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Reuven Tsur

Stress Maximum in the Fifth Position

Rhythmical Performance

This article is a contribution to my perception-oriented theory of metre and theory of rhythmical performance, propounded in two of my books (Tsur, 1977; 1998), and many articles. It focuses on one theoretical issue, and on a single verse line (Excerpt 1), from Gloucester's first Soliloquy in Richard III, complementing my argument in two of my earlier e-journal papers (Tsur, 1997; 2002). The former article explores the rhythmical performance of stress maxima in weak position; but, at the time, I couldn't find suitable examples of stress maxima in the fifth position, the one that is least tolerant of violation, in a work that has several recordings by experienced readers. Later I found an exquisite instance in Gloucester's first soliloquy in Richard III [Excerpt 1]. In the latter article I analyse Simon Russel Beale's reading of Gloucester's soliloquy. Since then I had access to four additional recordings of the soliloquy. Such a sample provides an excellent opportunity to make meaningful distinctions that may yield significant insight into the phenomenon. In what follows, I am going to attempt just that.

Morris Halle and Jay Keyser were the founding fathers of generative metrics, proposing a parsimonious rule which, they claim, can generate all metrical lines, but no unmetrical ones. A metrical line is one in which no stress maximum occurs in a weak position. A stress maximum is, according to the latest version of the Halle-Keyser theory (1971), a syllable that bears lexical stress, between two unstressed syllables. Consider Excerpt 1:


The second syllable of "curTAIL'D of" is a stress maximum according to this definition.1 Since it occurs in the fifth position (which is odd-numbered and therefore a weak position in the iambic metre), this verse line is ruled unmetrical under the Halle-Keyser theory. Halle and Keyser and their critics all over the world found about twelve unmetrical lines under this theory in major English poetry. However, in my books (Tsur, 1977; 1998) I provided a list of over 52 additional instances (not counting Donne's Satyres). Such a sample was big enough to suggest some method in this madness. In an iambic pentameter line there are four weak positions available for violation under this theory (positions 3, 5, 7, 9). A random distribution of violations would allocate, therefore, 25% to each one. Nearly two thirds, however, occur in position 7; nearly one third in position 3. Most instances that occur in positions 5 and 9 are fairly doubtful instances. The line under discussion is one of the very few indisputably genuine instances. I have argued that a stress maximum in a weak position is acceptable to such poets as Shakespeare, Milton and Shelley, for instance, provided that they can be performed rhythmically; and this distribution reflects the relative difficulty of doing this. This, in turn, is influenced by a hierarchy of metric boundaries: line ending, unmarked caesura, marked caesura —in this descending order of "grouping potential".

As I have argued in several places, caesura articulates a verse line in the middle; in the iambic pentameter line, that cannot be divided into two segments of equal length and equal structure, it may occur after positions 4, 5, or 6. When a pentameter line is divided into segments of 4 and 6 positions, "the shorter segment comes first" is the unmarked option (that is, when caesura occurs after position 4); "the longest comes first" is the marked option (that is, when caesura occurs after position 6).

A stressed syllable in a weak position (a stress maximum even more so) disturbs metre, and arouses expectations for reinstatement, "presses forward" for resolution. When the stress pattern and meter have again a "coinciding downbeat", tension is resolved, and the metre becomes "fresh and new". Metre may be reconfirmed in the next or the next but one strong position. Only the latter may constitute a stress maximum. In this case, the period of uncertainty is longer, the threat to rhythm greater, and the resolution, if achieved, more gratifying. Position 1 is weak, but a stressed syllable displaced to it cannot be a stress maximum by definition. Furthermore, when such a displacement occurs, meter is reinstated by a "coinciding downbeat" in position 4, that is, just before the unmarked caesura, achieving considerable stability. So, it is perfectly acceptable even to Alexander Pope. A violation of metre in position 3 is compensated for in position 6, just before the marked caesura. After a stress maximum in the ninth position, metre cannot be reinstated in position 10 by definition. A stress maximum in the fifth position suppresses confirming stress before both potential metric boundaries (in positions 4 and 6), and must be compensated for in position 8, which is not followed by a metric boundary, and where stability is precarious. Consequently, stress maxima in the fifth and ninth positions are the least acceptable violations of the iambic pentameter. The greatest stability is achieved when the stress maximum occurs in position 7, that is, when the resolution effected by the next "coinciding downbeat" occurs in the tenth (last) position of the line, enhancing its closure.

