Trochees in As You Like It

No, this page doesn't discuss all of them. I'm going to use a few to make a point.

An iamb, the form Shakespeare uses most often, is a foot of two syllables with the accent on the second syllable. For a more wordy explanation, see Blank Verse.

A trochee is a poetic foot of two syllables with the accent on the first syllable, a sort of an iamb backwards.

A line of iambic pentameter is five iambic feet in a row:

          Ka-BOOM, ka-BOOM, ka-BOOM, ka-BOOM, ka-BOOM!

A line of trochaic pentameter--that is, a line of five trochees--is:

          WHIS-key, WHIS-key, WHIS-key, WHIS-key, WHIS-key.

In all of Shakespeare's plays, there is only one line of trochaic pentameter (I think, and Vladimir Nabokov thought so, too). You're familiar with it:

          Never, never, never, never, never. (King Lear, V.3.10)

I apologize for talking in Greek, but we get most of our metrical terms from the Greeks. Anyway, that explains trochees.

"Yeah? So what?"

Most of Shakespeare's verse is in iambic pentameter. But Shakespeare sometimes uses a trochee instead of an iamb to make a particular point. Richard III, who is an impatient and incisive character, begins his play with a trochee:

          Now is the winter of our discontent . . . (Richard III, I.1.1)

Shakespeare made Richard's entrance a trochee because it expresses Richard's sense of urgency and cuts into our attention far better than a relaxed iamb would. Compare Orsino's dreamy, regularly iambic opening line in Twelfth Night:

          If music be the food of love, play on. (Twelfth Night, I.1.1)

Incidentally, if you're puzzled because you find nothing mysterious in the above, that's because there isn't anything mysterious about it. No English speaker would mispronounce any of the above lines.

Here's a passage from As You Like It. We're going to begin with the prose dialogue that precedes it to give you an idea of what Rosalind and Celia's respective moods are. Obviously there aren't any trochees until the play moves into verse. Starting at that point I have marked the initial syllables of the trochees.


  Act III Scene 5 lines 35-55

I met the Duke yesterday, and had much question with him. He asked me of what parentage I was; I told him, of as good as he; so he laughed and let me go. But what talk we of fathers when there is such a man as Orlando?

O, that's a brave man! He writes brave verses, speaks brave words, swears brave oaths, and breaks them bravely, quite traverse, athwart the heart of his lover; as a puny tilter, that spurs his horse but on one side, breaks his staff like a noble goose. But all's brave that youth mounts and folly guides. Who comes here?

                    Enter CORIN.
Mistress and master, you have oft enquired
After the shepherd that complained of love,
Who you saw sitting by me on the turf, 45
Praising the proud disdainful shepherdess
That was his mistress.

Well, and what of him?

If you will see a pageant truly played
Between the pale complexion of true love
And the red glow of scorn and proud disdain, 50
Go hence a little, and I shall conduct you,
If you will mark it.

O come, let us remove!
The sight of lovers feedeth those in love.
Bring us to this sight, and you shall say
I'll prove a busy actor in their play. (Exeunt, Latin for "they all go out.")

If we pay attention to the trochees, we notice the following things.

Corin comes in filled with excitement about showing the encounter between Phebe and Silvius, and has several trochees at the beginnings of his lines.

Celia, who is not in love, except maybe with Rosalind, and who has been replaced in Rosalind's affections by Orlando, and who has just been forced to listen to her cousin mooning about that boy, throws cold water on Corin's excitement:

  Well, and what of him?

Celia's response is rather like the "Yeah? So what?" I attributed to you, reader, above. Celia's coldness has an immediate effect on Corin. After Celia's cold response, Corin becomes much more hesitant, uses the word "if" twice, has no trochees, and concludes with the diffident:
"If you will mark it."
However Rosalind is very interested in seeing the sight, and she has three inverted stresses in four lines.

Attention: you do not have to accept my interpretation of this passage, or anything else. But you should notice that Shakespeare has written in those trochees, and the diligent actor will try to figure out what the playwright had in mind. What you learn from studying the scansion should always reinforce your intuitive ideas about what's going on in the scene. Corin comes in excited, has his excitement quashed by Celia, who doesn't share it, but not before he has inflamed Rosalind's interest.

If your intuitive feelings about what's going on in a scene don't mesh with what you find in the verse, it may be that the scene needs more examination.

Résumé.                                  Acting Shakespeare's Verse
©  Deloss Brown 2009