Prose and verse in Shakespeare's plays

Prose and verse in Shakespeare's plays

Shakespeare's plays contain both prose and verse. Kim Ballard discusses the playwright's selective use of blank verse, and considers several cases where the choice of prose or verse helps us understand class, character psychology and mood.

A quick flick through any edition of a Shakespeare play is a visual reminder that all his drama is written using both prose and verse. On the page, the prose runs continuously from margin to margin, while the verse is set out in narrower blocks, neatly aligned on the left (where lines all begin with capital letters), but forming a slightly ragged right-hand edge. It’s easy then to distinguish between the ‘natural’ mode of prose, where the layout is determined only by the width of the page or the change from one speaker to another, and the ‘artificial’ mode of poetry, where the length of the line is measured in some other way.

Second quarto of Hamlet, 1605

Second quarto of Hamlet,1605

In this famous scene from Hamlet, the hero’s ‘get thee to a Nunry’ speech is clearly marked as prose, while Ophelia responds in verse, ‘O what a noble mind is here orethrowne’.

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The deployment of verse and prose in the plays springs partly from the conventions of his time, but there’s a great deal we can learn about Shakespeare by looking at the way he exploits these forms to serve many dramatic purposes – to fashion psychologically interesting characters, chart relationships, support plot developments, and even explore attitudes and ideas. This article touches briefly on how and why these two forms were used in Shakespeare’s time, and takes a closer look at the specific verse form Shakespeare uses. Beyond that, a discussion of the interplay between verse and prose in just a handful of plays will hopefully give you a flavour of this important aspect of his dramatic work as a whole.

Shakespeare’s mix of verse and prose

A mix of these two compositional forms is unusual in much of literature, but commonplace in the plays of Shakespeare and other dramatists of his age. Although we would probably expect a modern play to be written in prose, the practice of English dramatists before Shakespeare was to write in rhyming verse. Poetry was regarded as the chief literary form, although prose was used for some types of storytelling, such as chivalric romances and travellers’ tales. (The novel as we know it didn’t emerge until the 18th century). The use of prose alongside verse was something that gradually crept into English drama towards the end of the 16th century.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 1631

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 1631

Another brilliant English writer, Christopher Marlowe, uses a mixture of verse and prose in this first scene of Doctor Faustus.

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Shakespeare’s early comedies make use of both prose and verse, but his first tragedy, the Roman play Titus Andronicus, is – according to convention – written almost entirely in verse, except for Act 4, Scene 3 when Titus has a brief exchange with a simple-minded messenger. The ‘clown’, as he is listed in the dramatis personae, speaks in prose, and at one point Titus, a renowned general in the Roman army, slips into this mode while talking to the clown. Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus in 1593–94. By the time he wrote his later tragedies, he was using a much greater proportion of prose, and in Hamlet (composed 1600–01), for example, this is used to telling effect, as you will see below.

Shakespeare’s dramatic verse

Shakespeare’s dramatic verse is often referred to as blank verse, because it doesn’t rhyme (although this is not to say that Shakespeare never makes use of rhyme). As for rhythm – the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables – it takes the iambic pentameter pattern used so commonly in English poetry from Chaucer onwards, and illustrated below with Romeo’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet when he sees Juliet appear at her window:

  ˘      /      ˘       /         ˘         /     ˘      /    ˘      /
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? (2.2.2)

Read Romeo’s question aloud, and you will be able to hear the alternation of the unstressed (˘) and stressed syllables (/) that give the line its regular rhythm: ‘de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM’. Each ‘de-DUM’ is a rhythmic unit, and a pentameter line consists of five such units or ‘feet’. (‘Pentameter’ comes from the Greek for ‘five measures’.) A foot can be made up of two or three syllables, and various combinations of unstressed and stressed syllables are possible. An iamb, or iambic foot – the rhythmic unit of Shakespeare’s blank verse – contains two syllables, with the stress falling on the second syllable (‘de-DUM’).

