, &c.

This subordination prepares for the contrasted force at the
beginning of the next line ; the secondary accents may be
of different values among themselves while relatively they
accommodate the recurrence of stronger emphasis in its
expected place. If this place is not made manifest to the
eye of the reader, the rhythmical key is missing, and effort,
unwarned, is liable to be exhausted prematurely upon
words or phrases which, in their particular relation, have
inferior claims. It is from the importance of giving
opportunity for the first emphatic accent of an ensuing
line, that a certain delicate intimation of a pause or sus-
pension is required at the end of the line antecedent,
a pause very often beyond what might be challenged
by strict rules of grammatical dependence. The due
management of this often evanescent pause is the rarest
refinement in the delivery of blank verse, and the acquisi-
tion of it demands the aid of an accurate distribution of
text. And if such aid is necessary in the case of the
strictly regulated heroic verse, it is still more indispensable


in a series of verses of which the very principle is eman-
cipation from restriction in favour of interchanges of tone
that shall have all the calculated value of piquant surprise.

In the adoption the invention of his freer forms of
versification, Shakespeare was following the precedent of
the poets of antiquity, as unconsciously to himself, no doubt,
as unsuspectedly even by others who had familiar know-
ledge both of Greek and Latin literature. The versification
of the epic poets, Homer and Virgil, moves on under far
stricter laws than even Milton, also an epic poet, was
required or chose to confine himself to. Their syllables are
either long or short are wholes or halves which cannot
interchange places and values ; the utmost that can be
said is, that some of their long syllables are effectively
longer, and some short are shorter than others, and that
varied speed of pronunciation is easily responsible for
controlling and compensating these minor differences. A
greater variety of feet and values of syllables was admitted
in the senarian the verse of six accented feet, of the
tragic poets, which answers in dialogue to Shakespeare's
ten-syllable verse. But still this form of verse was
subject, in their hands, to certain limitations which were
very positive, limitations of which some of the most
positive were renounced without scruple, when it was
adopted by the comic poets, who at last seem to have
been quite content so long as versification at all remained
recognisable. Still, ancient comedy held pertinaciously to
versification ; laxly or licentiously as it was there dealt with,
it was susceptible all the more of management with playful
and inventive versatility. If the question was argued in
antiquity, whether comedies were rightly called poems, the
dispute turned at last, not on the value of their metrical
forms, but on the propriety of dignifying the themes which
they descended to conversation at best, and at lowest,
vulgar banterwith so superb a title. In the meantime, the
noble lyric poets, Pindar especially, had in an entirely
opposite direction released themselves from any obligation
to regard the number of syllables in associated metrical
feet, in any other relation than would be recognised by a

Hence it was that Cicero could say that the verses of the
finest Greek lyric poets were liable to become, but for
the assistance of music, apparently destitute of metrical


character at all; the succession of syllables, in fact,
required, to his appreciation, to be grouped by subsidiary
accentuation, vocal or instrumental, if they were not to
resolve themselves into prose ; his ear required the same
help it may seem to us as we may now read Pindar
rather strange that it should be so that is here proffered
not too soon to the eye, for the vindication of Shake-
speare's comic metre.

In a certain number of peculiar cases, Shakespeare
employs with the greatest effect an equable line of six
instead of five of his freer accented feet, through a speech
or even an entire scene. Otherwise what might be mis-
taken for occasional lines of six accents are often divisible
into pairs of triplet accents, and are better so exhibited
typographically. Another important variation which has
not entirely escaped attention, so far as concerns ten-syllable
lines, is the case of what may be called interlaced lines.
Incomplete lines, usually half-lines, occur, which admit of
being read as completions of portions of the lines that
precede, or, in other cases, that follow them ; it is again of
importance to due recognition of the metre, that any such
incomplete line should be duly distinguished as it is the
commencement or the end of an interlacement. Unless
this difference is exhibited, an accent of false strength will
be placed precisely where it damages a cadence.

Metrical licence was carried to its extreme by the authors
of the later Greek comedy, and Cicero (Orator LII) can
say of them that their senarians had frequently such
resemblance to common discourse, and were so negligently
indicated, that, as he found with the verses of the lyric
poets, it was often scarcely possible to recognise in them
any metrical character. It is not quite clear whether he
appreciated all the same the appropriateness of such versi-
fication to the freedom of comedy, and the apt skill
displayed in its management. Quintilian (X, I, 918) at
least has no sympathy for the varied schemes of verse
which Terence plays with, and he never writes so much
like a scholastic pedant as when he expresses a wish that
an author so elegant had confined himself to the single
$enarian form of verse.

