Shakespeare: Verse vs. Prose

  • Verse vs. Prose The real hang-up with Shakespeare's language is the poetry.  It is a huge hurdle for the reader and sometimes the actor to overcome.  Not all of the Shakespeare plays are written in verse, though.  Much of his plays are written in prose form, and look like a traditional paragraph or a typical play.  Knowing the differences between the two and how to use each to great advantage are paramount to approaching any Shakespeare text.

    As You Like It, Merry Wives of Windsor and Much Ado About Nothing are atypical of most of Shakespeare's plays as they are mostly written in prose form.  Historically, verse was the common form of playwriting in the Elizabethan era.  Shakespeare was a radical to use as much prose as he did.

    He didn't make the choice to use either prose or verse willy nilly.  It was all a very proscribed and determined. 

    There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to why he used each form.  In general, you could say that the upper classes spoke in verse form while the lower classes spoke in prose, and generally you'd be right.  The comedy sections of the tragedies are written almost entirely in prose form, but a lot of the comedies are written in verse form, and every one of the comedies use verse to great effect.

    When discussing verse, it is important to know why the conscious choice was made to use it.  When talking about verse, I prefer to think of it as if it were a song in a musical.  Obviously, there is a rhythm and a music to the sequences, but more importantly verse is used because the moment is important.  One of my favorite terms to use when discussing verse is heightened language.  Quite simply the dramatic moment of the play is so intense, so heightened, that only verse can serve the moment.  This is like in a musical when the emotions of the dramatic moment become so heightened, so intense, all a character can do about it is sing.  So the most influential determinant in the verse/prose game is what does the character want and why do they need to "sing" about it.

    After it is determined why the verse, then you can look at how to use the verse.  There are many tricks and tips that you can use to determine the "right way" to say a verse passage.  Shakespeare may not have written many stage directions, but if you can interpret the workings of the verse, then you have the key to unlocking how to say the verse.  All of the examples I am usign come from As You Like It.

    When we say verse, what we are really saying is blank verse.  It is said that blank verse is the poetic form that most closely resembles everyday speech.  Blank verse is a series of unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter.  This means that it looks like poetry, but the ends of the lines don't rhyme.   You can visually spot verse on the page; it looks a lot different from the prose:  the first word of every line is capatailzed.  But this is a gross simplification.

    The more complicated explanation of this is that blank verse is a series of unrhymed lines where each line has ten syllables.  The syllables will follow the rhythm of unstressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed--literally 5 feet (pentameter) of the iamb rhythm (unstressed stressed).  For example this speech of Duke Senior's from Act V, Scene 4 (lines 1-2):

    Dost thou believe , Orlando, that the boy
    Can do all this that he hath promised?

    Here are two lines of 10 beats each ("promised" must be pronounced as "promise-ed") and all follow the iambic rhythm of unstressed stressed. 

    Where Shakespeare's genius shines through is when he messes with the iambic pentameter.  He may vary the number of syllables (beats) or introduce a different rhythmic figure.  When he does this, it is for a specific reason.  Spotting the difference and processing it is called scanning the line or doing scansion.  Interpreting the scansion can tell you how to say the line.

    If there are fewer than 10 beats per line, then it means one of two things:  (1) there is a pause implicit somewhere in the line or (2) two characters are sharing the ten beats and they need to be sure to pick up their cues.  An example of the first instance would be in Act II, Scene 4 (lines 34-41).  Silvius is talking to the old shepherd, Corin, and explaining to the elder man that no one has loved quite like him:

    O, thou didst then never love so heartily.
    If thou remeb'rest not the slightest folly
    That ever love did make thee run into,
    Thou hast not loved.
    Or if thou hast not sat as I do now,
    Wearing the hearer in the mistress' praise,
    Thou hast not loved.
    Or if thou hast not broke from company
    Abruptly, as my passion now makes me,
    Thou hast not loved.

    After a pair of 10 syllable lines, Silvius finishes each if/then sentence with a 4 syllable line.  By only being 4 beats the kicker part of the line implies there is a pause somewhere.  The actor now gets to choose where to put the pause.  Does he put it before he speaks--perhaps assessing Corin before pronouncing his verdict?  Does he split the pause up and us a bit after every word--giving a sort of religious benediction by adding weight to every word?  Does he leave it for the end of the line, using the power of the pause as a take to the audience or to corin, to underline his point?