In a series of empirical studies I have found that experienced readers tend to perform stress maxima in the seventh position without questioning, and find the results satisfying. Though not aware of the required solution, their solutions tend to be remarkably similar; and are in harmony with predictions based on the Gestalt theory of grouping: the deviating stress will be over- rather than under-emphasised; it will begin a closed and symmetrical group of four syllables ("stress valley"), ending in the tenth position; and will tend to be isolated from the preceding stretch of syllables, while still taking care of perceptual continuity demanded by syntax—indicated by conflicting phonetic cues.

schematic mapping
Figure 1 Schematic mapping of possible stress valleys beginning with a stressed syllable
               or stress maximum in a weak position; the arrows point to the positions
               in which metre is reinstated by coinciding downbeats.

I have said that in the case of a stress maximum in a weak position, the deviating stress is over- rather than under-emphasised. According to Cooper and Meyer (1960: 8), in musical performance, the placing of some extra accent may affect the grouping of sounds. Since there is a tendency for accents to begin a group, the placing of accent on a strong beat tends to articulate the sequence in beginning-stressed groups; an accent on a weak beat presents the group as end-stressed. The extra accent in the seventh (weak) position of the line creates a drive to focus the stress valley on the last syllable, enhancing the feeling of strong closure (at the end of the stress valley and the line).

When I wrote my work on the performance of stress maxima in weak position, I had no suitable examples of stress maximum in the fifth position, nor a variety of performances of a single line by experienced readers that could be compared. More recently I have discovered that Gloucester's first soliloquy in Richard III. contains an instance. I have got hold of three commercially available recordings of the full play, a commercially available CD with a selection of soliloquies from Shakespeare, and a website with poetry recordings by Rufus Eagles. Excerpt 1 contains a felicitous instance of a stress maximum in the fifth (weak) position.

If you are looking for criteria for metricalness, this verse line would be ruled "unmetrical" by any standard. First, it is a stress maximum in a weak position. Second, it occurs in the weak position least tolerant of violation. Third, some prosodists (Kiparsky 1975, 1977; Magnusson ad Ryder 1970, and others) allow only stressed monosyllables in weak positions; they rule unmetrical all instances of polysyllables that have their stressed syllable in a weak position, even if no stress maximum is involved. Since in such Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic poets as Shakespeare, Milton, and Shelley there is an abundance of disyllables in SW position, Kiparsky argues for a suspendable stress inversion rule. Fourth, I have my doubts about this suspendable stress inversion rule. But even if you accept it, it "was more widely applicable in the language of Shakespeare's poetry", says Kiparsky. "Words like forlorn, extreme, or supreme, and compounds like unknown and outworn appear systematically in WS position predicatively and in SW position attributively". Now, "curTAILED" is a disyllable in SW position, but a straightforward verb used "predicatively"; its stressed syllable constitutes a stress maximum in a weak position, that happens to be, precisely, the fifth position. It is hard to imagine a more "unmetrical" line —if you are looking for criteria for metricalness.

Psychologically, "the rhythmical performance" of a poem is a perceptual solution to a perceptual problem: when the linguistic and versification patterns conflict, they are accommodated in a pattern of performance, such that both are perceptible simultaneously. Ideally, I ought to play pairs of performances to a great number of listeners and ask whether any one of them did solve the perceptual problems. In practice, however, there are almost insurmountable difficulties even with expert listeners. Though I have collected from listeners quite a few illuminating but sporadic rhythmicality judgments, controlled experiments with great numbers of listeners appear to be a remote possibility. The rhythmical performance of a poem is a complex event. If one succeeds at all in eliciting rhythmicality judgments from a considerable number of respondents, they may respond to different subsets of its features, and thus their responses may not be comparable (cf. Tsur, 2006). Besides, you may get even from professional respondents such answers as "To my mind, poetic rhythm only detracts from the poem's meaning", or "I can't distinguish between vocal performances". So, the best I can do is something that can be summed up by adapting two of Morris Weitz's (1962) phrases in his classic, "The Role of Theory in Aesthetics". First, I am exploring here not such questions as whether one should or should not postulate suspendable stress-inversion rules, or whether the violation of any one of the criteria for metricality does render a verse line unmetrical, but whether, given the mismatches, a performance can be imagined or secured that allows to perceive the conflicting linguistic and versification patterns at the same time. Second, since controlled experiments with eliciting rhythmicality judgments do not seem feasible at present, I can only make crucial recommendations as to what to look for in the rhythmical performance of a poem, and how to look at it. Submitting those recommendations to public discussions sometimes turns up surprisingly illuminating results. Furthermore, if listeners tend to respond to different subsets of features of the complex event, experienced performers, per contra, sometimes offer considerable overlap in their solutions of the same problems. Then one may examine whether such solutions do or do not conform with the predictions of the theory.

