Study Guide

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Mixed Verse and Prose in Shakespearean Comedy

Mixed Verse and Prose in Shakespearean Comedy

Jonas Barish, University of California, Berkeley

Prose and verse interlink, interlock, and interinanimate each other so often and so densely in Shakespeare's comedies that it seems useful to explore at least briefly some of the points of conjunction between the two, and to identify some of the chief tactics by which Shakespeare moves from one to the other, as well as to understand, where possible, the uses and purposes of such juxtapositions.

Frequently, of course, the two forms alternate in cleanly defined blocs, for example from one scene to another, when the stage has been cleared and new characters enter; or for self-evident purposes within a scene, as when a new character arrives to join others already there, or a key character departs; or when two or more speakers address each other each clinging to his or her preferred medium; or when the tone of a scene changes, whether abruptly or gradually, between one speech and another.

Of these possibilities, the first is the most obvious, least interesting, and (no doubt) least in need of illustration. Even a cursory glance at the act and scene division of the 1623 Folio will show an abundance of instances in which a new scene coincides with a shift from prose to verse or its opposite, as new characters, new topics of discourse, a new social milieu, or a new emotional climate, come into view.

More worthy of notice would be those occasions when the language of a scene already under way changes with the arrival of a new character, as when the usurping Duke Frederick, in As You Like It, storms in to banish Rosalind, in angry blank verse, intruding into the prose being spoken up to that point by Rosalind and Celia themselves, who, once he has left the stage, do not revert to their former chit-chat but continue, with heightened anxiety, in the medium he has initiated. Another angry Duke, Vincentio, in the last scene of Measure for Measure, his cowl plucked off by Lucio, drops the prose he has been speaking in his guise as Friar, and proceeds to final judgment in 'ducal' verse. In this case of course the new character does not so much enter as throw off an assumed role, with the effect of obliterating that role (Friar Lodowick) and substituting the 'actor' behind it (Vincentio).

Certain characters confine themselves entirely, or almost entirely, to one or the other mode. Launcelot Gobbo, in The Merchant of Venice, never uses verse, never submits to the metrical style of his interlocutor—whether Jessica, Shylock, Bassanio, or Lorenzo—though occasionally he converts them to his style. The Merchant being composed chiefly in metre, Launcelot's prose forms a dissenting, oppositional, somewhat subversive voice whenever he speaks. In this he differs from such loosely comparable clowns as the two Dromios, or Grumio, who although for the most part equally prosaic, are also more malleable, ready to respond in kind to the verse of others, to fill out metrically incomplete lines, or supply rhyming lines in order to complete couplets initiated by other speakers, or else, like Bottom, or Feste, to break into songs or snatches from old plays. Unlike these, Launcelot maintains a kind of flinty obduracy that preserves his separateness and psychic independence quite irrespective of his servile social position.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, with its extremely high quotient of prose, the opposite situation obtains. Only two characters talk in verse, but they do so with close to a hundred per cent regularity, whatever others may be doing: Pistol rarely departs from his fustian iambics, and Fenton almost never from his blank verse romancing of Anne Page, so that each in his own way provides a running contrast to the homelier idiom of the rest, one by way of parody, the other by way of a change in emotional register.1

There are moments also when two characters stubbornly persist in speaking to each other each in their separate idioms even when these may be heard to clash. The love-struck Titania, bewitched by Puck's magic flower-juice, woos Bottom in rhymed verse, mostly pentameter couplets, while Bottom replies to her, as to her attendants, only in his own brand of clumsily courtly prose (937-1020, 1511-58). The amusement for us lies in the contrast, the incommensurability, between her urgent endearments and his awkwardly prosaic responses. A similar dialogue of the deaf takes place in Twelfth Night when Sebastian, mistaken for Cesario by Feste, addresses the latter entirely in blank verse, while Feste responds with equal insistence in prose. When Sir Toby and Sir Andrew appear on the scene the same opposition persists, Sebastian sticking doggedly to his blank verse, the others just as insistently challenging him in prose. In this case the contrast involves a distinct element of conflict, reaching an exchange of blows, but as in the encounter between Bottom and Titania, the incomprehension between the opposing parties is heightened, or at least underscored, for us, by their incompatible rhythmic languages.