In all speech, whether verse or prose, stressed syllables gain their prominence by having longer vowel sounds, or being articulated with greater volume or even a higher pitch than unstressed ones. Various factors determine whether or not a syllable is stressed. In words of two syllables or more – such as ‘yonder’ and ‘window’ – the stress pattern doesn’t normally vary. However, monosyllabic words may be given more or less stress depending on their position or function. In Romeo’s line, for example, an actor may put more emphasis on ‘what’ in order to express admiration at the sight of Juliet. So the distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables tends to be a matter of degree, and sometimes also a matter of choice, since actors can often adjust the amount of stress in order to make subtle changes to meaning.

Shakespeare was a master of blank verse, using its basic framework with imagination and flexibility. A well-known speech from The Merchant of Venice – Portia’s courtroom rebuke to the merciless Shylock – is just one of the hundreds of speeches we could choose from to illustrate this:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
(4.1.184–89)

The regular blank verse pattern is easy to discern in these lines, but even in this short extract there are instances of Shakespeare deviating from a strict iambic pattern. Line 186, for example, ends with two stressed syllables (forming a ‘spondee’ or spondaic foot) – ‘twice blest’ – and this serves to emphasise the double blessing that mercy brings. In line 188, the use of only two fully stressed syllables in the first part of the line highlights ‘might’ as another quality of mercy:

   ˘     /       ˘   ˘    ˘      /      ˘
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest …

A few lines later, another adjustment to the regular rhythm also contributes effectively to Portia’s eulogy to mercy:

˘  ˘    ˘    /     ˘   ˘    ˘      /        ˘     /
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
˘  ˘   ˘     /   ˘   ˘   ˘    /      ˘     /
It is an attribute to God himself …
(4.1.194–95)

Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, speaks with considerable authority, and the parallel structure and rhythm of these two lines lend weight to her sermon-like pronouncements. Her language here is strikingly different from her earlier love scene (Act 3, Scene 2) with Bassanio and shows how Shakespeare manipulates the iambic pentameter form to suit his dramatic purpose.

Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

Photogravure images of Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

The famous Victorian actor, Ellen Terry, in the role of Portia disguised as a male lawyer in The Merchant of Venice. This print, from Charles Knight’s Shakespeare (1906–10), is based on a painting by Terry’s friend Louise Jopling.

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Assigning verse or prose to characters

A play’s genre was one of the factors that influenced the use of prose or verse in Shakespeare’s drama, but so too were the characters and the situations they found themselves in. When earlier Elizabethan dramatists first began to use prose as well as verse in comic drama, prose was regarded as suitable for comic or low status characters, while verse was retained for those of high status. But quite early on in his career, Shakespeare began to deviate from this convention. In The Taming of the Shrew (composed 1593–94) there is a delightful moment between the two lovers, Katherina and Petruchio, once they are married and Katherine (the shrew) has finally been ‘tamed’:

KATHERINA Husband, let’s follow, to see the end of this ado.
PETRUCHIO First kiss me, Kate, and we will.
KATHERINA What, in the midst of the street?
PETRUCHIO What, art thou ashamed of me?
KATHERINA No, sir, God forbid, but asham’d to kiss.
PETRUCHIO Why then let’s home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.
KATHERINE Nay, I will give thee a kiss; now pray thee, love, stay.
(They kiss)
(5.1.142–48)

Throughout their tense courtship, the couple have spoken in blank verse (as befits their high social rank), but here the relaxation into prose signals a shift in their relationship and reflects the new intimacy between them.

In a slightly later comedy, Much Ado About Nothing (probably written between 1598 and 1599), the two central characters, Beatrice and Benedick, also have a rather unorthodox courtship, based on their apparent disdain for each other. For them, Shakespeare uses prose far more extensively, establishing them as a kind of comedy duo, notwithstanding their social status:

BENEDICK Sweet Beatrice, wouldst thou come when I call’d thee?
BEATRICE Yea, signior, and depart when you bid me.
BENEDICK O, stay but till then.
BEATRICE ‘Then’ is spoken; fare you well now. And yet ere I go, let me go with
that I came, which is, with knowing what hath pass’d between you
and Claudio.
BENEDICK Only foul words – and thereupon I will kiss thee.
BEATRICE Foul words is but foul wind, and foul wind is but foul breath, and foul
breath is noisome; therefore I will depart unkiss’d.
BENEDICK Thou hast frighted the word out of his right sense, so forcible is thy
wit.
(5.2.42–56)

There is a substantial degree of prose in this play, but it was not just in comedies that Shakespeare made significant use of prose for high status characters. In Act 4, Scene 1 of the history play Henry V (1599), for example, Henry disguises himself on the night before the Battle of Agincourt in order to move among his troops, and consequently has a long and revealing conversation (in prose) with two of his soldiers, who are unaware they are speaking to the King. The scene at the end of the play when Henry courts his future wife Catherine is also written in prose, a concession perhaps to the difficulty of putting blank verse in the mouth of a French princess who has only just started to learn English. However, the scenes when Henry speaks in prose show different sides to his nature and we can reasonably suppose that Shakespeare is using the mix of verse and prose to create multi-dimensional characters rather than predictable stereotypes.

Verse and prose in Hamlet

In his tragedies, too, Shakespeare exploits the interplay between verse and prose, and Hamlet is a fascinating example of this. Prince Hamlet himself – forced to dissemble while he struggles with grief at the death of his father, the hasty remarriage of his mother to his father’s brother Claudius, and the secret knowledge that his father was murdered by this same brother – play-acts his way through encounters with the people close to him, often feigning madness. By employing the properties of both modes, Shakespeare is able to reveal Hamlet’s psychological complexity.

At the beginning of the play, before his visitation from his father’s ghost to tell him of his murder, Hamlet speaks in verse, but already the cracks are showing, as this extract from his first soliloquy reveals:

That it should come to this!
But two months dead, nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet within a month –
Let me not think on’t! Frailty, thy name is woman!
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears – why, she, even she –
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn’d longer! – married with mine uncle,
My father’s brother …
(1.2.137–52)

Here, many lines contain more than 10 syllables, another way in which Shakespeare adapts blank verse. Dramatists and poets often allowed themselves an additional unstressed syllable at the end of a line, but lines 140 and 146 are particularly overloaded. Repetition (‘two months ... within a month ... A little month’, ‘she, even she’) seems to suggest Hamlet’s inability to understand his mother’s behaviour, and the long sentence beginning ‘Why, she would hang on him …’ is twice interrupted with comments of disbelief (underlined). Already, the verse seems barely able to contain Hamlet’s distress.

Photographs of John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft in Hamlet 1944

Photographs of John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft in Hamlet 1944

John Gielgud as a moody Hamlet isolated at the Danish court, in the acclaimed 1944 production at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London.

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Held by © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

It isn’t long before Hamlet learns of his father’s murder, and the heavy burden of revenge is placed on his shoulders. His first appearance at court following this shocking disclosure sees him physically changed (‘madly attired’) and seemingly mad, and he now speaks in prose. In fact, Hamlet speaks in prose for much of the rest of the play, whether addressing characters of high status (Ophelia, King Claudius) or low status (the treacherous courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the travelling players, and the gravediggers who prepare Ophelia’s grave). Interestingly, Hamlet still speaks in blank verse to his friend Horatio, whom he trusts, and also to his mother, a clue perhaps as to how he regards her, despite what he sees as her appallingly fickle behaviour. His soliloquys are also in verse, a suitable vehicle for his moments of complex self-exploration and indicative of the intrinsic nobility of Hamlet’s character. But prose is equally versatile – although its rhythms and constructional units are different, sometimes obviously so, sometimes more subtly. Hamlet’s prose serves many situations: the cat and mouse game he plays with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the process of detachment from his beloved Ophelia, and the easy camaraderie he establishes with the travelling players who become unwitting allies in the confirmation of Claudius’s guilt.

