While trying to ascertain the accentuation of certain names in Shakespeare, by analyzing lines of verse where they occur, I encountered a couple of lines that I was tempted to scan with a substitute foot consisting of three consecutive unstressed syllables. I would not even know how to call such a foot, if foot it be, but it falls out thus in what seems to me the best way to read either line.

My first instance is from the first act of Titus Andronicus (so we are more likely talking George Peele than Shakespeare, according to what seems a prevailing view among experts):

Behold I choose thee Tamora for my bride, (1.1.322)

My analysis of this and other verse lines where the name occurs satisfies me that Tamora is always accented on the first syllable, and can scan variously as / ˘ ˘ (end of iamb with pyrrhic or anapestic substitution following), or with secondary accent as / ˘ / (end of iamb plus whole iamb), or with syncope as TAM’ra, / ˘.

I scan this particular line with iambic first and fifth feet, spondaic second and third, and the mystery foot fourth, as follows:

   ˘   /      /      /            /      /       ˘  ˘   ˘      ˘      /
Behold | I choose | thee Tam | ora for | my bride,

The speaker is new emperor Saturninus, in a mode of public pronouncement, which the five consecutive stresses suit well. Given that mode, the syncope option that would reduce the fourth foot to a regular pyrrhus seems all too sloppy and unemphatic, and it is easy to fit the extra unstressed syllable in while keeping the basic five-beat pentameter rhythm intact.

One could also assign the word for to the fifth foot, making that an anapest and the fourth either a pyrrhus or (with secondary stress) an iamb; but a natural reading seems to place the fourth beat on that for rather than on the -a.

My second instance is Coriolanus 1.6.10:

The citizens of Corioles have issued,

Here the city-name Corioles, as it is spelled in F1 here and in most instances, seems elsewhere required by the meter to be pronounced sometimes kor-EYE-oh-LES ( ˘ / ˘ / ) and sometimes kor-YOHL-es ( ˘ / ˘ ). For the present line, KOR-ee-YOHLS ( / ˘ / ) is tempting but unlikely, since the two pronunciations are already a recipe for audience confusion. My scansion suggestion here is as follows, with the foot in question second:

    ˘    /    ˘  ˘      ˘      ˘  /    ˘ /        ˘     /    ˘
The cit | izens of | Cori | oles | have issued,

Again syncope (cit’zens) offers an obvious way out of the difficulty, but seems unnecessary in the natural rhythmic reading of the line, and likely to impair audience comprehension somewhat.

Should such a foot ( ˘ ˘ ˘ ) be admitted to the list of possible substitutions in Shakespearean iambic pentameter? And if so, what should we call it? Tri-pyrrhic?

P.S.: I see already a better scansion solution for the Coriolanus line, with secondary accent on -zens and an anapestic substitution at the third foot:

    ˘    /    ˘  /        ˘    ˘  /    ˘ /        ˘     /    ˘
The cit | izens | of Cori | oles | have issued,

The Titus line still stands as an example, though as noted maybe of Peele rather than of Shakespeare. I have added an English Renaissance Theater tag accordingly, though without deleting Shakespeare. I’ll be on the lookout for further bona fide Shakespeare examples.

  • 4
    Why did you delete this? It seems like a very interesting question that we'd love to keep on the site! Remember that if you've found your answer, you're encouraged to leave a self answer, not delete the question :)
    – Mithical
    Mar 17, 2019 at 18:49
  • I found more normal ways of scanning both lines. The first such realization is explained in P.S. The second, concerning the Titus line, which is probably not even Shakespeare's anyhow, left the question with zero valid examples, at which point it seems pointless. Mar 17, 2019 at 22:11
  • 2
    It would be nice if you could post your findings as an answer.
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 19, 2019 at 12:07
  • A foot of three unstressed syllables is called a tribrach. When you have a long string of unstressed syllables in English, we naturally tend to put some amount of stress on one of them, so tribrachs are rare in English poetry. Googling, it looks like some people have claimed they don't exist. (It's hard to tell who, since these websites seem to have copied the phrase "the existence of the tribrach has been contested by some writers" from each other.)
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 25, 2019 at 21:21
  • All the difficulties go away if you are prepared to pronounce "Corioles" as /'kɒɹjʌ'li:z/ if scansion requires it. Apr 11, 2019 at 9:38