A related though not identical effect occurs in the finale of A Midsummer Night's Dream. There the rhymed verses spoken by the Prologue, by Wall, Lion, and Moonshine in the 'Pyramus & Thisbe' playlet, are punctuated by dry satiric asides, in prose, from the noble onlookers, speaking not to the players but to each other, so as to embody a sophisticated and in any case altogether different reaction to the lamentable tragedy before them from whatever its putative authors and clownish performers wish to convey. Prose is also the form to which the rustic players themselves must resort when put out of their parts by the heckling from their audience. This would illustrate what I believe to be a more general proposition, that alternations between verse and prose in the plays usually have more to do with local contrast, in rhythm or tone, than with any fixed principle such as social degree, sex, or presumed level of politeness. Up to this point in this play, the aristocratic characters, the Duke and his circle, have spoken either blank verse or couplets, while the mechanicals have used prose. In the present scene, with the latter performing a play that purports to be high tragedy, they turn appropriately to rhymed verse, which means that for contrast the court must (or in any case does) turn to prose. Verse, we quickly discover, can be made to sound quite as absurd as the most clownish prose. Nothing intrinsic to either medium requires its employment in any given dramatic context.

To turn to even more momentary kinds of alternation: the final scene of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is composed entirely in blank verse, with one significant and startling exception. Valentine's offer to yield his claim in Silvia to the repentant Proteus prompts the disguised Julia to swoon with a cry, 'Oh me vnhappy' (TLN 2208), 2 and with that cry to provoke a flurry of prose, leading to her disclosure of her true identity, by which time, only a few moments later, we are firmly back in the realm of blank verse. In this case the sudden lurch into prose, indicative of the breakdown of the speaker's consciousness, is totally unplanned and unpurposed, comparable in that regard to the much more agonizing moment of Othello's fall into epilepsy, rendered in a totally fragmented and chaotic—as well as nonmedical—word-jumble.

In Love's Labour's Lost, after much blank verse persiflage among the Princess of France and her ladies on their first appearance, all the ceremonial flourish of the King's greeting, 'Faire Princesse, welcom to the Court of Nauar', is dashed by the icy water of the Princess's prose reply: 'Faire I giue you backe againe, and welcome I haue not yet: the roofe of this Court is too high to bee yours, and welcome to the wide fields, too base to be mine' (585-9), where the stinging antitheses have the effect of scuttling the King's dignity while underlining that of the Princess. In this case, as not infrequently, the shift from one medium to another, designed to produce a sharp change of tone, is confined to a single speech, following which we return to the momentarily dominant form.

The changeover may also involve a move in the opposite direction, from prose into verse, to mark an emotional heightening. When Viola, in the person of Cesario, woos Olivia for the first time, their dialogue starts in prose; a playful Viola matches wits with a drily mocking Olivia. After her request, however, to see her interlocutor's face, when Olivia unveils, Viola, startled and troubled by the genuineness of Olivia's beauty, shifts decisively into verse: 'Excellently done, if God did all' (527). This she really means; she is no longer simply spinning words. Knocked out of her assigned part, she now begins to play it in earnest and with increasing intensity. Olivia for a moment pursues her own bantering vein in prose, until Viola's fervour draws from her, also in verse, a tepid enumeration of Orsino's merits, followed by a slow access of warmth and wonderment, concluding with the embarrassed request that the new go-between return to plead his master's cause. Finally, alone, Olivia confesses—still in verse—that she herself has caught 'the plague', though not, curiously, from Cesario's eloquence but from his 'perfections', which 'creepe in at [her] eyes' (593).

Throughout this scene, as throughout generally, the shifts between verse and prose offer hints and opportunities to actors, to assist them in activating theatrically the dynamics of feeling, the starts and stops, the ceaseless ebbs and flows of it of which Shakespearean dialogue is so characteristically composed. In the scene in question, the shift into verse on Viola's part registers the sudden shock on her of Olivia's unveiled beauty, affording the player a variety of possible ways to represent it. Clearly a change of tone is involved, but what exactly is the new tone? Multiple possibilities present themselves, among which it is the player's obligation, and challenge, to choose.