T compensate in some degree for the loss of the new
Greek comedians, we have in Terence and Plautus examples
of how the ancients married comic motives and dialogue


representative of common life, with varied and appropriate
metrical forms of true artistic finish. The following obser-
vations of Erasmus on the versification of Terentian comedy,
have been fully borne out by the study of more recent
scholars, with Bentley at their head, and are applicable in
ultimate result to what we shall see of the practice of
Shakespeare. Shakespeare assuredly was under no obliga-
tion to any ancient for the hint ; the common sympathies of
poetic genius are sufficient to account for the coincidence.
Nature is not so economical of her suggestiveness as to limit
herself to a single intimation of a principle, leaving the world
thereafter to take its precarious chance of making the best
of it, in case it survives, by processes of evolution.

" The Latin writers of comedy," says Erasmus, " allowed
themselves much liberty in versification, and none more
than Terence ; he indeed so extensively that some have
even concluded that he observed no rules of verse whatever.
The mistake made by these is manifest. There were
others again who did not deny that he attended to rules of
metre, but concluded that from his immoderate licence it
was not worth the while of the learned to plague themselves
with scanning the verses, as it would be a matter of great
labour with very little profit at last. For my own part, I
disagree with both ; for as no proof is really required that
the comedies of Terence are in verse, so those who thought
his metrical system might be neglected have repeatedly
corrupted the poet's language by substituting one word for
another (an incident too frequent with copyists of prose
authors) by additions, omissions, or inversions of the order
of words. Even the learned have somewhat sinned in the
same way, who in default of study have, in the process of
distinguishing and scanning classes of verses, interpolated
words to fill up a supposed gap or cut away a seeming
redundancy. It appears, however, to have been distinctly
intentional on the part of Terence, to make the nearest
approach possible, by verse in disguised form (dissimulate
carmine), to the language of prose, the same purpose that
Horace seems to have had in view in his Satires and

The metrical systems of both Terence and Plautus have
been made the subject of profound study since the time of
Erasmus ; and we may now have the advantage of editions
in which the metrical accents are marked, and facility is


given for appreciating the skill with which the expression
of humour, sentiment, or passion, is heightened by appro-
priate rhythm, and the charm of harmonious versification is
fully restored. " Above all," says a recent editor of Plautus,
"the rhythmical accents have been inserted throughout
this edition, following the precedent of Bentley's Terence,
inasmuch as only in virtue of such aid can Plautus be read
as he ought to be, not as a prose author, but rhythmically
as a true poet."

In the case of Shakespeare there is no need to mark
accents ; but the necessity is the more absolute for his
metrically constructed lines to be so divided as to give
the assistance which is indispensable, if he is to be read
with comfort and confidence, and full enjoyment of his
marvellous rhythmical harmonies and constantly varying
characteristic tone and style, if he too is to be read, not as
a prose author, but as a poet chiefly, as a poet always.

When we compare the more free verses of Plautus with
the severely regulated measures of the hexameter and the
senarian, we find that they have great analogy to the form
of verse which Shakespeare employed in the speeches which
have been, as uniformly as falsely and unfortunately, printed
as prose. In these it will be found that sequences of feet
are marked off by accents which so strongly reinforce the
natural accents of the emphatic words or phrases, as to
perfectly subordinate those which carry no especial em-
phasis. In consequence, although in the great majority of
cases the rule of five feet in a line is still observed, the
frequency of trisyllabic feet is much increased ; feet con-
taining even more syllables are not unusual, and all forms
of redundancy of syllables at the end or commencement of
a verse are more freely admitted.

To versification in this form, still more than to ordinary
blank verse of high character, does the rule apply that the
places of reinforced emphatic accent are decided by no
fixed rule ; they are discoverable only by intelligent
reading or expressive declamation. The true distribution
and regulation of the lines, as certified by revelation of
poetic expression in full force, is even so in many cases
not to be determined until after many trials and compari-
sons. A metrical speech printed as prose a speech of
such metrical character as is in question is " a tangled
chain, nothing impaired, but all disordered." The process


of disentanglement is often the more difficult from the
very elaborateness and refinement of the workmanship of
the chain ; but when it is once effected, these very qualities
are testimony to the success. From what has been said of
the interlacements of verse usual with Shakespeare, it will
be quite understood that a prose printed speech often
includes what seems to be an indisputable independent
verse, but which, nevertheless, is of right to be distributed
between two successive verses. If such a false end of a
clue be retained too obstinately, all that follows and all
that precedes will be thrown out of metrical gear. The
same will be the case if one of the loose half-lines of which
examples are abundant should be forcibly worked in as
portion of an independent and complete line. On the
other hand, guidance most welcome and decisive is often
ministered by the occurrence of successive lines that reveal
themselves as certainly self-limited.

