An Introduction to Prose in Shakespeare

Prose vs. Verse: What and Why?

The Plays of Shakspeare

 

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What is prose? How does it differ from verse? The difference between them is central to appreciating Shakespeare's writing, but understanding prose vs. verse is not as difficult as you might think.

Shakespeare moved between prose and verse in his writing to vary the rhythmic structures within his plays and give his characters more depth. So don't be mistaken—his treatment of prose is as skillful as his use of verse.

What Does It Mean to Speak in Prose?

Prose has characteristics that make it distinctly different from verse. They include:

  • Run-on lines
  • No rhyme or metric scheme (i.e. iambic pentameter)
  • The qualities of everyday language

On paper, you can easily spot dialogue written in prose because it appears as a block of text, unlike the strict line breaks that are a result of the rhythmic patterns of verse. When performed, prose sounds more like typical language—there are none of the musical qualities that come with verse.

Why Did Shakespeare Use Prose?

Shakespeare used prose to tell us something about his characters. Many of Shakespeare’s low-class characters speak in prose to distinguish themselves from the higher-class, verse-speaking characters. For example, the porter in "Macbeth" speaks in prose:

"Faith, sir, we were carousing till the second cock, and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things."
(Act 2, Scene 3)

However, this should not be treated as a hard-and-fast rule. For example, one of Hamlet’s most poignant speeches is delivered entirely in prose, even though he is a prince:

"I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours."
(Act 2, Scene 2)

In this passage, Shakespeare interrupts Hamlet’s verse with a heartfelt realization about the brevity of human existence. The immediateness of the prose presents Hamlet as genuinely thoughtful—after dropping the verse, we are in no doubt that Hamlet’s words are solemn.

Shakespeare Uses Prose to Create a Range of Effects

To Make Dialogue More Realistic

Many short, functional lines like “And I, my lord” and “I pray you, leave me” ("Much Ado About Nothing") are written in prose to give the play a sense of realism. In some longer speeches, Shakespeare used prose to help the audience identify more closely with his characters by using the everyday language of the time.

To Create Comic Effect

Some of Shakespeare's low-class comic creations aspire to speak in the formal language of their superiors, but do not have the intelligence to achieve this and therefore become objects of ridicule. For example, the uneducated Dogberry in "Much Ado About Nothing" attempts to use more formal language but keeps getting it wrong. In Act 3, Scene 5, he informs Leonato that “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.” He actually means “apprehended” and “suspicious,” and, of course, also fails to speak in correct iambic pentameter.

To Suggest a Character's Mental Instability

In "King Lear," Lear's verse deteriorates into prose as the play unfolds to suggest his increasingly erratic mental condition. We can also see a similar technique at work in the above passage from "Hamlet."

Why Is Shakespeare’s Use of Prose Important?

In Shakespeare’s day, writing in verse was seen as a sign of literary excellence, which is why doing so was conventional. By writing some of his most serious and poignant speeches in prose, Shakespeare was fighting against this convention, bravely taking liberties to create stronger effects.