All these instances represent decisive shifts between one medium and another, where little doubt arises as to which of the two we are dealing with, though there are plays, especially Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the patterning and the alternations not only between verse and prose, but among the various sorts of verse—blank verse, pentameter couplets, interlinked couplets, octosyllabics, stanzaic forms, all interweaving and intertwining—can become bewilderingly intricate, and where Shakespeare is obviously aiming to offer us an abundance of auditory pleasures, to sing and speak to us, like Viola to Orsino, in many sorts of music.

But the prose of the comedies, in addition, has its own stretches of what in an earlier essay I referred to as 'indeterminacy', where Shakespeare seems 'to be composing in a kind of intermediate zone between verse and prose, to be drifting … in a misty mid-region or noman's-land between [the two] fixed poles'.3 Though such stretches seem fewer here than in the tragedies, they also seem more often to serve deliberately as transitions from one mode to the other, with verse in the process of losing its metrical precision and disintegrating, so to speak, into prose, or prose tightening up its implicit rhythmicality—realising its full rhythmic potential, one might say—and taking on the stricter, more systematic pulsations of metre.

One such transition occurs in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where the irreverent Speed has been explaining the symptoms of true love to Valentine, in prose. Valentine has been confessing his infatuation with Silvia. When Silvia makes her first appearance, he salutes her with a certain stiff formality: 'Madam & Mistres, a thousand good-morrows.' Speed, scornfully, and, no doubt, aside, responds: 'Oh, 'giue ye-good-ev'n: heer's a million of manners.' Silvia replies to Valentine's greeting in terms similar to his own: 'Sir Valentine, and seruant, to you two thousand', prompting another belittling aside from Speed: 'He should giue her interest: & she giues it him.' This last might perhaps be heard as a rough trochaic hexameter before Valentine, finally, moves unequivocally into blank verse: 'As you inioynd me; I haue writ your Letter / Vnto the secret, nameles friend of yours', &c. (489-95). Here the tentative approaches to rhythmic regularity in the initial greetings, and in Speed's second aside, seem to lead into the blank verse that crystallises, at length, with Valentine's report on his letter-writing assignment.

The return to prose a moment later, following Silvia's departure, seems to be accomplished by way of another bridge passage (526-32), as Speed breaks out into a series of tumbling couplets. These tear the blank verse fabric to shreds and form a natural avenue of decomposition through which the language loses its metrical exactness and takes on the irregularity of prose. The passage illustrates another frequent feature of Shakespeare's comic writing: he often uses tumbling verse, loose ragged couplets lacking a fixed or distinct system of stresses, to modulate from prose into verse, by introducing rhyme, or else from verse into prose, by blurring the firmness of the metrical pattern.

Speed, in the first of these stretches, is obviously commenting, like the Athenian courtiers at the playlet, without intending to be overheard by those on whom he is commenting—at least at first. But the clash between verse and prose can also resemble a direct contest of wills, a confrontation in which one character ultimately succeeds in imposing his speech habit onto a more compliant one, or one of lower social rank. In The Taming of the Shrew, when Petruchio wrangles with the hapless Tailor over the instructions for Katherina's gown, his servant Grumio steps in to second his master. Petruchio having railed at the Tailor in comically furious blank verse, the Tailor, mindful of his self-respect, first defends himself in the same measure: 'Your worship is deceiu'd; the gowne is made / lust as my master had direction: / Grumio gaue order how it should be done.' At this point, I believe, a transition to prose becomes audible. Grumio chimes in in prose to challenge the Tailor's claim: 'Gru. I gaue him no order, I gaue him the stuffe.' The Tailor, still in blank verse, protests: 'But how did you desire it should be made?' To which Grumio, in prose once more, 'Marrie sir with needle and thred.' The Tailor struggles to preserve his dignity by persisting in the more 'elevated' medium: 'But did you not request to haue it cut?' To which Grumio, now prosing more emphatically, retorts, 'Thou hast fac'd many things.' At this point the Tailor himself collapses into prose, 'I haue' (2101-9), in which manner they continue, through the reading of the 'note of fashion', and Grumio's threat of a duel, until Petruchio moves to settle the question by re-establishing the iambic beat, 'Well sir in breefe the gowne is not for me.'

