Saturday, April 23, 2016

Poetry and Prose in Shakespeare's Plays

So today is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.  And this is also the day we traditionally observe his birthday on, because we know he was baptized on April 26, and babies were usually baptized 3 days after they were born back then, so though we don't have a record of his birthday for certain, it's the day we celebrate it because it's our best guess.

It's also my birthday.  Yes, I seem to have been fated to love Shakespeare, right from birth, hee.  We are going to be doing something Shakespeare-and-Mommy-oriented for my birthday today, which I'll doubtless post about later, probably over on my Soliloquy blog.  But for right now, I am going to post a bit about Shakespeare and poetry, as part of my Poetry Month Celebration.

When Cowboy and I were first dating, and he was learning about my obsession with great fondness for Hamlet and Shakespeare in general, he told me he was always really annoyed by how sometimes the characters in Shakespeare's plays speak in rhyme, and sometimes they don't.  Has that ever annoyed you?  Or made you wonder why he did that?  Did he just get sick of rhyming stuff and stop for a while, or have trouble coming up with rhymes, or what? 

I have no good answers for you on this.  Gasp!  I haven't really spent any time studying why and when he used rhymes.  However, this excellent post on The Shakespeare Blog explains some of the ways he used rhyme, so if you're curious, you can go read that.

However, I do know a bit about why he shifted from poetry to prose and back within his plays.  You probably know he mostly wrote in "blank verse," or "iambic pentameter," meaning that most of his poetic lines are 10 or 11 syllables long and have a cadence to them that makes them really easy to memorize, and sound very pleasing when spoken aloud.  For the most part, Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights used poetry for more formal speeches, and for high-born and/or tragic characters, and prose for more relaxed speeches, and for lower-class and/or comic characters.  

When you're reading one of his plays, it's easy to see the difference.  The poetry is written with each line being about the same length, and each starting with a capital letter regardless of whether that word is the beginning of a sentence or not.  Like this:

To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life. 

          (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1)

His prose goes all the way to the margin, and only the beginning of sentences are capitalized, like this:

I have of late -- but wherefore I know not -- lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; 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 firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire -- why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?
          (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)

So it's really easy to see the difference if you're reading one of this plays.  But what if you're watching one be performed?  According to Shakespeare and the Arts of Language by Russ McDonald (Oxford University Press, 2001), "Shakespeare' first audiences seem to have been more sensitive to verbal structures than their modern counterparts" (p. 108).  Today, we have to learn to listen for the difference, but it seems that in Shakespeare's day, everybody knew that trick already.  Kind of like how, today, we might know that a scene shot in black-and-white stuck in the middle of a color movie is probably going to be a flashback or a dream.  It's a story-telling device we're familiar with.

To quote McDonald again, Shakespeare "employs prose precisely because it is not poetry, because it makes a change.  In other words, the introduction of a speech or scene in prose signals an alteration of mood, a relaxation of tension...  Prose can also signal reversals in character, indicating for example the onset of madness or a loss of control" (p. 113).  Shakespeare deliberately chose to write each speech in poetry or prose based on what he was trying to convey to the audience about a character's station in life, mood, and whether some major change was occurring, as well as whether they were overall a comic or tragic figure.  

Okay, that's your literary lesson for the day :-)  Also, if you're interested, the BBC is doing alllllll kinds of stuff to celebrate today, which you can learn about here.  

Happy birthday, William Shakespeare!  You died 400 years ago today, but while memory holds a seat in this distracted globe, we will remember you.  


  1. Great post! Thanks for adding to my Shakespeare and poetic knowledge. And a very happy birthday! I hope you have a Shakespeare-ish good one!

    1. Thanks, Cleopatra! We went to the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC and Cowboy bought me a Hamlet t-shirt for my birthday :-D It was great!

  2. A really interesting post! I never gave much thought to that particular aspect of Shakespeare, but it makes sense. Thanks for the lesson. I always enjoy learning more:)

    1. Rose, I'm so glad you learned something from it :-)

  3. This is very interesting! I didn't realize that ol' Shakey used poetry/prose in this particular way, as a kind of signal to the audience about what was going on. I learned something new today. ALSO: Happy (Belated) Birthday!!!

    1. LooLoo, I'm happy I got to teach you something, then! Always a good day when we can gain or impart knowledge, don't you think?

      And thanks :-) My birthday kind of got smooshed over 2 days this year, as I celebrated with my hubby and kids yesterday, and with my brother and his family today. More fun that way, huh?

  4. So basically, the way the character speaks also shows his/her social status. Great post, Hamlette, and what a great time to visit your blog again. Happy birthday!

    1. Bzee, yup, that's part of it. It also can show a character's emotion, or whether the scene is comical or serious.

      Glad to see you back! And thanks :-)

  5. Oh! Happy Belated Birthday April Buddy! (Mine is the 24th) :-D I hope it was lovely!

    1. Thanks, Kenia! Happy belated birthday to you as well, then :-) Mine was a lot of fun -- how was yours?

    2. Mine was very fun too. Loving husband and good friends out for a lazy Sunday brunch and mimosas. :-D


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