For years I had access to only one recording of Exerpt 1, the one by Beale. I tried to apply to it, with the necessary changes, the conception I developed for stress maxima in the seventh position, as outlined above. I'll reproduce here my description and interpretation of this reading. But it left me with a dim feeling of dissatisfaction; as will be seen, exposure to additional readings lead me to reconsider certain aspects.


Figure 2 Wave plot and pitch contour of "I, that am curTAIL'D
               of this fair proportion". read by Simon Russel Beale2

Listen to the line "I, that am curTAIL'D of this fair proportion", read by Simon Russel Beale

So, let us listen to Beale's reading, and have a close look at Figure 2. One thing that draws attention is the exceptionally high pitch on "–TAILED" jutting out from the pitch plot. A lesser curve of a similar shape is assigned to the line-initial "I". These two curves have two opposite effects each: on the one hand, they indicate extra stress in a weak position, generating a forward impetus toward the end of the stress valley; on the other hand, they are conspicuous terminal contours, grouping the utterance backward. The wave plot shows that there is no measurable pause between "I" and its sequel ("that am"). Thus, the intonation contour clearly articulates the boundary of "I", separating it for a rhetorical effect (to emphasize a contrast to what others do in this "weak piping time of peace", and to render it part of the anaphoric pattern "But I, that am... I, that am... I, that am... Why, I..."). By the same token, it generates a forward drive, reinforced by the lack of measurable pause. There is no measurable pause between "–TAILED" and "of" either. What is more, the [d] and the [o] are co-articulated: there is no point in the sequence at the left of which there is an unambiguous [d], at the right an unambiguous [o]. The segment isolated at the "watershed" provides information about both a [d] and an [o]. This takes care of continuity, while the jutting terminal contour constitutes an exceptionally well-articulated caesura. Concurrently, as the stressed syllable occurs in a weak position, it generates an exceptionally impetuous forward movement across the caesura.

This is one of the verse lines that put the reader's rhythmic competence to greater than usual trial. The first syllable ("I" with an emphatic stress) intrudes upon rhythmic regularity in a weak position, initiating a forward pressure for resolution. Regularity ought to be restored by a stressed syllable in the fourth position. There we find, however, the first (unstressed) syllable of "curtail'd", followed by its stressed syllable in the fifth position. This violates metre by a stress maximum in a weak position. The first stressed syllable in a strong position ("fair") occurs in this line as late as position 8, where it ought to achieve some degree of focal stability. It ought to, but doesn't. As I said above, a stress maximum in the fifth position suppresses both potential metric boundaries (after positions 4 and 6), and must be compensated for in position 8, which is not followed by a metric boundary, and where stability cannot be achieved. To make things worse, "fair" in position 8 is an adjective whose stress is subordinated to that of the ensuing noun ("proportion"). Thus, the metric pattern of Excerpt 1 is disconfirmed or violated by metrically unexpected accents in positions 1 and 5, giving rise to end-stressed groupings; the arising foreward pressure, however, is continually forwarded to ever-later strong positions, until it achieves, eventually, focal stability in the last strong position, position 10. This well-closed fluid unit becomes part of a wider fluid structure. The line ending in this performance of Excerpt 1 is characterised by conspicuous conflicting cues. The unusually prolonged word-final [n] suggests completion and discontinuity; the rising intonation on the [n], however, suggests that something is still to come. What is more, the prolongation of [n] renders the rising intonation contour more salient. By the same token, this rising contour has a prominent unsettling emotional effect (tone of defiance).

It is almost impossible to perform such a verse line rhythmically. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that irregularities at one rank are more acceptable if at the rank above greater regularity is preserved. The preservation of rhythmicality depends, among other things, on whether such disintegrating forces as a pause in mid-phrase, for instance, are balanced by such appropriate integrating forces as clear-cut articulation of the line ending, or some perceptual force propelling across the pause (see below). People are more willing to accept irregularity in midline if at the line ending focal stability is achieved. In this reading of this line, this willingness is strained to the utmost. The continually forwarded drive is intended to reach the point of focal stability as fast as possible, to avoid chaos. Still, the time span required to reach that point exceeds the limited capacity of short-term memory. To solve this problem, the reciter effects two vocal manipulations in positions 4 and 5. First, as we have seen, the jutting intonation on "–TAIL'D" clearly articulates the hemistich boundary (reinforced by the excessive prolongation of the [l]), while generating a perceptual force propelling across it (reinforced by co-articulation). Second, both syllables of "curtail" as well as the boundary between them are grossly over-articulated, so as to generate a syllable with a transitory stress, so to speak, later subordinated to the stress of the next syllable. Traditional metrists speak of "hovering stress", that is, when the stress is equally distributed over two adjacent syllables. In my corpus of performances this is extremely rare (I have encountered so far only one genuine instance). The over-articulation of "cur–" and the greater intensity of the first syllable "predict" such an equally distributed stress; but then the stress of this emphatic syllable turns out to be subordinated to an even more strongly stressed one. Thus, the syllable in the fourth (strong) position is momentarily stressed, and the verse line achieves some degree of articulated stability.