There are thus many difficulties and false lights that
mislead and frustrate first attempts ; is it possible that
these have disheartened some explorers prematurely and
caused them to renounce the inquiry, and even keep silence
as to ever having entertained a suspicion of its value ?
Some explanation seems certainly required for the world
of criticism having remained blind so long to a fact which
is glaring as soon as it is pointed out.

Finally to clench the entire argument, for those by
whom argument may be challenged to vindicate the de-
cision of simple refined instinct of rhythm and cadence,
let due weight be given to this observation :

No licences of versification will be found to be pre-
sumed on for the reduction of the complete dramatic text
to metrical form, for which authoritative precedents are
not ci table from speeches which have always been accepted
and printed as verse. In some of these speeches the
exceptionally constituted lines are rare enough or missing;
in others they are even numerous and in close succession.
But whether few or many, interposed and interlinked as they
are, they have never roused suspicion of being other than
truly metrical. Truly metrical, therefore, such lines must
be no less when, as in the speeches now for the first time
reconstituted, they as a rule preponderate above associated
lines of the common normal type, and even exclude such k


Let the dialogue between lago and Eoderigo at the
opening of " Othello " serve to exemplify both the variable
frequency and the variety in themselves, of such inter-
polated and interwoven abnormal lines, which in virtue of
position have passed muster without question or protest.

The same speeches supply opportunities, at the com-
mencement of the extract, for indicating the metrical
dependence of loose half-lines by reformed typographical


Rod. Tush ! Never tell me ; I take it much unkindly
That thou, lago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.

lago. 'Sblood, but you will not hear me :

If ever I did dream of such a matter,
Abhor me.

Rod. Thou told'st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.

lago. Despise me

If I do not. Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capped to him : and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place :
But he, as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them, with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuffed with epithets of war ;

And, in conclusion,

Nonsuits my mediators ; for, " Certes," says he,
" I have already chose my officer." And what
Was he ? Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damned in a fair wife ;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster ; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he : mere prattle, without practice,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election :
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds,
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee'd and calmed
By debitor-and-creditor, this counter-caster ;
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I God bless the mark ! his Moorship's ancient.
Rod. By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman.
lago. Why, there's no remedy ; 'tis the curse of service,
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to the first. Now, sir, be judge yourself,
Whether I, in any just term, am affined
To love the Moor.


Rod. I would not follow him then,

Tago. O, sir, content you ;

I follow him to serve my turn upon him :

We cannot all be masters, nor all masters

Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark

Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,

That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,

Wears out his time, much like his master's ass,

For nought but provender ; and when he's old, cashiered :

Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are,

Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,

Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves ;

And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,

Do well thrive by them, and, when they have lined their coats

Do themselves homage : these fellows have some soul :

And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,

It is as sure as you are Koderigo,

Were I the Moor, I would not be lago :

In following him, I follow but myself ;

Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,

But seeming so, for my peculiar end.

This extract taken alone is sufficient to show how the
numbers and the places of the trisyllabic and still more
polysyllabic feet which are admitted by the poet, are
subject to interchanges and permutations that would
almost defy tabulation ; there proves in consequence to be
as much scope for characteristic variation in the internal
construction of these more loosely regulated lines, as in
the groups or alternations by which they diversify
sequences of forms more normally constituted.

What wonder that Shakespeare, after shaking himself
clear of the last trammels of tradition in versification,
appears exultant in the exercise of his self-achieved
freedom; but at the same time that he is exhaustless
in his invention of opportunities for variation of rhythmical
harmony, he ever displays full command over himself in
controlling its application, in evolving its resources under
subjection ever to a dominant ideal born of the occasion.

" Shakespeare, it has been well said, most assuredly
wrote without any reference to rule ; he trusted to his- ear,
and produced the finest dramatic verse in the world.
Milton, also, beyond all competition the greatest writer of
epic verse that we can boast, learned as he was both in
metres and music, and with finest apprehension of harmony,
evidently composed without rule, and trusted to his ear alone
for those exquisite cadences with which, from his Lycidas


to his Paradise Regained, his poems abound " (Quarterly
Review, 1825, p. 34). It is added : " To deduce authori-
tatively rules from poems that have been written without
rule, is plainly to derive an argument in favour of bondage
from the most splendid proofs of the benefits of freedom."
But to deduce rules which are to be insisted on as generally
authoritative is one thing ; to elicit the rules which a poet
allowed to govern him as contrasted with those which he
disregarded is another; it is to set forth how the privileges

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Online LibraryWilliam ShakespeareMuch ado about nothing: a comedy → online text (page 1 of 7)