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NOTE ON THE METRE OF KING LEAR1
I. Blank Verse.-The normal verse consists of ten syllables alternately stressed and unstressed, beginning with an unstressed syllable, without rhyme (hence called blank verse'), and with a sense pause at the end of the line, e.g.— He raised' the house' with loud' and cow'ard cries' (ii. 4. 42). Return' to her and fifty men' dismiss'd'? (ii. 4. 204).
As the line contains five feet each of two syllables, and each stressed on the second syllable, it is commonly called an iambic pentameter'.
II. Normal Variations.-A succession of such lines, however, would be monotonous. Accordingly there are several variations in the rhythm.
(i) Stress Inversion.-The normal order of non-stress and stress may be inverted. E.g. in the various feet:
(1) Why' have my sisters husbands, if they say (i. 1. 92).
(2) But love, | dear' love, and our aged father's right (iv. 4. 28). (3) Which I must act: | brief'ness and fortune, work! (ii. 1. 18). (4) Let me beseech your grace | not' to do so (ii. 2. 134).
(5) Though I condemn not, yet, under | par'don (i. 4. 334).
This inversion occurs commonly after a pause, and is thus found most frequently in the first, third, and fourth feet, i.e. after the pauses at the beginning or centre of the line. It is seldom found in the second foot, and it is very rare in the fifth foot. When it occurs in the fifth foot the effect is generally unrhythmical.
There are occasionally two inversions in the same line,
(1, 4) Broth'er | a word; descend: | broth'er, | I say! (ii. 1. 19).
(1, 3) None' does | offend, | none,' I say, none;
(ii. 1. 54). I'll able 'em (iv. 149).
1 This note has been largely suggested by the "Outline of Shakespeare's Prosody" in Professor Herford's Richard II.
(ii) Stress Variation.-The stresses may vary in degree; a weak or intermediate stress (') may be substituted for a strong stress.
And dare, | upon' | the war | rant of' | my note (iii. 1. 18). The weak stress is particularly common in the fifth foot, e.g.
Which else were shame, that then neces❘ sity' (i. 4. 202). There are, in fact, comparatively few lines with the normal five strong stresses. But there are certain limits to the variations; e.g. there are never more than two weakstressed feet in a line, and two weak-stressed feet rarely come together (see, however, iii. 4. 15). Frequently the absence of a strong stress in a foot is made up for by
(a) two weak stresses, as—
Prith'ee go' in' | thyself'; seek thine own ease (iii. 4. 23);
or (b) an additional stress in a neighbouring foot, either before or after, as
Both' wel' come and' | protection. Take up thy master (iii. 6. 90). The lesser is' | scarce' felt'. | Thou 'ldst shun a bear (iii. 4. 9). Two strong stresses are fairly common in the fifth foot, e.g.
Although the last | not least, | to whose | young' love'.
(Cf. i. 1. 139, iii. 2. 37, iv. 6. 164.)
(iii) Addition of Unstressed Syllables.-An unstressed syllable is frequently added. It may be introduced in any foot, which then corresponds to an anapæst instead of an iambus.
(1) I am almost mad myself: I had a son (iii. 4. 154).
(2) And when I have stol'n | upon these sons-in-law (iv. 6. 167). (3) Thou 'ldst meet the bear | i' the mouth. | When the mind's free (iii. 4. II).
(4) Whereto our health is bound; | we are not ourselves (ii. 4. 103). (5) You sulphurous and thought-exec | uting fires (iii. 2. 4). Occasionally there are two such extra syllables in the same line, e.g.
(2, 4) When maj | esty stoops | to fol | ly. Reverse | thy doom (i. 1. 142). But see IV, (ii) (a) (8). These additional syllables within the line occur commonly at the pause or 'cæsura'.
Extra-metrical.-But this additional unstressed syllable is most commonly found at the end of the line, where it is extra-metrical. e.g.—
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you child | ren (iii. 2. 16, 17).
It forms what is known as a double or feminine ending. It is comparatively rare in Shakespeare's early plays, but it becomes more and more common, till in The Tempest it occurs once in every three lines. Of the 2238 lines of blank verse in King Lear, 567 have double endings.1
Two extra unstressed syllables are occasionally found at the end of a line, e.g.—
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty (i. 1. 85). That he suspects none: on whose foolish honesty (i. 2. 165). But no sharp division can be made between a line such as this and a six-stressed line or Alexandrine (III, i); and it is sometimes best to consider the first of the two extra syllables as slurred (IV, (ii) (a) (B)).
Examples of these extra syllables are common in lines containing proper names, e.g.—
And you, our no less loving son of Al | bany (i. 1. 35).