Such a reading gives, I believe, satisfactory account of the fluidity perceived in the performed line, and the difficulty to perform it. Still, as I said, I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction as to accounting for the contribution of the salient falling pitch contour to the acceptance of the line as an integrated whole. Encounter with additional performances enabled me to revaluate certain features of the performance, especially by shifting emphasis from the pressing-for-resolution function of the stress maximum in the fifth position (overstressed and over-articulated by a long-falling pitch contour), to the backward grouping function of the terminal contour in mid-phrase. This made me realize an additional, intermediate organizing principle that may facilitate the acceptance of the line as a rhythmic whole.

Figure 3 Wave plot and pitch contour of "I, that am
               curTAIL'D o ..." read by Robert Stephens.

Listen to the line "I, that am curTAIL'D of this fair proportion" read by Robert Stephens.

Figure 4 Wave plot and pitch contour of "I, that am
               curTAIL'D o...". read by Rufus Eagles

Listen to the line "I, that am curTAIL'D of this fair proportion" read by Rufus Eagles.

Regarding the rhythmic effect of the readings, let us compare, first, Eagles' reading on the one hand, to Stephens' and Beale's on the other. Intuitively, Eagles makes no attempt to cope with the rhythmic problem posed by the stress maximum in the fifth position. Beale and Stephens, by contrast, make certain unusual vocal manipulations which, for some listeners at least, generate a perceptual solution to the conflicting patterns of language and versification. One point will be immediately observed: far from playing down the deviant stress, both Beale and Stephens emphatically overstress and over-articulate it.

Consider the word "curtail". In Beale's and Stephens' readings the syllable "–tailed" is extremely overstressed and over-articulated by all available phonetic cues. "–tailed" is disproportionately longer and louder than "cur–", and there is a huge leap of pitch between the two syllables, followed by a long, falling intonation contour. The boundary between the two syllables is over-articulated by an intervening pause and the leap of pitch in Beale's reading; in Stephens' reading, more explicitly, by the rising-falling intonation contour. In addition, in Beale's reading, the whole word is over-articulated by the aspiration of the plosives /k/ and /t/ (see below).

Figure 5 Wave plot and pitch contour of "I, that am
              curTAIL'D o...". read by Ian Holm

Listen to the line "I, that am curTAIL'D of this fair proportion" read by Ian Holm.

Figure 6 Wave plot and pitch contour of "I, that am
              curTAIL'D o...". read by Kenneth Branagh

Listen to the line "I, that am curTAIL'D of this fair proportion" read by Kenneth Branagh.

Holm and Branagh have recourse to a moderated version of Beale's and Stephens' solution. In their readings, the contrast of duration and amplitude between the two syllables is less extreme, But the articulatory pause is conspicuous between them, and also the leap of pitch and the deep-falling terminal intonation contour. As I said, the syllable "–tailed" is much shorter in these two readings; but, on the other hand, here too the intonation contour continues to fall on the liquid (/l/), and then is dragged out to the right as in Beale's reading. Thus, these two readings have an effect that is similar to the other two readings, but less palpable.

[Long after having submitted this paper to Versification, I ran on the internet into Laurence Olivier's and Ian McKellen's film versions of Richard III. Neither of them faces up to the complexities of this line. Olivier inverts the stress on "cúrtail'd":

McKellen simply skips the line. ]

One conspicuous difference between Eagles' reading and the rest is that he contracts the words "that am" into "th'am", violating the perceived correspondence between syllables and metrical positions. According to the present conception, it is the perceived correspondence between syllables and metrical positions rather than time relationships that determine the rhythmic character of the line. Thus, for instance, in two out of the five readings there is a huge pause after "I"; whereas in Beale's, Branagh's and Stephens' readings "I" is run into "that" with no measurable pause between them. In the following sound excerpt, I have deleted a 763-msec pause after "I" in Ian Holm's reading (the duration of "I" itself is 259 msec). It will be noted that this drastic reduction of time does not affect the iambic character of the line but, rather, its rhetoric or stylistic effect. (If there is a rhythmic problem with Holm's reading, it is not at this point, but in assigning greater stress to "this" than to "of").