Grumio, at this point, still in prose, supports his master (or rather, pretends to do so while impudently taking this last statement in the wrong sense): 'You are i'th right sir, 'tis for my mistris.' Petruchio, continuing in blank verse, orders the Tailor to 'Go take it vp vnto thy masters vse', producing another antic intervention, and a last prose outburst, from Grumio, this time feigning to correct his master; 'Villaine, not for thy life: Take vp my Mistresse gowne for thy masters vse [!]', before subsiding finally (more or less) into verse himself (2138-42). Here we have an instructive instance of one character (Grumio) forcing the rhythm of another character (the Tailor) to his own conceit, into prose, and then, having done so, being himself forced back into verse by the pressure of a third character, Petruchio. There is nothing here, surely, which could not be made to sound distinctly by skilled actors.4

Generally, in the forest scenes of As You Like It, Rosalind and Celia address each other and Orlando in prose. Verse makes its appearance chiefly with Silvius and Phebe, as an instrument of parody. Thus in 4.3, Rosalind's prose complaint about Orlando's tardiness is cut short by the arrival of Silvius, who launches into his doleful pentameters, and is answered in kind by Rosalind. Having read Phebe's versified letter aloud, Rosalind comments scathingly on it and on Silvius's pusillanimity, in prose. The entrance of Oliver with the bloody napkin then introduces a sequence in blank verse, but this too is cut short by Rosalind's swooning (like Julia) into prose, though not without at least one moment of indeterminacy (2318-20): 'Oli. Be of good cheere youth: you a man? / You lacke a mans heart. / Ros. I doe so, I confesse it:' The indeterminacy here may be judged by the fact that three recent editors have treated it in three different ways. Riverside (Evans), following F, prints it as verse; New Arden (Latham) not only prints it all as prose, but does the same with the unmistakably blank verse line that precedes it, ' [Cel.] I pray you will you take him by the arme' (2317). Pelican (Sargent) does best, I think, with 2317 as verse and 2318-19 as prose.

Further indeterminacy occurs at the climax of the mock duel in Twelfth Night (3.4.310-90), preparations for which have reached crisis point when Antonio enters to defend Viola, whom he takes for Sebastian, and is pursued moments later by the arresting Officers. Toby has goaded Sir Andrew to the attack, in prose (with assurances that his terrible opponent has promised not to harm him), to which the terror-stricken Sir Andrew exclaims, 'Pray God he keepe his oath', a three-foot iambic line followed by Viola's blank verse confession, 'I do assure you 'tis against my will', leading into Antonio's first speech, also in blank verse (1826-31). Seconds later, the Officers having arrested Antonio, again in prose, Antonio, like Sir Andrew a moment before, responds with a three-foot iambic reply, 'You do mistake me sir', directly followed by the Officer's blank verse, 'No sir, no iot: I know your fauour well', &c. (1845-46). In both cases the fragmentary metrical line serves as a bridge from prose into verse, making the transition less abrupt.

We might note, further, that in the conclusion of this scene, the dialogue among Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian has been so thoroughly infected by the verse rhythm of Viola's speech concerning her likeness to her brother that that continues to sound in their own language. Sir Toby's first words after her exit—'A very dishonest paltry boy, [/] and more a coward then a Hare'—are readily heard as two nearly perfect iambic tetrameters; Sir Andrew's 'Slid Ile after him againe, and beate him' as an almost perfect 'headless' pentameter; and Sir Toby's final statement—'I dare lay any money, twill be nothing yet'—as a flawless hexameter (1906-16). Despite the slightly more prevailing prose feel of this little interchange, the iambic drum does seem still to be beating in it, even as the characters are doing their best, one might say, to anticipate M. Jourdain and talk prose.

