Verse and Prose
How characters speak to one another and to the audience
What is prose, and how is it different to poetry? The short answer is that prose is the form of writing that I’m using now, and the form we most commonly use in speech with each other. Prose is the term for any sustained wodge of text that doesn’t have a consistent rhythm. Poetry or verse is different: verse has a set rhythm (or meter), and it looks distinctive on the page as the lines are usually shorter than prose.
Here’s an example of verse from Act 4 of Much Ado About Nothing, which the Friar speaks to Leonato as he sets out his plan to save Hero’s honour:
Your daughter here the princes left for dead.
Let her awhile be secretly kept in,
And publish it that she is dead indeed. (4.1.200-202)
These lines are in a form called iambic pentameter, or blank verse. Each line contains five stressed syllables and five (or a few more) un-stressed syllables, usually arranged in a neatly alternating pattern: de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM. Your-DAUGH-ter-HERE-the-PRINC-es-LEFT-for-DEAD.
Of course that isn’t exactly how the line is spoken on stage. Actors observe the stressed and un-stressed syllables much more subtly, but you’ll still be able to hear the pattern of the meter. And that underlying rhythm probably sounds quite familiar: it’s like a heartbeat. Shakespeare loved iambic pentameter because it sounds very close to natural, heart-felt speech, but still has the structure of formal poetry. Giles Block, Shakespeare’s Globe’s resident verse expert, has described iambic pentameter as ‘the sound of someone saying something important’. The Friar’s words are unquestionably important, as it is his involvement that saves Hero from being abandoned or even killed by her father.
But the odd thing about Much Ado compared to Shakespeare’s other plays is that very little of it is actually in verse. Nearly three-quarters of the words spoken in the play are in prose, not poetry. That does not mean the words are not important: characters use prose to discuss love, jealousy, revenge, friendship and loyalty. So why did Shakespeare choose to make the men and women in Much Ado speak mostly in prose?
You might have heard, or been taught, that Shakespeare gave verse to his high-status characters, and prose to his lower-status characters. So, we can expect kings and queens to speak in poetry, but servants and soldiers speak in prose. Sometimes that holds true, but not in Much Ado: almost everyone speaks in prose most of the time, from the high-ranking Don Pedro to the much humbler Dogberry.
Perhaps it’s to do with the value, or artistry, attached to the different forms. Today, we apply the adjective poetic to words that are elegant and beautiful, even if they are not in verse. By contrast, a text that we describe as prosaic is rather boring. But this is a modern definition, and Shakespeare would have thought differently.
In fact, the explanation for the mix of forms in Much Ado lies in the nature of what is being said, and in the qualities that Shakespeare understood to be carried by verse and prose. He did not see one form as ‘better’ than the other. Instead, he used the differences between prose and verse to suggest various things to the audience about the characters in the scene.
One way to think about prose is that it is the language of wit and amusing conversation – of which there is plenty in Much Ado. By contrast, verse is the language of formality and ceremony: it’s not a coincidence that the ceremonial parts of Act 4 Scene 1, during which Hero’s wedding is curtailed, are in iambic pentameter. Another way of thinking about the distinction is that prose represents a language of logical thought, while verse is the language of emotion and self-reflection. Things are different today. We’re sometimes a bit suspicious of ‘poetic’ self-expression, and we might associate rhymed verse with insincerity. In Shakespeare’s time, however, a dramatic character speaking in poetry was much more likely to be speaking from the heart than one speaking in prose.
Analysing the text in this way helps us to make sense of two key moments in the play. In parallel scenes, first Benedick and then Beatrice are tricked by their friends into believing that each is in love with the other. Both overhear their friends make fun of them, and their surprise and embarrassment seem to prompt a change in their feelings for each other. But the way they express this transformation is not the same.
Let us start with Benedick. Once Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio have left the stage, Benedick responds to the ruse:
This can be no trick. The conference was sadly borne. They have the truth of this from Hero. They seem to pity the lady; it seems her affections have their full bent. Love me? Why, it must be requited. I hear how I am censured. They say I will bear myself proudly if I perceive the love come from her. They say, too, that she will rather die than give any sign of affection.
You will notice that he is speaking in prose, as he has been for all of the play up to this moment. And his response seems to be based on a sort of logic: he’s making a set of observations and providing evidence to back up his deductions. He decides that it’s not a trick, because his friends bore themselves ‘sadly’ (in other words, he didn’t see them laugh), and because Hero – who has a reputation for truthfulness – told them about it. Benedick goes on to conclude that he has no choice but to love Beatrice back, and in the rest of the speech he works out how to avoid being teased for his previous rejection of marriage. He’s making a fool of himself, but he thinks he’s being very logical about it.
Compare this with Beatrice’s reaction to the deception played out by Hero and Ursula.
What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And Benedick, love on. I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band.
For others say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly. (3.1.107-116)
This is the first time Beatrice has spoken in verse, and it is her only soliloquy(a speech delivered directly to the audience out of the hearing of other characters on stage). At first it might seem that her response is quite similar to Benedick’s: she questions the truth of what she has just heard, before deciding that the love must be returned. But the nature of her response is actually quite different. Instead of Benedick’s misplaced self-belief in his own logic, we see that Beatrice has been deeply wounded by what her friends have said: ‘Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?’ she asks. Unlike Benedick, who mentions his ‘pride’ only in passing, Beatrice seems appalled at the accusation, and doesn’t try to deflect it away with humour or faulty logic. She speaks from the heart. Her response is sincerely emotional, and Shakespeare reflects this sincerity with the shift into verse.
So although these characters seem to undergo very similar experiences, they react to them very differently. Benedick continues to deploy witty prose as a defence mechanism, as he has throughout the play, whereas Beatrice acknowledges an emotional vulnerability. We might have to look elsewhere for the moment of Benedick’s sincere self-realisation. When do you think he finally comes to terms with his feelings? And might the form of text – verse or prose – offer a clue? Listen out for that heartbeat rhythm when you watch the show today…