Listen to a doctored version of the line "I, that am curTAIL'D of this fair proportion" read by Ian Holm. Although a 763-msec pause has been deleted after "I", the iambic character of the line has not been altered—as compared to the genuine version.

This difference does not affect the rhythmic cadence of the verse lines (viewed in an iambic context, in each case it generates a forward pressure for resolution which may, or may not materialize in the fourth position; whereas when viewed in a trochaic context, it generates a stable onset). The purpose of the pause is, as I said, obviously rhetorical, not rhythmical (viz., to indicate a very dramatic contrast). But the difference between the performances in this respect is stylistic rather than rhetorical. Holm and Eagles have recourse to redundant phonetic cues to indicate discontinuation: pause and terminal intonation contour. Beale, Branagh and Stephens use conflicting phonetic cues to indicate continuation and discontinuation at the same time: lack of pause for continuation, and terminal intonation contour for discontinuation. The effect of this is much subtler than that of redundant cues.

The perceptual dynamics of the process will be illuminated by the following manipulation. I have pasted the pause excised from Holm's reading into Branagh's reading, at the same place, hoping that here too the iambic character will not be affected. This exercise, however, didn't yield satisfactory results. In Branagh's reading the terminal contour on "I" falls deeper than in Holm's. Consequently, while in Holm's genuine reading the shorter terminal contour leaves room for the expectation of some continuation after the pause, the deeper terminal contour followed by a long pause in Branagh's doctored reading arouses the false impression that nothing is to follow, and the line falls apart. There is too much indication of discontinuation, too little of continuation. This exercise suggests that cues for discontinuity must be balanced by cues for continuity in order to preserve the integrity of the line in perception.

Listen to a doctored version of the line "I, that am curTAIL'D of this fair proportion" read by Kenneth Branagh. The pause excised from Holm's reading has been pasted into Branagh's reading, at the same place. When following an over-articulated terminal contour, the long pause causes the line to disintegrate

In all five readings the /d/ of "curtailed" is of greater amplitude than usual, is separated by a minute pause from /l/, and run into the ensuing vowel, with no measurable pause. The pause before /d/ is not perceived as a pause at all, but as an articulatory gesture: prolonged closure of the tongue, for the over-articulation of /d/. Thus, the pause before rather than after /d/ is responsible for the clear articulation of the word-final /d/ and, by the same token, of the caesura; at the same time, it suggests continuity between the two words. (Intuitively, [d] is less emphatic in Eagles' reading than, e.g., in Branagh's reading; but this cannot be substantiated in the computer's output). In four of five readings, in addition, the syllable "–tailed" is over-articulated and overstressed by all available phonetic cues, among them a huge leap of pitch on "–tailed" and an obtrusive, falling terminal contour. This indicates an over-articulated caesura (despite the continuity) and also clearly has to do with an intuition (shared by quite a few readers) that Beale, Stephens, Branagh and Holm do somehow solve the grave perceptual problem generated by the stress maximum in the fifth position, while Eagles does not. It will also be noticed that in the readings of Beale, Stephens, Branagh and Holm the liquid /l/ is much longer than in Eagles' reading, and the intonation contour on it is surprisingly perceptible, enhancing the total effect. In what follows, I will explore the source of this intuition.

In Tsur 1977 and 1997 (reprinted in Tsur 1998) I explored how experienced readers typically perform a stress maximum in the seventh position of an iambic pentameter line (similar strategies are deployed in performing a stress maximum in the third position). As to a stress maximum in the ninth position, I pointed out (in Tsur, 1998) radically different strategies. Stress maxima in the fifth position are very rare, and I found at the time no performances of such deviations to explore. So, the present line with its five performances gives us an exceptionally apt opportunity. In this case, too, the solution will be radically different from the other cases, but in strict agreement with their underlying principles.

It is noteworthy, then, that four outstanding British actors choose to have recourse to an obtrusive terminal contour in mid-phrase. Its purpose is apparently obvious: to articulate a caesura in midline, without disrupting the continuity of syntax. This terminal contour, however, is more than usually obtrusive, over-articulating and overstressing the deviant syllable. As I have already indicated, this has to do, somehow, with accommodating the mismatched patterns. For one, clear-cut articulation of the word boundary facilitates the perception of the correspondence between syllables and metrical positions, whether convergent or divergent.

