One of the trickiest aspects to scanning Shakespeare’s verse is working out the syllable count when words have been contracted or expanded to fit the meter. In this post I am going to outline the principles by which words could be contracted or expanded.
Besides making it easier to find words to fit the meter, contractions can serve an expressive purpose: they can convey emphasis or urgency; or, in more general terms, the ripples in the iambic rhythm created by contracted half-syllables can contribute a lively, speech-like quality to the verse, which lends itself particularly well to dramatic verse. You will find a far less liberal employment of contractions in his sonnets and narrative poems.
Contraction & the schwa
It may surprise you to know that the single most common vowel sound in English is not represented by any letters in our alphabet! There is, however, a name for this vowel sound: it is called a schwa (it also has a phonetic symbol: an upside-down ‘e’).
Schwa, as well as being the most common vowel sound in our language, is also the most neutral: if you completely relax your jaw and tongue, and then make a voiced sound, the ‘uh’ sound you produce will be a schwa (the way we most often pronounce the word ‘the’ is with a schwa). When a word is contracted to fit the meter of a line of verse it is normally by either omitting or quickly gliding over one of two vowel sounds: usually a schwa, but sometimes an unstressed short ‘i’ (as in “being”, in the first example below).
Here is a list of the ways in which words could be contracted:
1) Two adjacent vowels can be glided together.
A common example is when an unstressed short ‘i’ sound is followed by another vowel: in such cases the ‘i’ sound is often contracted to a ‘y’ sound. So, for example, the word ‘envious’ can either be pronounced with the full three syllables of ‘en-vi-ous’, or it can be contracted to sound like ‘en-vyous’. Or ‘Romeo’ can be pronounced with the full three syllables ‘Ro-me-o’ (and if you say it out loud, you will notice that the ‘e’ actually makes an ‘i’ sound), or it can be contracted to sound like ‘Rome-yo’ (both are freely used in Shakespeare’s play – and even in the same line when the nurse cries ‘…O Ro | meo, Ro | me-o!’).
Here are some more examples of two vowels being glided together, with illustrations of how the same two vowels can be either glided together or not to fit the meter; in the first example the vowels are glided together within a word, but in the rest two vowels are glided together in adjacent words. I will colour orange words that have not been contracted, and underline similar examples which have been:
Being red / she loves / him best; / and be / ing white,
Is all / too hea / vy to / admit / much talk
To admit / no tra / ffic to / our ad / verse towns
And how / the En / glish have / the su / burbs won
How the En / glish, in / the su / burbs close / intrench’d
No ex / cuse cu / rrent but / to hang / thyself
There was / a yiel / ding – this / admits / no excuse
Note how the unstressed “a” of “admit” and “e” of “excuse” are reduced to a schwa when pronounced swiftly on the back of another vowel. The final example illustrates how some words can be stressed on either syllable (excuse/excuse).
The same principle applies to words with a medial ‘w’ or ‘y’:
My mu / sic playing / far off, / I will betray
That I’ll straight do / and knowing / myself / again
Both the above examples are diphthongs gliding into a short ‘i’. A diphthong is a gliding vowel: a vowel that is actually one vowel gliding straight into another. So, for instance, the “ow” in “knowing” is a schwa gliding straight into an “oo”.
Monosyllabic words can also be glided together, such as: I am, you are, he is. And this can happen even if there is an ‘h’ or ‘w’ between the vowels: I have, thou hast, he had, I would, who would.
“Merry as“ is nearly always glided together as two syllables.
When two vowels within a word glide together this is called syneresis. When it’s two vowels in adjacent words, this is called synaloepha – which is one of my favourite words!
2) A vowel sound between two consonants can be contracted.
This is called syncope (it is also syncope if you remove a consonant from the middle of a word).
Polysyllabic words that are stressed on the antepenult (the 3rd from last syllable) can have the vowel in the penultimate syllable contracted. In some words, that means the penultimate syllable disappears altogether:
But ei / ther it / was diff / erent / in blood
The diff / (e)rent plague / of each / calam / ity
O mo / menta / ry grace / of mor / tal men
The fit / is mo / ment(a)ry, / upon / a thought
Less commonly (though with greater frequency in his later plays), he contracts a vowel even though it can’t be eliminated altogether. Such vowels are pronounced quickly, so you barely notice them:
His maj / (e)sty sel / dom fears. / I (a)m Cre / ssid’s uncle
‘Tis done / alrea / dy, and / the mess / (e)nger gone
Like to a vag / (a)bond flag / upon / the stream
You can also find contractions within disyllabic words of a vowel (again, a schwa or short ‘i’) that follows a medial ‘v’, ‘l’ or ‘r’:
He brings / great news. / The rav(e)n / himself is hoarse
Is fall(e)n / into / the sere, / the ye / llow leaf,
Resume / that spir(i)t / when you / were wont / to say,
Marry (as an interjection) and sirrah are both frequently counted as one syllable.
