Saturday, 5 November 2011

Twelfth Night: counting on Olivia

I have been asked how to scan the following line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:

Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble. (1.v.244)

I thought it would be easy, but it isn’t.

It always helps to look at a line in the context of the speech and of the scene in which it appears. Viola, disguised as Cesario, has come to woo the Countess Olivia on the Duke Orsino’s behalf. It’s an awkward encounter: Viola has already fallen for Orsino, though can’t admit it since he thinks she is a man, and now has to try to persuade Olivia that she should accept Orsino as her husband – a man in whom Olivia has no interest. This awkwardness shows itself plainly in the staccato forms and fractured rhythms of their conversation. After the preliminaries have been conducted in prose (V: ‘Are you the lady of the house?’ O: ‘If I do not usurp myself, I am.’ V: ‘Most certain if you are she you do usurp yourself’ etc.) Viola switches to blank verse:

Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.

But Olivia will not join in, and answers still in prose: ‘O sir, I will not be so hard-hearted.’ She mocks Viola and Orsino by giving an account of her own beauty which, like Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’) is a spoof on conventional poetic praise of women’s beauty:
I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried and every particle and utensil labelled to my will, as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin and so forth.

Viola is not in the mood to be mocked and replies, rather more forthrightly than she ought:

I see you what you are, you are too proud,
But if you were the devil, you are fair.

Recovering herself, however, she gets back to the job she is meant to be doing:

My lord and master loves you. O, such love
Could be but recompensed though you were crowned
The nonpareil of beauty …

and it is only at this moment that Olivia too switches to blank verse. She completes Viola’s half line by asking (impatiently? quizzically? sarcastically?)

                                                            How does he love me?

But now there are twelve syllables in the line, not the conventional ten, and the underlying iambic rhythm is disrupted by the dominant stress on ‘How’ for Olivia’s question follows the rhythmic formula DUM-diddy dum-di. (cf Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 43: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’). Viola tries one last time to keep to Orsino's instructions  (‘O then unfold the passion of my love, / Surprise her with discourse of my dear faith.’ 1.iv.24-5) by telling Olivia he loves her

With adorations, fertile tears,
With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire.

But this is finally too much for Olivia, who snaps:

Your lord does know my mind, I cannot love him.

On its own this eleven-syllable line shows little sign of being blank verse. Politeness, however, demands she should not be quite so abrupt, so she begins another inventory, this time itemising Orsino’s good qualities and looks, and this time in verse:

Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble,
Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth,
In voices well divulged, free, learn’d, and valiant,
And in dimension and the shape of nature
A gracious person; but yet I cannot love him.
He might have took his answer long ago.            

But of this speech only two lines are conventional iambic pentameters. Every other line is stretched or distorted in some way as Olivia struggles to contain her annoyance and frustration behind a mask of good manners. Indeed, it’s best not to try to squeeze the lines into a shape they so clearly resist, but to be guided by pause and emphasis. I offer the following suggested scansion:

       ⁄    ˇ
Your lord
does know
my mind,
(I) cannot
love him.

   ⁄  ˇ    ˇ      
    ⁄      ˇ

  ⁄    ˇ    ˇ

  ⁄    ˇ

Yet I sup-
pose him
know him




Of great
of fresh
and stain-
less youth,

  ˇ     ⁄

      ⁄     ˇ ˇ

In voi-
ces well
free, learn’d
(&) valiant,

   ⁄    ˇ    ˇ
   ⁄     ˇ
   ⁄     ˇ
   ⁄        ˇ
   ⁄   ˇ

And in di-
and the
shape of

          ⁄   ˇ  ˇ

  ⁄      ˇ
  ˇ     ˇ     
    ⁄    ˇ  
  ⁄       ˇ

(A) gracious
but yet I
love him.

 ⁄       ˇ           ˇ
⁄   ˇ 
⁄     ˇ
      ⁄    ˇ  ˇ

He might have
took his
 long ago.


I’ve set myself two rules here. First, to try to find five stresses for each line, which, even introducing trisyllabic feet (e.g. in line 6) is not too difficult since so many of the lines have more than ten syllables.  Second, to follow the classical principle that you cannot have a pause – a caesura – in the middle of a metrical foot: if I had scanned line 2 in standard iambics, the pause would have come in the middle of the fourth foot (‘-uous, II know’) which wouldn’t do.

Not everyone will be happy with my stressing the two ‘ands’ in line 5, nor with the way I have scanned the second half of line 6. But the fact that Olivia uses the statement ‘I cannot love him’ twice in seven lines invites variation; and dramatically I think an actresss and an audience might get more out of this speech by emphasizing the contrast between her feelings and Orsino’s in the last two lines.

I'm grateful to the student who asked my advice about this speech. I've known Twelfth Night almost all my life, and it was the first Shakespeare play in which I ever acted, but I have never had to think so hard before about how a line should actually be spoken. Better late than never, I suppose!


  1. I see that you now have twelve disciples, Adrian, which makes it appropriate to talk about Twelfth Night, although you have published it on Bonfire Night, which suggests subversion rather than celebration. This is an interesting exercise and one I shall spring on my students in Terminale who are studying the play for the OIB this year. I think we shall enjoy speaking the lines as you have scanned them and hopefully this will encourage them to think about the naturalness of blank verse as a medium for drama and poetry in English, in spite of the underlying regularity of the rhythm. I was once lucky enough to attend a demonstration by an extraordinary teacher of Shakespeare who showed us a trick I almost religiously use each year with new students in my literature classes in order for them to understand and retain the definition of iambic pentameter. She got us all standing up and walking around in a ‘snake’ chanting ‘I am’ as many as five times, each time emphasising the second word. This rhythm, she explained, is like the heartbeat, and the words ‘I am’ tell us that we exist, that we are alive. This rhythm runs through Shakespeare’s blank verse giving it life. Of course, this is simply a trick to remember the name of the iambic foot and where the stress falls but how extraordinarily illustrative and what fun! Everything exists... ou-boum!

  2. I tried out this blog entry on my terminale students today and we had great fun having a go at speaking the lines using your scansion. It's not easy to coax students away from a mechanical, rhythmical chant towards a more natural delivery but some of the more advanced of them gave a fine performance. I think the whole exercise gave them an insight into how Olivia feels at this moment and I hope it will help them should they have to discuss the passage. What was particularly interesting was the notion of an inventory and itemising parts of the lady's face, which led me to revise the 'blazon' and the 'carpe diem' theme. All good, wholesome fun. Footing it sweetly.