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When does Shakespeare use verse and when does he use prose?

The Shakespeare novice may not be immediately aware when Shakespeare switches from verse to prose. The quickest way to figure out whether you’re dealing with prose or verse is to glance down the left hand margin of the page. If every line begins with a capital letter, it’s verse. If they don’t, it’s prose.

Why does Shakespeare write his plays mostly in verse? We tend to think of prose as a "natural" way to write and verse as... well... if not "unnatural",  then as prose all dressed up in its finest clothes. But prose was not considered an acceptable literary medium by the ancient Greeks and Romans and does not appear in literary form in English until the late fifteenth century. Perhaps the rhythm and (often) rhyme of verse were useful aids to memorization. In any event, it was not until the late 1580's that prose began to be widely acceptable in stage comedies. Prior to Shakespeare, no other writer (except, perhaps, Marlowe in Doctor Faustus) used prose extensively in tragedies or histories. Before Shakespeare, the general rule of thumb was that aristocratic characters spoke verse, unless they were reading aloud (say, a proclamation or a letter). Clowns and servants spoke prose. Mad aristocrats also spoke prose. (Presumably insane people cannot order their thoughts sufficiently to speak verse.) A glance at Shakespeare’s Macbeth will demonstrate that this "rule" still had influence even into the seventeenth century. Here everyone speaks verse except the Porter and Lady Macbeth when reading a letter and during her sleepwalking scene.

But apart from verse as a mnemonic device (an aid to memorization), why use it? Well, comparing prose and verse is a little like comparing a sculpture done in plaster-of-paris to one rendered in marble. They might be exactly the same in every regard save their medium, but the marble seems more enduring, more luminous, and somehow transcendent. The rhythmic constraints of verse (the metre) demand an exactness and clarity. It is as though the line of verse pulls all those long, convoluted sentences taut and gives sense to the complex thoughts and the evocative imagery that Shakespeare offers. As well, rhyme is not effective without metre. Some plays (Love’s Labours Lost or A Midsummer Night’s Dream) use a lot of rhyme - and this affects the tone or "feel" of these plays. The two plays I’ve mentioned are particularly lyrical, playful, and a little riotous in their language. If you are familiar with Romeo and Juliet, you know these two young lovers share a sonnet when they first meet, exchanging lines and rhymes of a poem dominated by religious imagery. The rhymes seem to suggest a natural affinity between these two, and the religious imagery might suggest their attraction is both pure and ordained. Later, Romeo will speak with the Friar. The two exchange rhyming couplets back and forth. The quick exchange of rhymes seems to give us a sense of the easy familiarity between teacher and pupil. Elsewhere in the plays, Shakespeare often (conventionally) uses a rhyming couplet to alert the audience that the present scene has come to an end and a new scene is beginning.

Though it was customary to assign verse to aristocratic characters, Shakespeare gives some of his historical characters and tragic heroes a fair bit of prose. Hamlet, for example, almost always speaks to his friend, Horatio, in verse. But he invariably speaks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in prose. The verse tends to give a dignity to Hamlet’s relationship with Horatio and the prose helps us understand that the banter that Hamlet exchanges with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is, perhaps, familiarity without abiding friendship. Likewise, Hamlet is apt to address Claudius and Ophelia in prose - perhaps to suggest his ‘antic disposition’. But all his soliloquies are in verse. And even in times of extreme emotion, such as when he confronts his Mother or leaps into Ophelia’s grave with Laertes, he speaks verse. The frequent changes between verse and prose may assist the actor, the audience, and the student of Shakespeare in understanding the complexities of a character like Hamlet. In somewhat the same manner, the prose exchanges between Falstaff and Prince Hal are decidedly different in tone than Prince Hal’s verse scenes with his father, Henry IV. And later, as Henry V, Hal is a different sort of king when wooing Princess Katherine (in prose) than the warrior king who leads his troops into battle (in verse).

Shakespeare does not always rely on a contrast between verse and prose to achieve whatever tone or effect he might be striving for. Hamlet’s "what a piece of work is man" is in prose and it’s as exquisite a bit of writing as any of his verse. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is equally adept at babbling mindlessly in either verse or prose. Most of Shakespeare’s verse is in iambic pentameter. He will occasionally, however, employ trochaic verse. If iambic pentameter is sometimes described as having a "rising rhythm", trochaic verse might be described as a "falling rhythm". A trochee is a metrical unit (or foot) consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (as in NE-ver). Much of the trochaic verse in Shakespeare’s plays might be characterized as trochaic tetrameter. Tetrameter is a line of four feet (or eight syllables) though often the final foot is truncated so that you, essentially, get four stresses to the line but only seven syllables. Examples of trochaic tetrameter can be found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (spoken by the fairies); Macbeth (spoken by the witches); or in various plays that contain songs, which are often rendered in trochaic tetrameter. Perhaps, in the case of the fairies and the witches, Shakespeare is trying to distinguish supernatural characters from humans. Similarly, in Cymbeline, he assigns iambic heptameter (long lines of seven feet) to the ghosts of Posthumus’ family. The beginning of the third act of The Comedy of Errors includes an exchange of rhyming couplets rendered in iambic hexameter. These long, awkward lines and truly awful rhymes may suggest that the characters are a little tipsy.

One of the most frequent complaints of students new to Shakespeare is that the plays are too difficult to understand. There is certainly some justice to this complaint. In 1679, the writer John Dryden complained that "the tongue [the English language] is so much refined since Shakespeare’s time, that many of his words, and more of his phrases, are scarce intelligible... and his whole style is so pestered with figurative expressions, that it is as affected as it is obscure". I must point out that Dryden’s plays are, now, seldom read or revived on stage, while Shakespeare has been the central figure in English literature (and the theatre) for more than three hundred years. But within a generation of his death, Shakespeare’s plays were being radically adapted and his language rewritten - all of which were seen as improvements. It was not until nearly the turn of the twentieth century that Shakespeare’s plays were being performed without radical cuts and without substantial changes to his language. In many ways, the late 20th Century was closer in spirit to Shakespeare than was the late 17th  Century. Students should bear in mind that Shakespeare was helping to invent our modern language, borrowing from Greek, Latin, and the ancient tongue of the Britons. Some will argue that he was inventing our whole concept of the "human" - the complex creatures in literature that we regard as psychologically motivated characters. (Characters that seem real, like us.) It is argued elsewhere on these pages that Shakespeare helped to foster the notion of romantic love as the foundation for marriage. The English Renaissance was a period of tremendous exuberance, of exciting social changes, of impending political and social upheaval. This spirit is reflected in Shakespeare’s language. Yes -the plays are full of complicated sentences, startling figurative language, obscure references, archaic usages, and forgotten slang. But there are also passages that would not seem out of place in one of Samuel Beckett’s dramas or in a particularly inspired episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The language of Shakespeare’s verse and prose is powerful, resonant, and memorable. It can simultaneously affect us intellectually and emotionally, for no writer is as adept at combining high rhetoric with raw feeling. For those of us for whom English is our mother tongue, Shakespeare is our bravest boast. He is our finest dramatist and poet - and, likely, the finest dramatic poet in any language. Despite the intervening centuries, Shakespeare is perpetually our contemporary and amply rewards the initial frustration students may encounter when coming to grips with his language.

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