Verse and prose in The Tempest

In The Tempest (written towards the end of Shakespeare’s career, possibly in 1611) the interplay between verse and prose seems to serve a thematic purpose. Brooding over the entire play is Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, exiled many years earlier to a remote island with his daughter Miranda. His magical powers have enabled him to bring his enemies to the island, where he intends to confront them, regain his dukedom, and return to Milan.

It is worth mentioning that songs, although found in many of Shakespeare’s plays, are a particular feature of The Tempest and these of course have their own verse forms. The play also includes a masque – a stylised set piece that Prospero conjures up as an entertainment for Miranda and her future husband, Ferdinand. This ‘vanity’ of Prospero’s art is written in iambic pentameter rhyming couplets, placing it apart from the dramatic action, but the vision comes to an abrupt end when Prospero, suddenly remembering a plot on his life, dismisses the spirits who have performed it. Rhyming couplets are also used in the epilogue (a fairly unusual feature in Shakespeare’s plays). Spoken by Prospero, this is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line). These lines of only seven or eight syllables seem to reflect a weakened Prospero, who has given up his magic and whose strength is now ‘most faint’ (Epilogue, l. 3).

Manuscript of songs from The Tempest, c. 1650–67

John Playford manuscript of songs from The Tempest by John Wilson, c.1660-67

Songs are a striking feature of The Tempest. This manuscript shows the music for Ariel’s song, ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’.

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Set designs for Charles Kean's 1857 production of The Tempest

Set Designs for Charles Kean's 1857 production of The Tempest which required over 140 stage hands to move the elaborate scenery

Design for the masque scene in Act 4, when Juno descends to bless the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand.

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Setting aside these other verse forms, in most respects the play is quite traditional in its assignment of prose and blank verse: the high status characters (Prospero, Miranda and the shipwrecked royals and noblemen) speak almost entirely in verse, while prose is spoken by the low status characters (the mariners, Trinculo the jester, and Stefano the drunken butler). The notable exception to the verse/prose convention is the character of Caliban. This son of the ‘damn'd witch Sycorax’ (1.2.263) and ’the devil himself’ (1.2.319) is kept enslaved by Prospero, who regards him as ‘a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick’ (4.1.88–89) because he attempted to violate Prospero’s daughter. Although he speaks in prose in some scenes, Caliban’s habitual mode of speaking is verse – a reflection of the fact that it was Miranda who taught him to speak. Nurture may not entirely have stuck with Caliban but the elevated, ‘noble’ aspects of verse seem to have done. Here, for instance, he reassures Stefano and Trinculo when they are frightened by music that seems to come from nowhere:

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
(3.2.135–43)

Although he uses verse elsewhere to curse Prospero in no uncertain terms, the poetic and contemplative quality of his language undoubtedly evokes sympathy for him from the audience. This is wrapped up with the viewpoints that are expressed by various characters in the play about the rights and wrongs of colonisation – a subject of lively debate in this period of travel and exploration. Montaigne’s popular essay On Cannibals, for instance, is likely to have been an influence on Shakespeare, who may have owned a copy of the 1603 English translation. A ‘monster’ he may be, but in this context Caliban is himself a victim: once the inheritor and ruler of the island, he now finds himself subordinated to the will of Prospero, who has taken the island from him. Arguably, his use of blank verse is an emblem of his lost status, and perhaps even a device of the playwright for making his audience reconsider the humanity in ‘savage’ races.

Montaigne's Essays translated by Florio

Montaigne's Essays translated by Florio

Shakespeare may have owned this copy of Montaigne’s Essayes, translated by John Florio in 1603. The fly-leaf is signed ‘Willm Shakspere’, though some critics insist it’s a forgery.

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  • Kim Ballard
  • Kim Ballard is now a freelance writer but has many years of experience in education. She taught in various schools before moving to Esher Sixth Form College, where she spent eight years as Head of English. She has also worked as an A level examiner, including being a Chief Examiner for A level English Language. Her publications include Interpreting Texts (Routledge, 2005) and The Frameworks of English (Palgrave Macmillan, 3rd edition 2013). Her latest textbook, The Stories of Linguistics, is due for publication in 2016.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.