The Operative Word and Caesurae

The Operative Word & Caesurae

 Look for two crucially important words per line: the operative words. Those tend to carry a great deal of the line’s importance or weight and (not surprisingly) tend to come in two places: before the caesura and at the end of the line.

What is the caesura, you say? The caesura is a little pauselet in the (approximate) middle of the line. It usually occurs between major phrases or “chunks” of thought and sometimes editors of Shakespeare are nice to you and will put commas or semicolons there. Please mark caesurae with a //.

Two households both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss our toil shall strive to mend.


Now in this scene, Act II.ii from Hamlet, do the following:      

  • Look for the operative words
  • Find the caesurae      
  • AVOID thinking that adjectives are the operative word. Look for NOUNS.      

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward?

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