To understand the nature of this verse line, let us consider for a moment the following verse, two lines earlier in the same soliloquy:


The contrastive stress on "I" is displaced to the left, to the first (weak) position, generating a forward pressure for resolution (traditional metrics calls this "inverted first foot"). This resolution is achieved in the fourth position, where the stressed syllable "rúde–" confirms a strong position, generating a symmetrical stress valley (two stressed syllables embracing two unstressed syllables). For years I have conceived of "I, that am curtailed" as of such a stress valley manqué, preventing me to see the solution of the riddle. Once I restructured my conception, the solution was pretty evident: the two metric deviations turn the stretch into a regular trochaic pattern. As a result, the obtrusive caesura divides the verse line into two well-articulated, regular, straightforward trochaic segments that are sufficiently similar to be perceived as symmetrical:


An anonymous discussant of Wimsatt's paper "The Rule and the Norm" observes "What Wimsatt had aptly called the assimilative power of the meter could presumably assimilate even five trochees into the framework of an iambic poem [...] Certain lines can be very weak without being completely unmetrical; of course, a heavy concentration of such lines might change the meter" (Chatman, 1971: 14) Though I had no actual performances in view, I expounded in my 1977 book a general theoretical apparatus that may, after the event, account for these performances as well. In what follows, I will explore how does the performance preferred by four actors advance the assimilation of such a line into the iambic-pentameter framework of this soliloquy. Let us begin with two statements by Leonard B. Meyer and Rudolf Arnheim, who applied Gestalt Psychology to music and the visual arts, respectively: "The mind will tend to improve the over-all articulation even if this means weakening some of the individual shapes" (Meyer, 1956: 187). "The rule that governs the process is evident. The effect depends on the degree of simplicity of parts. Greater simplicity of the whole makes for greater unity. The simpler the parts, the more clearly they should stand out as independent entities" (Arnheim, 1967: 61). The grossly over-articulated caesura divides the verse line into two symmetrical segments that "clearly stand out as independent entities", owing to their simplicity. This directs attention away from the foot level and the line level to the intermediate segment level. Conflicting patterns of stress and metre may demand clear-cut articulation and/or emphatic grouping of stress (giving rise to "higher architectonic levels"), Articulation may occur on various levels (phoneme, syllable, stress-group, phrase, etc,), directing attention to one or another architectonic level. This offers a means for handling rhythmic disturbances in poetry, as in music, by focusing attention upon levels in which disturbances are less conspicuous: "If tempo is too slow or if the performer over-articulates lower metric levels, the effect of syncopated notes may be weakened" (Cooper and Meyer, 1960: 100). When the metrical foot is not confirmed or is disconfirmed, the focus of attention may be shifted from the foot to the unit below (the position), or the unit above (the group, the segment), but only for a very short period of time (determined by the span of short-term memory, fixed at around 4-5 syllables—the magical number seven minus two), during which the suspended regularly recurring beats can be remembered and/or anticipated (by the 'metrical set').

Now, the catch is that the two segments, in spite of their great structural similarity, are opposed in one crucial respect: while the first segment is consistently out of phase with the iambic pattern, generating tension and striving for resolution, in the second segment the versification pattern and linguistic pattern have coinciding downbeats, in strict accordance with the iambic meter. Thus, the process is not unlike that involved in "metric disturbance" in music. Leonard B. Meyer's discussion (1956) may apply here too. "The disturbance of metric organization not only acts as intensification, it also acts to recondition the metric scheme throughout the movement. It makes the meter fresh and new when it once again moves with the usual regularity" (p, 118), The difference concerns the duration of the period of uncertainty before resolution is achieved: four metrical positions or a whole line.

We have compared in some detail four readings of the soliloquy that do attempt to solve the problem of the stress maximum in the fifth position, and one that apparently doesn't. In what follows, I will compare in considerable detail the word "curtail" in Beale's reading to the standard pronunciation, as uttered by a male speaker in Merriam–Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Audio Edition. The difference between the two pronunciations can be observed in Figures 7 and 8, which provide information about two tokens of "curtail", one reproduced from the Dictionary, the other excised from Gloucester's soliloquy. I am not going to provide the exact measurements in the two readings; the differences between the two diagrams are conspicuous, and can directly be seen. The second token (excised from the soliloquy) is considerably longer as a whole; each one of its syllables too is considerably longer, the consonants are disproportionately long, and of greater intensity. The voiceless plosives are, in addition, aspirated,3 generating an exceptionally strong emotive quality. In the artistic recitation, again, the first syllable is indicated by two separate, huge blots in the wave plot. The pitch plots of the two readings have roughly the same shape. The pitch of the second one reaches about 10 Hz higher, but covers a, roughly, 12-Hz-shorter pitch range. Nonetheless, the pitch movement is much more readily discerned here, because it is spread over a longer time span. The listening ear can also distinguish a deviation of the long stressed vowel in the artistic reading from the vowel quality of the dictionary reading: it is somehow "fuller", but also "more open", "brighter".

