William Shakespeare is famous for writing drama in blank verse that most contemporary audiences find all but impenetrable, but prose is just as important to the overall design of a Shakespearean play. Shakespeare doesn’t flip back and forth between verse and prose in a willy-nilly fashion; when he introduces a prose section, it is there for very specific reasons. Verse for Shakespeare meant vitality and poetic flights of language that reveal the true depth of emotion, whereas prose was seen as, naturally enough, a more prosaic method of communication. Very often, especially in his comedies and romances, Shakespeare introduces prose into his poetry as an attempt by characters to hide their authentic motivations.
Characters who lapse into prose in the works of Shakespeare very often are speaking words that are meant to obfuscate their actual yearnings. The appearance of prose in a Shakespeare play very often should raise a signal to the reader or audience member to question the words themselves and seek to find the meaning behind them. Words spoken in prose will often appear to be lacking in profound emotion. Another way of looking at it is to view prose from the perspective of a psychoanalyst who refuses to take his patient at his word. Literally. On more than a few occasions, a character in a Shakespeare play is speaking more to the audience by what he isn’t saying than he is to another character by what he is saying. This effect is the true meaning of irony and clearly has little to do with what is meant by irony in the popular sense. An excellent case in point occurs in one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is a sequence during which a play is performed within Shakespeare’s play. It is, of course, the infamous Pyramus and Thisbe skit, and is performed by less than talented actors whose performances are critiqued by the upper class characters in the play for whom it is being given. Shakespeare’s introduction of prose in this particular scene has two effects: it provides for some of the funniest comedy in the play, but it also serves the more meaningful purpose of allowing Shakespeare to obliquely analyze the craving of Theseus, Lysander and the others to demonstrate their own superior erudition by way of comparing themselves to lower class members of the cast performing before the play within the play.
Shakespeare engages prose on many occasions as a way of disguising the motivations of characters from other characters while still brilliantly enabling the audience to peer into their subconscious. A wealth of research resources have convinced many a college student charged with writing a term paper about Shakespeare that prose is used almost exclusively by Shakespeare’s lower classes as a shorthand way of communicating that they aren’t as intelligent or witty as their superiors; yet on any number of occasions Shakespeare lets the higher classes speak in prose to prove exactly the same thing. One of Shakespeare’s least analyzed talents is the way in which he uses this paradoxical complexity of prose as making communication even more complex than his loftiest and most beautiful poetry. This paradoxical nature is nowhere better demonstrated than in one of the Bard’s least performed plays, Cymbeline. This entire play turns on a wager-generally not the kind of thing that is written in verse-and Shakespeare is at the very top of his game in the scene in which the wager takes place: “I will lay you ten thousand ducats to your ring that, commend me to me where your lady is, with no more advantage than the opportunity of a second conference, and I will bring from thence that honor of hers which you imagine so reserved” (I.iv.111-115). Giacomo hides his actual motivation in placing this wager in words that subtly nudges Posthumus to take him up on it in order that he may both prove his wife’s is worthy of trust, but also that he himself is right to trust her specifically and women in general. Where the brilliance of this scene lies is in Giacomo being able to tread through the dangerous waters of not directly accusing Imogen while being able to lump her into the whole of deceptive females. If he had impugned the trustworthiness of Posthumus’ wife straightforwardly, this scene would no longer be played for the comedy on the surface, but would have dipped into the drama that lies beneath.
It is almost impossible to imagine a modern day screenwriter writing a scene in which one man places a bet that another’s man can be seduced with such tense subtlety. And by writing this scene in prose rather than verse Shakespeare is able to reveal to the audience, but not the other characters, that Posthumus is not thinking in a higher-class intellectual way, but instead takes on Giacomo’s wager at face value. Doing so will in the end show that he was entirely right to have such confidence in his wife, but this use of prose serves to show that Shakespeare has another reason for avoiding verse. Poetry is the preferred literary form for expressing true emotions. Prose, on the other hand, is usually reserved for expressing false feelings in an attempt to hide from others what one is really feeling.