    In Act I, Scene 3 (lines 117-123), Celia and Rosalind are planning to run away to the forest.  As their plans get more detailed, they begin sharing lines of blank verse.  Almost finishing each other's thoughts or getting carried away by the excitement of it all, increasing the scene's pace:

           CELIA
    I'll put myself in poor and mean attire
    And with a kind of umber smirch my face.
    The like do you.  So shall we pass along
    And never stir assailants.
           ROSALIND
                                        Were it not better,
    Because that I am more than common tall,
    That I did suit me all points like a man?

    Those lines have a natural speedy rhythm to them now.

    If a single line has more than 10 beats in it (usually just 11, but occasionally 12), then Shakespeare is usually telling the actor to pick up the tempo of this line.  In the above quote Celia and Rosalind share line 120-121:

    And never stir assaliants.   Were it not better,

    It's 12 beats.  It makes sense for the scene that these lines overlap a bit as Rosalind has come up with a better idea, stepping on Celia's last thought.  By either picking up the cues or increasing the internal rate of the characters' lines, the pace of the scene also increases adding to the sense of madcap hijinks.

    A better more-than-10-beat example would be Duke Frederick's opening line to Act II, Scene 2.  The Duke has found out that his daughter and niece have escaped his clutches.  He is outraged.

    Can it be possible that no man saw them?

    Duke Frederick cannot believe that not only are the grils gone, but that no one in the palace saw them leave.  By putting 11 beats in the 10 beat line, Shakespeare is telling the actor to say the line a bit quicker., perhaps to underline the rage as opposed to the indignation.

    Less often, 11 beats in a single line is merely a signifier to the actor (and the audience) that this line is something special.  It means more, and it does not necessaily need to be rushed.  In Act II, Scene 3, (lines 29-30), Adam is warning Orlando that his borther, Oliver plans to burn him to eath in his sleep:

    This is no place, this house is but a butchery.
    Abhor it, fear it, do not enter it.

    The first line has 11 beats; the second has 10.  And while no one would deny the fear that Adam must be feeling for Orlando, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would want that first line to be rushed in delivery.  By puttting 11 beats in the line, Shakespeare draws attention to the line, and tells the actor to pay careful attention to it--it's important.

    The other thing Shakespeare will do is mess up the regular iambic pattern of unstressed stressed.  Do not think that when the rhythm strays from the iambic that Shakespeare is just being lazy or was unable to find the right word.  These rhythmic choices are just as intentional as too few or too many beats per line.  For example, in Act III, scene 5 (lines 9-10), Phoebe says to Silvius:

    I would not be thy executioner.
    I fly thee, for I would not injure thee

    First a perfect line of iambic pentameter, followed by a line of stressed stressed stressed unstressed stressed unstressed stressed stressed unstressed stressed.  All of those stressed syllables (I, fly, thee, I, not, in-, thee) put together must be tended to and therefore underline the importance of those words to Phoebe.  The verse tells us how strongly she feels about getting away from Silvius without hurting him because it goes against the grain of iambic pentameter.

    Shakespeare might throw in some rhymed lines on occasion.  This, too, is purposeful.  It will make the verse sound more archaic, more heightened, more poetic.  It is usually used either to make fun of the person speaking this way, or to show that the person is overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment.  In many of his plays that are written with more verse, Shakespeare has been known to slip a full sonnet (a 14 line poem with a specific rhyme pattern) into a speech; heightening the emotion of the moment to its poetic fullest.  There are no hidden sonnets in As You Like It that I have found, though Orlando has a bastardized one at the top of Act III, Scene 2.  He is hanging up his poems on the trees and his speech is a tyopical shakesearean sonnet, except that it is missing one quatrain, only making it 10 lines long.  This is done to show how bad Orlando is at wrting poetry and how inept he is at wooking a woman.

    Several of the characters do use rhymed lines.  Adam uses it first in II, 3 when he talks about leaving the only home he has known to follow Orlando and serve him in the woods; it is used to show how difficult and emotional this decision is.

    This is how it works for every bit of verse in any Shakespeare play, even if the play is written mostly in verse form. 

Last Modified on October 5, 2017