But most lines containing proper names contain an extra stressed syllable, e.g. i. 1. 38. Such lines are especially common in the English Histories. 'They appear to be often on principle extra-metrical, and in any case comply very loosely with the metre."
(iv) Omission of Unstressed Syllables. —On the other hand, an unstressed syllable is sometimes, though rarely, omitted, e.g.
- Ay and lay | ing autumn's dust. | Good sir (iv. 6. 178). As may compact | it more. |— Get | you gone (i. 4. 331). Such omissions generally occur after a marked pause, and hence (a) are found commonly, like stress inversion, in the first, third, and fourth feet; and (b) are frequently caused by a change of speaker, e.g.—
Edg. Hark, do you hear the sea? |
- No' | truly. (iv. 6. 4.) (v) Pauses.-The normal verse has a sense pause at the und of the line, and a slighter pause ('cæsura') within it. These are clearly marked in early blank verse (e.g. Gorboduc), where the pause within the line falls commonly after the second foot. The varied position of this pause, and the omission of the pause at the end of the line, constitute, in Shakespeare's later plays, his commonest departure from the normal type. The lines in which the sense is, in Milton's words, “variously drawn out from one verse
1 See Fleay's Shakespeare Manual, p. 136.
into another", are called run-on or unstopt lines; while the non-coincidence of the full sense with the end of the line forms what is known as enjambement or overflow. Like the double or feminine ending, the 'unstopt' line was gradually used more and more by Shakespeare. In Love's Labour's Lost, a typical early play, it occurs about once in every eighteen lines, while in The Tempest, Cymbeline, and the Winter's Tale it occurs on an average twice in every five.
(vi) Light and Weak Endings.-The most pronounced form of the unstopt' line is that with a light or weak ending. Such endings have the distinctive quality of being monosyllabic. Thus
Let it fall rather, though the fork invade
is merely an instance of an 'unstopt' line. But there is a light ending in
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
The difference between light and weak endings is that "the voice can to a small extent dwell" on the former; while the latter so 66 precipitate the reader forward" that he is "forced to run them, in pronunciation no less than in sense, into the closest connection with the opening words of the succeeding line". Hence light endings consist of the auxiliaries, personal pronouns, &c., and weak endings of prepositions, conjunctions, &c. They are characteristic of Shakespeare's later plays; some of his earlier plays, e.g. the Comedy of Errors and the Two Gentlemen of Verona, do not contain a single instance of them. Of the two, the light ending was the earlier in use, and it is always the commoner; but its relative importance gradually diminished. Thus, in Macbeth, for 21 light endings there are only 2 weak endings, but in the Winter's Tale the numbers are respectively 57 and 43.1 There does not appear to be any instance in King Lear of a weak ending; the following example is taken from Henry VIII, iii. 2. 173:
To the good of your most sacred person and
1 See Professor Ingram's paper in the Transactions of the New Shakspere Society, 1874, pt. ij.
It should be noted that the closing of a line with a preposition or other similar word is not alone sufficient to constitute a weak ending, e.g. iv. 7. 16. Lines closing in so followed by as (e.g. v. 3. 36) generally form light endings.
III. Less-usual Variations. (i) Addition of Stressed Syllables.--Lines are occasionally found with six stressed syllables (ie. with an additional foot), e.g.—
To speak and purpose not, since what I well intend (i. i. 219).
The pause in the six-stressed line (commonly called an Alexandrine) is found most frequently after the third foot. It occurs after the first in ii. 2. 140, and after the fourth in iv. 3. 42. It is generally very marked: hence it often occurs when there is a change of speaker, e.g.—
France. Could never plant in me.
I yet beseech your majesty (i. 1. 217). (ii) Omission of Stressed Syllables.-Lines with only four stressed syllables are much rarer. The omission of the stress likewise may generally be accounted for by a marked pause. Hence it also occurs most commonly at a break in the dialogue, e.g.—
Come hither, captain; hark (v. 3. 26).
Indeed a marked pause is the source of most metrical irregularities.
(iii) Short or Broken Lines.—There are many short lines containing only one to four feet. They occur most frequently at the beginning or end of a speech; but there are several examples of them in King Lear in the middle of a speech, where they mark the completion or change of a subject or idea. These short lines, however, generally consist of questions, commands, exclamations, addresses, &c.; e.g. i. 4. 209, i. 1. 269, iv. 5. 36, i. 4. 253. Some of the shorter lines may be regarded as extra-metrical. It will be noted that the short line is especially frequent in the more passionate speeches, e.g. i. 4. 268, ii. 4. 280, and iv. 6. 112-130 (Globe edition).
The broken speech ending is a characteristic of the later plays.
IV. Apparent Variations. Many apparent irregularities are due to difference of pronunciation in Shakespeare's