1 Answer 1


A foot of three unstressed syllables is called a tribrach. Do tribrachs exist in Shakespeare? I don't know. It is going to be very hard, if not impossible, to find tribrachs in Shakespeare (or any other English pentameter, for that matter) that can't be reanalyzed in terms of other feet.

Googling "tribrach" gives a number of websites that include the sentence "the existence of the tribrach has been contested by some writers." However, none of these websites seem to say who these writers are, or why they think tribrachs don't exist.

Googling, I have found one source (An Introduction to Poetry: for Students of English Literature, by Raymond McDonald Alden) that casts doubt on the existence of tribrachs. It says

Some writers, again, recognize a foot of three unstressed syllables called the tribrach, in such verses as these:

From their | pure in | fluence to | pervade | the room,
Mista | ken men | and pat | riots in | their hearts.

Unquestionably the term is sometimes convenient ; yet the succession of four unstressed syllables is usually avoided either by slurring the first two or by putting a slight secondary stress on the third,—in other words, treating the foot as a pyrrhic or an anapest.

So the argument is that in English iambic poetry, tribrachs can always be reanalyzed as other feet. When you have a long string of unstressed syllables in English, we naturally tend to put some amount of stress on one of them, and this usually lets us reanalyze the tribrach as an anapest, possibly after switching it with an adjacent iambic foot. You have already done this with your second example, which you reanalyzed from tribrach | iamb (izens of | Cori) to iamb | anapest (izens | of Cori). Similarly, you could reanalyze your first example as

   ˘   /      ˘      /            /      /       ˘  ˘   /      ˘      /
Behold | I choose | thee Tam | ora for | my bride,

since there is no real semantic obstacle to putting a light stress on for in this line.

So where might you find an example of an uncontested tribrach?

An uncontested tribrach in iambic pentameter would have to be followed by a foot with two syllables, since otherwise there is a strong tendency to scan the two adjacent three-syllable feet as three two-syllable feet. I believe it also will have to be followed by an iamb, because if it's followed by a stressed syllable, there is a strong tendency to scan it as two iambs.

So how can you arrange English so as to have four incontestably unstressed syllables together? I have looked at a number of English words that start with two unstressed syllables, and as far as I can tell, you can always put secondary stress on the first. Similarly, looking at English words that end with three unstressed syllables, I haven't found any where you can't stress one of the last two. Thus, the only way to get four incontestably unstressed syllables seems to be with a word ending with two unstressed syllables, followed by a single unstressable word, and a word starting with an unstressed syllable. The best examples I can think of are on the lines of:

     ˘       /         ˘          /       ˘    ˘    ˘     ˘       /       ˘          /
The queen | gave Chris | topher an | embroid | ered shirt.

I can't see putting any stress on pher or an in this line.

But even here, you could scan it as:

     ˘       /         ˘          /       ˘    ˘      ˘   ˘       /       ˘          /
The queen | gave Chris | topher | an embroid | ered shirt,

which sounds nearly the same to me when read. I don't like this scansion anywhere near as much as the earlier one, because the feet are more uneven in length. However, I believe this indicates you never need to use tribrachs to scan poetry in English.

It does seem that some poets use three unstressed syllables as a foot in iambic pentameter. If you listen to Yeats reading his poem The Second Coming, the first ten lines of this poem are in reasonably strict iambic pentameter, and he reads the sixth line with a foot of three unstressed syllables:

   ˘     /      ˘   ˘   ˘    ˘   /      ˘   /         ˘      /
The cer | emony | of in | nocence | is drowned.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.