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Reuven Tsur


phonemes of de-are invested with exceptionally high energy. This will be apparent if we compare this sound sequence to the same sequence in deformitylater in this line (even if we allow for the fact that in the latter it is an unstressed syllable). The mini-pause before descantseems to serve the same purpose. Descantis a musical term meaning to write variations upon a simple theme; here it means "comment on", "dwell upon". It would appear that the performer foregrounded this word to underpin the height of Gloucester's jubilant self-sarcasm. This decision, in turn, may have been influenced by a need to solve a rhythmic problem. In English, such words as present, subject, object, are pronounced with the stress on the last syllable when they are verbs, and on the first syllable when they are nouns. In Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Keats, and Yeats, but not in Pope, such verbs, as well as adjectives like extreme, supreme,sometimes occur with their second syllable in a weak position, followed by a stressed syllable (in a strong potion). It is more likely that the aesthetic norms rather than the stress rules have changed back and forth from Shakespeare through Pope, through Yeats, to our day.8At any rate, the Random House College Dictionaryand Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionaryindicate that, as a verb, the stress is on the last syllable of descant; Merriam- Webster's Collegiate Dictionarygives both possibilities (and, in the electronic version, both possibilities are recorded).9
The foregoing discussion may suggest the following scenario: The verb descanthas its second syllable in a weak position, notfollowed by a stressed syllable in a strong position. This would strongly violate the iambic metre (in Halle and Keyser's terms, it constitutes a "stress maximum in a weak position"). The performer could use a joyous self- sarcastic reading as an excuse for foregrounding descantby all possible phonetic means, among them--the inversion of the stress pattern of the verb.10

8Halle and Keyser (1966) claim that the stress rules of English haven't greatly
changed since Chaucer's to our time. I have elsewhere discussed at considerable
length the theoretical issues involved and the possible rhythmic performances of
such lines (Tsur, 1998: 144-158).
9I should not be surprised if it turned out that this line of Shakespeare's was the
evidence for a possible stress on the first syllable. It is a fairly common practice
among students of Shakespeare's pronunciation to derive evidence from the
prosody of his plays, ignoring the possibility that aesthetic factors rather than
stress shift may have been involved in the deviation. Halle and Keyser, at any
rate, are skeptical about the putative stress shift.
10There is in excerpt 1 an additional instance of a verb with its stressed syllable in
the fifth (weak) position: "I, that am curTAIL'D of this fair proportion". In this
instance, Beale places the stress on the second syllable. The performance of this
deserves close attention, but, unfortunately, cannot be discussed here.