Quince’s Hidden Heptameter

[banner] MND 1935 mechanicals

12 June 2023
· Fourteeners in MND, echoing my earliest poems ·

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1. We’re near the end of the play, at the climax of the play inside the play, The Most Lamentable Comedy, and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. The story, adapted by carpenter Peter Quince, is being performed by his fellow mechanicals. Puck’s the one who called them rude. Weaver Nick Bottom, recovered from his enchantment with an ass’s head, plays the young lover Pyramus. Pyramus arrives at an arranged meeting place to find his sweetheart Thisbe missing. She was there first, but ran off to hide from a lion. She dropped her mantle (scarf), which the lion smeared with the blood of some other prey before departing.

Pyramus begins in (iambic) pentameter, then switches to couplet-rhymed fourteeners, heptameter. What follows beneath this screencap from the First Folio is the text with a few tweaks and the lines laid out more clearly than they are in most printed editions of the play. That’s how Quince’s heptameter is hidden, or nearly so. If you see the lines set like this:FF MND Pyramus1 pent-heptameterand you aren’t already aware of what they are, it’s less likely that your mind’s ear will hear them as heptameter. The long lines were too wide for the book’s two-column format, so they were broken up. They might break on your web page also, depending on the width of your display. On a mobile, they’re all going to break.

  • Pyramus:
  • Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams,
  • I thank thee Moon, for shining now so bright.
  • For by thy gracious, golden, glittering beamsNearly everyone changes this to gleams, but it’s supposed to be bad. See the screencap. For once it wasn’t a typo.
  • I trust to taste of truest Thisbe’s sight.
  • But stay: O spite! But mark, poor knight, what dreadful dole is here?
  • Eyes, do you see? How can it be! O dainty duck, O dear!
  • Thy mantle good, what– stained with blood! Approach, you Furies fell.
  • O Fates! Come come, cut thread and thrum, quail, crush, conclude, and quell.

In a film or live performance the heptameter can be even more obscure, depending on the actor’s delivery. Sometimes it disappears entirely.

After a couple of snarky comments by Theseus and Hippolyta, Pyramus delivers another pentameter quatrain followed by another in heptameter. Note that all but one of these heptameter lines rhyme (or try to) at the second and fourth iambs as well as at the couplet ends.

  • Pyramus:
  • O wherefore Nature, did’st thou lions frame?
  • Since lion wild hath here deflower’dDo I need to point out that this was a gag? Bottom botches the word devour’d. Without the laughter of a live audience it’s hard to tell who gets it. The 1999 film directed by Michael Hoffman did. my dear,
  • Which is– no, no, which was the fairest dame
  • That liv’d, that lov’d, that lik’d, that look’d with cheer.
  • Come tears, confound: out sword, and wound the pap of Pyramus.
  • Aye, that left pap, where heart doth hop, thus die I, thus, thus, thus.
  • [Stabs himself repeatedly]
  • Now am I dead, now am I fled, my soul is in the sky,
  • Tongue lose thy light, Moon take thy flight, now die, die, die, die, die.
  • [Dies]

More snark, then Thisbe, played in drag by bellows-mender Francis Flute, returns to find Pyramus dead on the ground. Her lament is entirely in heptameter:

  • Thisbe:
  • Asleep, my love? What, dead, my dove? O Pyramus, arise,
  • Speak, speak. Quite dumb? Dead, dead? A tomb must cover thy sweet eyes.
  • These lily lips, this cherry nose, these yellow cowslip cheeks
  • Are gone, are gone. Lovers make moan, his eyes were green as leeks.
  • O sisters three, come come to me, with hands as pale as milk,
  • Lay them in gore, since you have shore with shears his thread of silk.
  • Tongue, not a word. Come trusty sword, come blade, my breast imbrue.
  • [Stabs herself]
  • And farewell friends, thus Thisbe ends: adieu, adieu, adieu.
  • [Dies]

The amateur theatrical ends in most cruel death, but the larger play goes on to conclude happily for all. If you pardon, we will mend, and so on.

The actor Stephen Fry, in his 2006 book The Ode Less Travelled, stated on his own authority (he mentioned no other) that Stratford Willy Shakspere wrote MND’s fourteener lines to make fun of me, personally.

From the book’s third chapter:

Actually, fourteeners were very popular in the sixteenth century, although Shakespeare disdained their use, a fact which has been adduced by some to damn the claims of Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, as the real author of the Shakespearean canon, for Oxford loved them:

  • My life through lingering long is lodged, in lair of loathsome ways,
  • My death delayed to keep from life, the harm of hapless days.

I would rather speak for myself than have Arachnean presumptions woven for me. Loved is Fry’s hyperbole, but any emotion I felt for heptameter I felt as a teenager. Fourteeners were my stabilisers, my training wheels, when I was first learning how to write poetry. I spent a lot of time with them in the 1560s– as Fry mentioned they were a popular form, with their steady beat like a John Philip Sousa march. Once my own sense of rhythm and balance developed I didn’t need them any more (also mentioned by Fry, again presuming his verb) except in situations like Quince’s play where I used them for comedic effect, and to pay homage to the parading fourteeners of my adolescence.

Fry chose not to provide an iota of context or background for the quote, so its author shall. The lines were taken from Loss of My Good Name, which like most of the published poetry connected to me as myself (as opposed to Shake-Speare), is juvenilia, not mature work. Loss of My Good Name is one of my earliest extant poems, written a year or so after I moved from the home and tutelage of Sir Thomas Smith to William Cecil’s household in London in 1562. My father’s unexpected death at the age of forty-six was the cause of my relocation and subsequent upheavals. I wrote the poem during this second traumatic period in my life, for reasons that don’t matter here. I was unhappy. I was grieving. I was thirteen.

The complete poem and some others from this early period are linked in the Sources following the post.

Fry continued:

This preposterously over-alliterated couplet hardly seems Shakespearean– in fact, Shakespeare mocked precisely such bombastic nonsense in Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-a-play performed by Bottom and the other unlettered ‘rude mechanicals’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, having great fun at the expense of Oxfordian fourteeners and their vulgar alliterations.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail double facepalmHow is it possible to be this close to the point, yet miss it so completely? I thought Fry was smarter (and more polite) than this. Truly, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

Sources and additional reading

  • Banner[banner]: The mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, 1935. L to R: Joe E Brown (Flute the bellows-mender), Arthur Treacher (Epilogue, an added character who never speaks), Otis Harlan (Starveling the tailor), Hugh Herbert (Snout the tinker), Frank McHugh (Quince the carpenter), Dewey Robinson (Snug the joiner), James Cagney (Bottom the weaver), and I don’t know who the fellow is at the back. More about the play and the film: A Late Summer Afternoon’s Daydream, posted 13 Sept 2017.
  • Oxford’s Poems [oxford-shakespeare.com]
  • · on Nina Green’s Oxford Authorship website
  • · Loss of My Good Name is #4 on the list