And contractions of words with a medial ‘v’ are particularly common – for instance, heaven is frequently contracted to heav’n, and even to ev’n.
Words with a medial ‘s’ or ‘z’ can be similarly contracted, though there are fewer examples:
“When at their Mo / thers moist(e)ned / eyes, Babes / shall suck
In the original Folio text, the contraction is indicated by the spelling: the first “e” is actually removed.
A word with a medial ‘z’ sound that I have seen contracted, though not in Shakespeare, is risen/ris’n (if you say the word out loud, you will find that the voiced ‘s’ makes a ‘z’ sound). Offhand, I can’t think of any examples from Shakespeare, specifically. However, there is an intriguing example from a famous line from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster. A character called Ferdinand has had his sister murdered, and has just had her dead body revealed to him (this is the line with no stress marking):-
Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young.
And this is how the line is always delivered by actors (a double line || will indicate a major pause):-
Cover her face. || Mine eyes dazzle, || she died young.
This reading does not conform to meter – and that appears to be a problem. This is what the Arden editor of this play had to say about this line: “This line…is one of the most famous in the play but has caused difficulty for actors and is sometimes broken up onstage by action between each of the sentences”.
Originally, I came up with a somewhat complex way to read this line as a broken-backed hexameter – it didn’t occur to me that “dazzle” could be contracted to fit the meter (in the same way as “ris’n”):
Cover her face. / Mine eyes / dazzle, she / died young.
The reason this didn’t occur to me is because, with this scansion, “dazzle” is a non-beat syllable, and actually drops in pitch relative to the beat syllables either side of it. This is…highly unusual. The schwa between the “zz” and “le”, as I’ve already explained, can never be eliminated altogether: it can only be pronounced quickly, to count as a half-vowel, squeezed into the metrical template. But when the word itself lands on a non-beat position, and falls in pitch relative to the two beats either side of it, it’s even harder to disguise the extra vowel. However, what I’ve realised is, the very fact that one has to put in the extra effort to disguise the extra syllable has an expressive effect on the line. Reading out loud, to effectively contract the schwa I find I have to spit the word out: it’s short and sharp. And this, in turn, automatically affects my delivery of the words before and after: I hold slightly after “eyes”, in preparation for the explosive “dazzle”, and then the remaining words end up being similarly emphatic:
Cover her face. Mine eyes…dazzle – she died young!
How very, very different from the way this line is usually delivered: how much more compact and dramatic.
3) Either, neither, whether, whither.
All of the above words can have the final schwa contracted – either by gliding into the following vowel of an adjacent word, or by pronouncing the schwa very lightly and quickly:
Eith(er) death, / or you, / I’ll find / imme / diately
And neith(er) / by trea / son nor / hostil / ity
Whith(er) wilt / thou lead / me? Speak, / I’ll go / no further
And in this line, from Sonnet 59, the same word is contracted twice – but in different ways. The second time round it’s through syncope: the removal of the consonant in the middle of the word:-
Wheth(er) we / are men / ded, or / whe’er be / tter they,
4) A small word can have either a vowel or consonant lopped off.
For instance, ‘t instead of it, and ‘s instead of us. And also, contractions within prepositional phrases that include the, such as i’ th’ instead of in the, or o’ th’ instead of of the. These are the types of contractions used in the quote I gave from Othello in another post:
Is’t lost? / Is’t gone? / _ Speak, / is’t out / o’ th’ way?
The lopping off of either an initial letter or syllable is called aphesis. A similar lopping off at the end of a word is called apocope.
Another example of aphesis is ‘zounds, which is actually short for God’s wounds. People who aren’t aware of this usually mispronounce it to rhyme with bounds!
What happens when an extra-metrical syllable isn’t contracted? Then you are left with a 3-syllable foot called an anapest: di-di-dum. Poems can be written in an anapestic meter; however, anapests within an iambic meter are an irregularity that loosen the meter (anapestic and “loose” meters are something I discuss at the end of this post: Why iambic pentameter?). Unambiguous anapests are very rare in Shakespeare’s work (and nonexistent in his sonnets or narrative poems). However, he did occasionally employ an anapest at the opening of a line, providing a jolt of energy. I give one example at the end of the post I just provided a link to. Here are some more:
And so riv / eted with faith / unto your flesh
Let’s be sa / crifi / cers, but not bu / tchers, Caius.
Not a word, / a word, / we stand / upon / our manners.
In the first example, I have removed two of the foot divisions in order to highlight how the opening anapest adds to the swift forcefulness of this golden line. And in the second example, both the opening anapest and the minor ionic contribute to the tone of emphatic urgency (though some might scan it differently to me).
