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...
(The entire section is 5,619 words.)