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Scansion: The Disyllabic Foot

Updated: May 19, 2019

Just as we can all sing the same song different ways, we can also speak text different ways with different variations in tone, flow, intensity etc.

The differences are observed through what an audience can see and hear but the cause of the difference is interpretation.

Each artist has a different perspective based on a combination of varying life experiences and understanding of the arc of the character via the text.

Iambic pentameter, Shakespeares preferred poetic meter, grounds the language of the journey in a rhythm that closely resembles that of the human heart.

In a perfect world, that rhythm would go on and on uninterrupted ad Infinitu, but as we are well aware, the characters that live in Shakespeares worlds are FAR from perfect; FAR from monotonous and unchanging. In fact, as in real life, they are always shifting; always changing; always discovering.

Those shifts, changes and discoveries are very often illuminated in shifts, changes and even discoveries in the meticulously crafted meter behind the words that make up the verse, that tell the story.

Changes in the meter are clues. They are signposts in the pentameter that force us to listen to the “heartbeat” of a character a little closer than if the pentameter were perfect.

Changes in the meter are observed by recognizing the differences between one poetic foot and another.

The iamb, for example is the standard foot in the iambic pentameter.

The iamb is a Disyllabic foot (disyllabic= two syllables) in which the first syllable of the foot is unstressed and the second is stressed. Five iambic feet is a line of iambic pentameter. Eg “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown”.

A few words that embody the iambic or unstressed/ stressed foot are: Against, deter, avoid, today, precise.

Just as a poetic foot can be unstressed and stressed as in the case of the iamb, a Disyllabic foot can also be stressed and unstressed. This is called a trochee.

A trochee is a Disyllabic foot in which the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed. It is the opposite or the inverse of the iamb.

Trochee’s generally occur at the beginning of a line of text or after the caesura. The Caesura is the midway point in a line of pentameter. More abou that later.

A famous line that begins with a trochee is one belonging to Richard Duke of Gloucester, who opens the play Richard the III with “Now is the Winter of our discontent, Made glorious Summer by this son of York.”

The fact that the first foot of the first line of the title character is a trochee and not an iamb, is a break from convention that is debated or at least seriously considered by every actor that skillfully approaches this role.

It is important to note, that when it comes to scansion, there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers; only informed and uninformed choices. We will explore this idea as we move along at a later time.

Here are a few words that embody the trochaic foot: Master, Whiskey, Fortune, Blinded, Chaos.

The last two types of Disyllabic feet that we will cover here before moving on to trisyllabic feet are pyrrhic and spondees.

A pyrrhic is a disyllabic foot in which both syllables are unstressed. A spondee is a disyllabic foot in which both syllables are stressed.

More often than not, when they are seen, they are seen together in a Double Iamb.

A double iamb is the joining together of the iamb and the spondee.

A famous example of a double iamb is in Shakespeares Hamlet. About two thirds of the way through Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech; in the middle of an idea, the 76th line of verse begins: “...with a bare bodkin...”

The pyrrhic: ‘with a’, joined with the spondee: ‘bare bod...”, creates the double iamb; another variation on the iambic structure ready to wrestled with by the next brave soul who dare seek to understand, explore and embody Hamlet’s dreadfully woeful, psychological torrents.

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