And in this example it’s very striking how the momentum provided by the opening anapest leads into an over-running of the meter in the form of an epic caesura:
Or we’ll burst / them open, / if that / you come / not quickly.
Here’s a list of ways in which words could be expanded, some of them very unfamiliar to modern ears
1) The “-ed” suffix
The “-ed” at the end of a word could be pronounced as a separate syllable. This was archaic even in Shakespeare’s day, but was nevertheless an established poetic convention. The vowel sound is a schwa (rather than an open “e”, as in “bed”). Normally, when the “-ed” wasn’t pronounced as a separate syllable, the “e” was replaced with an apostrophe:
Hence “ban / ished” / is ban / ish’d from / the world,
By their / oppress’d / and fear / surpri / sed eyes
Some modern editors follow this practice (in my opinion, all of them should).
2) The addition of a short “i” before a schwa
This can occur in the last syllable of a word, where the vowel sound is a schwa, and is represented by more than one letter, e.g. “action” can be stretched out to “ak-shi-un”:
By the stern brow / and was / pish ac / ti-on
The bea / chy gir / dle of / the o / ce-an
And in this example, he uses both the long and short form of the same word:
If on / ly to go warm / were gor / ge-ous,
Why, na / ture needs / not what / thou, gor / geous, wear’st
John Donne wrote this clever line in a–valediction–forbidding–mourning:
A breach, / but an / expan / si-on,
A break after the word “breach”, and an expansion of the word “expansion”!
3) Certain vowel sounds followed by an “r” can carry an extra schwa
For instance, in this line, the first “fire” is long, the second short:
As fi / re drives / out fire, / so pi / ty pity
Here’s an example of an elongation of “weird”, from a witches chant in Macbeth:
The we / ird sis / ters, hand / in hand,
The words flour and flower can, similarly, be counted as either one or two syllables – and it’s interesting to note that we tend to think of flour as monosyllabic and flower as disyllabic, simply because of the spelling. They actually sound exactly the same! In the original printed texts, when flower is meant to be counted as one syllable, this is often indicated by a variant spelling: flowre.
One could apply the same principle to words carrying a vowel sound followed by an ‘l’. So, for instance, it would be possible to read these short sentences as iambic trimeters: “Let’s sail down the river“, “I feel very hot“. In the following scansions, e will represent a schwa:
Let’s sai / el down / the river
I fee / el ve / ry hot
However, off hand, the only example I can think of from Shakespeare is one you might not expect: twice the word melancholy needs to be stretched out to fit the meter, requiring a schwa before the final ‘l’ (the “o” is a diphthong, similar to the ‘oa’ in ‘coal’):
But moo / dy and dull me / lancho / ely
Yon knight / doth sit / too mel / ancho / ely
The first example is from The Comedy of Errors, the second from Pericles. This pronunciation does have an elegant sound, and the drawn out effect seems suited to the meaning of the word. The fancy pronunciation may also reflect the haughtiness or refinement of the characters (the Abbess, in the first example, giving Adriana a dressing down; King Simonides, in the second example).
It may be because Shakespeare’s original pronunciation was in a rotic accent (meaning it had a heavy emphasis on R’s) that, by contrast, we can find plenty of examples where words with a vowel followed by an ‘r’ are elongated.
While I’m on the subject of unusual expansions, here’s another one: on at least a couple of occasions, the meter requires statue to be stretched out to sta-ti-oo (the diphthong created by the letters –ue is separated into it’s two component vowels):
Erect / his sta / ti-oo / and wor / ship it,
But like dumb sta / ti-oos, / or brea / thing stones,
It has been proposed that another line, this one from Anthony’s speech to the plebeians in Julius Caesar, requires this same pronuciation:
Ev(e)n at the base / of Pom / pey’s sta / ti-oo
This is the correct delivery if you contract the initial word, “Even“, to “Ev’n“. If you choose not to contract the opening word, then it’s a headless line (see Part 3 if you don’t know what a “headless” line is):
_ E / ven at / the base / of Pom / pey’s statue
Take your pick!
3) A schwa can be inserted between a consonant and an “l” or “r”
Again, I shall use e to represent a schwa:
Is Cade / the son / of Hen / ery / the Fifth,
O me! / you ju / ggeler, / you can / kerblossom
The same can apply to words that contain “dr” or “tr”:
That croaks / the fa / tal en / terance / of Duncan
Differences in stress placement
There is one final thing I should mention: some words were, or could be, pronounced with a different stress placement than the one we’re familiar with today. Take this line from Sonnet 4, for example:
What ac / cepta / ble au / dit canst / thou leave?
I also mention “recession of accent” in Part 2
A book that lists pronunciations is All the Words On Stage by Scheeder and Younts. I believe there’s also a Shakespeare Pronunciation app you can download.