Both readings are over-articulated, but with quite different effects (generated by the different cues pointed out above). The dictionary reading is precisionist, emphasizes the minutiae of articulation in a way that would be unacceptable in connected speech, even highly educated. This is intended as a prototype from which other performances deviate. The dictionary reading may serve as an "objective" standard (that is, without distortion of personal feelings or versification requirements), from which the artistic recital deviates. The differences we have discerned between these two readings result from precisely such distortions. Consider, for instance, the over-articulated and aspirated plosives, and the prolonged [l]. I have pointed out their contribution to the solution of a rhythmic problem; at the same time, they indicate that these phonemes are exceptionally charged with such emotion as sarcasm or anger.

Figure 7
    Wave plot and pitch contour of two tokens of "curtail", one read
                  by a male reader in the audio version of Merriam-Webster's
                  Collegiate Dictionary,
and one excised from Beale's reading of Gloucester's speech.

Listen to two tokens of "curtail", one read by a male reader in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, and one excised from Beale's reading of Gloucester's soliloquy.

Figure 8
Wave plot and spectrogram of the two readings represented in Figure 7

The New Critics attributed great aesthetic significance to the qualification which the various elements in a context receive from the context. The existence of an audio dictionary entry makes possible to compare over-articulated readings in and outside a context. The long-falling intonation curves on the second syllable of "curtail" are deceptively similar in the two tokens of the word, and obviously over-articulate the word boundaries. In the two instances, however, they have very different functions. In the dictionary it indicates that this is an unconnected, stand-alone word. When the same contour is perceived in the performance of a verse line like Excerpt 1, at the middle of a sequence of ten alternating weak and strong positions, it cannot indicate a stand-alone dictionary entry, especially when its last consonant is coarticulated with the vowel of the ensuing preposition. Rather, it assumes two opposing grouping functions. Having the shape of a terminal contour, it groups the first five positions backwards, away from the second half, dividing the sequence into two halves of equal length and similar structures. Briefly, it confirms the caesura where the stress maximum in the fifth position rules out more conservative ways of confirming it. At the same time, by assigning greater than usual accent to an upbeat, it begins an end-stressed group, leading forward. The contour interacts with its context in an additional way. In the dictionary entry, the contour curves smoothly down, reaching a point of stability at the bottom. In the dramatic recital, it changes direction at the downmost point, and moves sidewards on the prolonged [l], interfering with the stability achieved. Normally, such an appendage may go unnoticed; here, as I said, it is quite salient, mainly because it is spread over a relatively long time span. In fact, the changing details of the smoothly falling long pitch contour are more readily perceptible in the "dramatic" reading. The aspirated plosives, as well as the voice quality in general, foreground its emotive potential. Listening to the two tokens of "curtail" suggests that the sound quality too effects the emotional quality of the second token. Without going into details, a look at the spectrograms4 (Figure 8) confirms that the sound quality may be quite different: more "resonant", more "unrestrained".

In respect of the qualification which the various elements in a context receive from the context, it is most illuminating to listen to the reading of Excerpt 1 within its context in the soliloquy, and in isolation from its context. In isolation, the reading tends to be perceived as a fairly regular trochaic line, with its sixth position unoccupied (even though there is no measurable pause at that point, only a terminal contour). In context, the stress maximum in the fifth position is perceived as a conspicuous deviation from regularity. But, remember, it is the same reading in both conditions.

I am reluctant to attribute some expressive meaning to such a deviation; I am more interested in how competent readers handle such a deviant line. But some critics and actors would, undoubtedly, consider it as an iconic underpinning of the meaning of CURTAIL. This verb means "cutting off", but, according to Merriam–Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, it "adds an implication that in some way deprives of completeness or adequacy". Perhaps this is not at all an "either / or" situation. Perhaps, the solution is that the stress maximum in the fifth position may serve as an iconic underpinning of the meaning of CURTAIL, provided that a rhythmical solution is offered to handle the metric deviation, generating perceptual tension.