To turn now to a somewhat different consideration, having to do with the differences between prose and verse: I am struck, in the case of the more extended prose speeches, by how highly structured they often are compared to their verse counterparts. They seem to utilise visible and audible rhetorical or syntactical patterns as a way of compensating for the absence of metrical structure. If, for example, in The Merchant of Venice, we look at Shylock's dialogue with Antonio in 1.3 (following the usual scene division) in the ancecdote about Jacob's sheep, or in Shylock's reminder of how Antonio has spat on him, spurned him, and reviled him as a dog, we find the language to be familiar, lifelike, and conversational, without obvious artificiality. The blank verse creates a strong rhythmic current which is, however, unobtrusive; it works on us without in any way requiring our conscious attention to it.5

When we come to his central speech in the play, however, in which Shylock turns in rage against his tormentors, Solanio and 'Salarino', we find something very different, something highly patterned, stamped with unmistakable artifice, a procession of five impassioned parisonic series. Antonio has '[1] disgrac'd me, and hundred me halfe a million, laught at my losses, mockt my gaines, scorned my Nation, thwarted my bargaines, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what's the reason? I am a Iewe: [2] Hath not a I lew eyes? hath not a I lew hands, organs, dementions, sences, affections, passions, [3] fed with the same foode, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same meanes, warmed and cooled by the same Winter and Sommer as a Christian is: [4] if you pricke vs, doe we not bleede? if you tickle vs, doe we not laugh? if you poison vs doe we not die? and if you wrong vs shall we not reuenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. [5] If a I lew wrong a Christian, what is his humility, reuenge? If a Christian wrong a I lew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example, why reuenge? The villanie you teach me I will execute, and it shall goe hard but I will better the instruction' (1266-83). Each of these series, with its own inner intricacies, such as the various antitheses, 'laught at my losses, mockt my games', 'cooled my friends, heated mine enemies', &c., or the anaphora on 'if in series 4 and 5—thus leads to its own local climax, and the whole sequence to a towering summary climax.

What we find on this occasion, as often in Shylock's prose, is not metrical regularity, but a form of syntactic regularity, always shifting slightly—very much as metre, skilfully handled, always shifts slightly from off dead centre so as not to sound mechanical. It is played with, interfered with in small details so as to forestall rigid symmetry, but nevertheless offering as insistent a pattern for the ear and mind as rhyme or metre, if not more so. To be sure, Shylock in the first scene is in a self-confident, expansive mood, being earnestly sued to for the desired loan by an enemy who has momentary need of him. Under the circumstances he is at peace with himself and sure of himself. In the later scene he has been tormented by Jessica's flight and enraged by the theft of his casket, so that he is nearly wild with grievance, on top of which salt is being rubbed into his wounds by the jeers of the two 'Gentlemen'. Shakespeare has chosen to cast his despairing fury into this overwrought prose outburst, in which the very ostentatiousness of the rhetorical structure serves as an index to the intensity of the speaker's anguish.

In the same play, the opening dialogue between Portia and Nerissa, in prose, is marked by a highly visible logicality. The language swarms with logical devices, such as the explanatory particle 'for', and the clincher 'therefore', in addition to formulae like 'as … as', 'if x then y', 'more x than y', 'neither x nor y'. These often appear in combination, as in 'If I could bid the fift welcome with so good heart as I can bid the other foure farewell, I should be glad of his approach: if he haue the condition of a Saint, and the complexion of a diuell, I had rather hee should shriue me then wiue me' (318-22), where, again, the syntactic skeleton is elaborated and underscored by the parisonic correspondences. Yet if we look at Portia's verse speeches, such as that on the quality of mercy, or those she addresses to Bassanio or Lorenzo at Belmont, we find not an absence of logic, certainly, but rather that the logical pattern is so muted, so fully absorbed into the texture of the verse that it never forces itself into our consciousness as it does in these prose passages.

In the scene following, in which Shylock talks to Bassanio about Antonio's scattered ships, including the 'rats' that threaten them, and about the ways in which he, Shylock, will or will not consort with the Christians, structure is provided by quite different means, by what we may recognise as a peculiarly Shylockian vein of iteration, the repetition of the same phrase-ending in successive phrases ('epistrophe'), those phrases further stiffened by parison: 'I will buy with you, sell with you, talke with you, walke with you, and so following: but I will not eate with you, drinke with you, nor pray with you' (359-61).

