Analysing Verse and Prose
Shakespeare’s plays are written in a combination of verse and prose. The Tempest is 80% verse and 20% prose. Traditionally, in Shakespeare’s time, characters talking about important or emotional topics or characters who were behaving formally spoke in verse, while characters with a lower status or conversations about more ordinary things used prose.
Shakespeare liked to play with these conventions and the choices he makes about whether a character speaks in verse or prose can offer clues as to what they might be feeling.
Look at this video to find out more about the difference between verse and prose.
Nia describes prose as conversational, while verse has a more formal structure and rhythm. She also suggests that the structure of verse helps to highlight the inner feelings of the character speaking.
Look at the video in which actors Simon Trinder and Joe Dixon discuss Caliban and Trinculo’s use of verse and prose with director Gregory Doran and ask yourself the following questions about the two characters:
- Notice how Caliban uses the rhythm of iambic pentameter and when there are disturbances to how he speaks in this rhythm. What do those disturbances suggest about how he is feeling when he speaks those words?
- Notice the images Caliban uses, especially the animal images for the spirits that Prospero sends to torment him. What do these descriptive words suggest about how he feels?
- Why do you think Shakespeare has Caliban speak in verse?
- Now look at Trinculo's speech. Does this speech feel different to speak aloud, compared to speaking aloud Caliban’s speech?
- Look at the images Trinculo uses. What do his descriptions suggest about how he feels?
- Why do you think Shakespeare has Trinculo speak in prose?
All the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him
By inch-meal a disease. His spirits hear me,
And yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’th’mire,
Nor lead me like a firebrand in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid ’em: but
For every trifle are they set upon me,
Sometime like apes, that mow and chatter at me,
And after bite me: then like hedgehogs, which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall: sometime am I
All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.
Lo, now, lo!
Here comes a spirit of his, and to torment me
For bringing wood in slowly. I’ll fall flat:
Perchance he will not mind me.
Here’s neither bush nor shrub to bear off any weather at all, and another storm brewing: I hear it sing i’th’wind: yond same black cloud, yond huge one, looks like a foul bombard that would shed his liquor. If it should thunder as it did before, I know not where to hide my head: yond same cloud cannot choose but fall by pailfuls. What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish, he smells like a fish: a very ancient and fishlike smell: a kind of not-of-the-newest poor-John. A strange fish!
Take a look at Act 2 Scene 2 and read through the speeches you have heard. What impression do you get of Trinculo and Caliban?
You might also want to think about the following notes on the two characters as you read:
- The name Caliban is often thought to be intended as an anagram of cannibal. The character of Caliban is thought to be based on stories of the indigenous people of the West Indies who were described as exotic, fierce and sometimes cannibalistic. Joe Dixon offers a different interpretation of the name as someone who is banned from beauty. How do these different interpretations of Caliban’s name help you to think about why Caliban might speak in verse?
- Simon describes Trinculo’s prose as ‘heightened formality’ and thinks this reflects how, as a jester, Trinculo is ‘always on show’. In Shakespeare’s time the parts of Trinculo and Stephano would have been played by ‘clowns’, highly skilled actors who could sing and dance and improvise jokes with the audience. Considering what Simon and Greg discuss about Trinculo, how does this help you to think about why Trinculo speaks in prose?