To conclude

We can now point out certain common features as well as differences between the rhythmic solutions offered to stress maxima in the seventh and fifth position. In both cases the solution lies in grouping and over-articulation. We organize the deviant stress into a wider group of stresses the boundaries of which tend to be over-articulated, while syntactic continuity is still taken care of (in Excerpt 1, for instance, the boundary of "curtail'd" is over-articulated by a terminal intonation contour, while /d/ is run into, and in Beale's reading co-articulated with, the ensuing /o/). In order for such groups to be able to resolve the conflict between the linguistic and the versification pattern, they must have two features. First, their organization must be symmetrical; and their second half must resolve the conflict by reinstating regularity and reconditioning metre. Second, such reinstatement should occur in metrical positions preceding prosodic boundaries: line ending, unmarked caesura, marked caesura —in this decreasing order of effectiveness. The reciter should perform such vocal manipulations as to render the groups as symmetrical, and the solutions as simple, as the prevailing conditions permit. In one case, the solution consists in a symmetrical group of four syllables, the first one of which violates meter by a stress maximum in the seventh position; the fourth one resolves the conflict in the tenth position (at the line boundary) by a coinciding downbeat (that is, a stressed syllable in a strong position). In the other case, the simplest solution permitted by the prevailing conditions is much more complex. The over-articulated caesura divides the whole line into two well-articulated segments of similar structures: each one consisting of a sequence of regularly alternating ictic and non-ictic syllables (beginning with an ictus). However, while in the first segment the linguistic beats are consistently out of phase with the iambic versification pattern, generating tension, in the last segment the linguistic beats correspond to the iambic versification pattern, resolving the conflict. M.A.K Halliday speaks of "shunting" (moving up and down the "rank scale" of syntactic categories); Cooper and Meyer speak of shifting attention from one "architechtonic level" to another of the rhythmic structure of music. "Rank scale" and "architechtonic level" suggest a "Chinese-box" arrangement of sounds and words. It would be odd to say: "This discourse consists of one diphthong". But if we utter "I" in response to a question, say "Who did it?", it would make sense to say that the diphthong [aj] constitutes a word, which constitutes a sentence, which constitutes a paragraph, which constitutes a discourse. According to gestalt theory, entities that are similar may generate symmetry, so as to stand out in perception —in this case, listeners will tend to attend away from the irregular syllable level and foot level to the level of well-articulated, symmetrical hemistichs.


1. I have elsewhere discussed at considerable length the nature of stress maxima in weak positions and their possible rhythmical performance (e.g., Tsur, 1997; Tsur, 1998: 31–35; 193–219), as well as the logical issues involved in metricality judgments (e.g., Tsur, 1998: 145; 195). [back]

2 The lower window presents the wave plot display which shows a plot of the wave amplitude (in volts) on the vertical axis, as a function of time (in milliseconds) on the horizontal axis. The upper window presents a fundamental frequency plot, which displays time on the horizontal axis and the estimated glottal frequency (F0 = pitch) in Hz on the vertical axis. [back]

3 An aspirated speech sound is pronounced with or accompanied by aspiration. This can be illustrated by putting the back of one's hand before the mouth when uttering the pairs of words "which — witch", or "pit — spit". In the first member of each pair a stronger puff of air is felt. The phonetic feature [+/–aspirated] is phonemic in many languages; but when aspiration occurs where not required by phonemic contrast, it may suggest a wide range of emotions, including aggression and sarcasm (scornful or conceited attitudes and violent actions, for instance, are physiologically associated with the emission of abrupt blasts of air; consider the ambiguity of the verb "puff": "to blow in short gusts", and "to speak or act in a scornful, conceited, or exaggerated manner"). [back]

4 A Spectrogram shows the frequency components of a sound wave, with the relative intensity (indicated by darkness or color) at each frequency (vertical axis) plotted as a function of time (horizontal axis). For the sake of transparency, I am using a gray scale rather than colour spectrogram. Gray plots use all the intensity gradations available between black and white on the computer monitor to delineate the energy levels in the spectrogram. The relative darkness at any point represents the relative energy level at that frequency and time. Agaath Sluijter (1995) demonstrated that change of "spectral balance" (when the loudness of higher formants is relatively emphasised) is almost as effective a cue for stress as duration. This is an additional phonetic cue for overstressing the second token of "curtail". [back]


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William Shakespeare: (1994) Great Speeches and Soliloquies. Beale, Simon Russel et al.
Naxos AudioBooks Na 20 1512

Shakespeare (2001) King Richard III. Kenneth Branagh et al., NaxosAudiobooks. NA121712

Shakespeare (2007) King Richard III. Ian Holm et al. BBC Audiobooks.

Shakespeare (1957) King Richard III. Robert Stephens et al Caedmon Audio. ISBN: 0694517046

Shakespeare (online) King Richard III. Monologue. Read by Walter Rufus Eagles. Available:

Laurence Olivier in 'Richard III'. Available

Ian Mckellen In 'Richard III'--"Now Is The Winter Of Our..". Available:

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