Launcelot Gobbo's first speech, an extended soliloquy (568-95), displays its own structure in another way, in the competing voices through which Launcelot dramatises the conflicting impulses in his mind, allocating one voice to his conscience, one to the devil, and one to a third party, 'himself'.

From the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor we hear still a further sort of prose structure in the knight's recital of his late misfortunes, cast into the chill Thames along with Mistress Ford's foul linen: 'Haue I liu'd to be carried in a Basket like a barrow of butchers Offal? … The rogues slighted me into the riuer with as little remorse, as they would haue drown'de a blinde bitches Puppies … my bellies as cold as if I had swallow'd snow-bals, for pilles to coole the reines' (1683-1700). A few moments later, expostulating on the same theme to 'Master Brook': 'I suffered the pangs of three seuerall deaths: First, an intollerable fright, to be detected with a jealious rotten Bell-weather: Next to be compass'd like a good Bilbo in the circumstance of a Pecke, hilt to point, heele to head [i.e., bent double like a flexible sword] … And then to be stopt in like a strong distillation with stinking Cloathes … thinke of that, that am as subiect to heate as butter; a man of continuali dissolution, and thaw … more then halfe stew'd in grease (like a Dutch-dish) to be throwne into the Thames, and coold, glowing-hot, in that serge like a Horse-shoo; thinke of that; hissing hot' (1774-88).

What distinguishes Falstaff's speech here is the abundance and vitality of his figurative language, the outpouring of picturesque similes with which he laments the outrage to his flesh and the vulnerability of his corporeal being: 'like a barrow of butchers Offal', 'with as little remorse as they would haue drown'de a blinde bitches Puppies', 'as cold as if I had swallow'd snow-bals', 'detected with a iealious rotten Bell-weather', 'compass'd like a good Bilbo in the circumference of a Pecke', 'like a strong distillation with stinking Cloathes', ''as subject to heate as butter', 'stew'd in grease (like a Dutch-dish)', 'coold, glowing-hot … like a Horse-shoo … hissing hot', etc.

Most often, then, it is the prose speeches that seem not merely to utilise but to luxuriate in patterning. Even in much briefer and more local instances, we often find the same phenomenon. From a scene already discussed, we might contrast the striking rhetorical structure of some of Viola's initial prose speeches to Olivia—e.g., 'I bring no ouerture of warre, no taxation of homage; I hold the Olyffe in my hand; my words are as full of peace, as matter' (502-4); or 'The rudenesse that hath appear'd in mee, haue I learn'd from my entertainment. What I am, and what I would, are as secret as maiden-head: to your eares, Diuinity; to any others, prophanation' (507-10)—where we even hear an elaborate syntactic inversion ('the rudeness … haue I learn'd') of a sort often thought of as 'poetical'—with her verse speeches a moment later following the revelation of Olivia's beauty: 'Lady, you are the cruell'st shee aliue, / If you will leade these graces to the graue, / And leaue the world no copie' (532-4), &c.—so striking in its simplicity and naturalness, its total absence of flourish.

Finally, in a perhaps slightly more ambiguous example, we may turn to the two speeches of Prince Hal that frame his initial appearance in 1 Henry 4: First, his opening reply to Falstaff's question concerning the time of day: 'Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of olde Sacke, and vnbuttoning thee after Supper, and sleeping vpon Benches in the afternoone that thou hast forgotten to demand that truely, which thou wouldest truly know. What a diuell hast thou to do with the time of the day? vnlesse houres were cups of Sacke, and minutes Capons, and clockes the tongues of Bawdes, and dialls the signes of Leaping-houses, and the blessed Sunne himselfe a faire hot Wench in Flame-colour'd Taffata; I see no reason, why thou shouldest be so superfluous, to demaund the time of the day' (116-26). This comic onslaught so bristles with structure, with its tight logical framework and its figures of climax, that it has lent itself more than once to being cited and diagrammed, by way of contrast to a more realistic kind of prose, and as a superlative instance of high symmetricality combined with flexibility.6 One might almost describe it as a demonstration piece in how language can be used with improvisatory aplomb while at the same time adopting, and flaunting, many of the prized devices of schoolbook rhetoric.

Hal's verse soliloquy at the end of the same scene, by contrast, a more premeditated address to his tavern mates, the audience, and himself, shows some of the same traits as the verse speeches of Shylock and Portia: despite a firm logical substructure, and despite its grave formality, it totally lacks the swagger, the gaudiness and boisterousness of the address to Falstaff. In his initial speech, Hal is rubbing Falstaff's nose, and ours, in his mastery of language. He is deliberately making language perform. The words come tumbling forth, and they do his bidding. In the soliloquy, on the other hand, this bravura element is lacking. While giving us the fruit of prior reflection and pondered planning, Hal maintains a steady, quiet focus on the plan itself, its purposes and its hoped-for effects. He is not, this time, making language turn handsprings, or engaging in performative acrobatics for our amusement.

Clearly none of the effects just mentioned is in itself peculiar to prose. With any of the prose passages from Shylock mentioned above, for example, we might compare Shylock's refusal to accept the repayment of his loan from Antonio: 'Ile haue my bond, speake not against my bond, / I haue sworne an oath that I will haue my bond (1690-1); or again, 'Ile haue my bond, I will not heare thee speake, / Ile haue my bond, and therefore speake no more' (1698-99). Here we have the same harping on a single key word that we sometimes find in his prose speeches, only now in metrical guise. The difference lies chiefly in the greater elaborateness and extensiveness of the repetitions in the prose.

I think we must conclude then that Shakespeare's prose neither obeys nor does it illustrate Roman Jakobson's distinction between prose and verse, according to which verse is based on metaphor, on likenesses between things, and prose on metonymy, on the connections and contiguities between things.7 To me it seems rather that prose is used, much oftener than verse, as the medium for verbal hijinks, verbal fireworks, and verbal filigree, while verse serves more often as the vehicle for the nuts and bolts with which the actions and the passions of the plot are put together. The fact however that counter-examples may nearly always be found to discredit hard-and-fast distinctions serves chiefly to remind us that no matter how cleverly we may think we have driven Shakespeare into a corner and made him abide our question, he always manages to find a loophole through which to wriggle free and mock our efforts.


1 The fact that Pistol's speeches are sometimes misprinted as prose (in Q, a bad quarto) or mislineated (in F), and the fact that he is mimicking the rant he has picked up in the theatre, does not alter the more overriding fact that most of his dialogue remains 'relentlessly iambic'. We can refuse to call it 'poetry' if we so decide, but there seems no way to withhold the less honorific, more neutral label 'verse'. But see on this point George T. Wright, Shakespeare's Metrical Art (Berkeley, 1988), 110-11.

2 Citations from Shakespeare will be to The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York, 1968), with parenthetical line references keyed to Hinman's through-line numbering.

3 Jonas Barish, 'Mixed Prose-Verse Scenes in Shakespearean Tragedy', Shakespeare and Dramatic Tradition: Essays in Honor of S. F. Johnson, eds. W. R. Elton and William B. Long (Newark, Del., 1989), 41.

4 I realise that one might perhaps hear Grumio's first two answers as scannable tetrameters, the first with an iamb followed by three anapests—'I gaue him no order, I gaue him the stuffe'—the second lacking the unstressed upbeat in the first foot—'Marrie sir with needle and thred'—and ending with an anapest—but both these imperfectly metrical lines collide with and jar against the Tailor's grave regularity rather than in any way complementing it or harmonising with it. The upshot is that Grumio's prose retorts wreck the Tailor's blank verse, unless the actor is determined to have it otherwise, and so wrenches it.

5 On iambic pentameter as the 'most speechlike' of English metres, see Wright, Shakespeare's Metrical Art, 1-16.

6 Jonas Barish, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), 45-6; Brian Vickers, The Artistry of Shakespeare's Prose (London, 1968), 91-2.

7 'Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances', in Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy, eds., Language in Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), 95-114.

Source: ";Mixed Verse and Prose in Shakespearean Comedy,"; in English Comedy, eds., Michael Cordner, Peter Holland, and John Kerrigan, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 55-67.