Critical Essays Shakespeare's Use of Verse and Prose


Quite properly, verse is overwhelmingly the medium used in the main plot, the wholly serious action; no less appropriately, prose is used almost entirely in the broadly comic subplot. Of the nineteen scenes, ten are devoted entirely to the serious action, six largely to the comic, and three (wherein Falstaff appears on the battlefield) to a mixture of the serious and the comic. The principle of decorum invariably determines the choice of medium. When Hal speaks as the heir-apparent, he does so in iambic pentameter lines, usually blank verse. Not only is this true when he soliloquizes at the end of the first comic scene (I.ii.218-40), but elsewhere. At the end of Act II, Scene 2, just after he and Poins have confronted Falstaff, Bardolph, and Peto, and relieved them of the booty and put them to flight, Hal speaks to Poins in blank verse:

Got with much ease. Now merrilly to horse.
The thieves are all scatter'd and possess'd with fear
So strongly that they dare not meet each other;
Each takes his fellow for an officer.
Away, good Ned. Falstaff sweats to death,
And lards the lean earth as he walks along.
Were't not for laughing, I should pity him. (111-17)

One may have his misgivings regarding the morality here, since it is not until later that the prince returns the booty with interest. But it would seem that Shakespeare intends us to understand that the heir-apparent is already giving evidence of his true character, looking forward to the day when he will provide more convincing evidence of his dedication to law and order. Even more appropriate is the prince's shift to verse at the end of Act III, Scene 3, when he is about to leave for the wars. To Falstaff he says:

There [in Temple Hall] shalt thou know thy charge,
and there receive
Money and order for their furniture.

The land is burning; Percy stands on high;
And either we or they must lower lie (225-28)

As one reads these measured lines, he knows that, in this play, Hal has said goodbye to the carefree life at Boar's-Head Tavern.

Blank verse belongs especially to the main plot, where the very fate of the realm is the issue. Often it is quite formal, notably an idealization of ordinary discourse. Decorum calls for such verse when King Henry is addressing recalcitrant nobles (I.ii.) and when he is addressing his truant son (III. ii.); it is also used when Sir Walter Blunt, emissary from the king, conveys his important message to the rebel leaders (IV. iii.). But to compare the blank verse in this play with that, say, of the Henry VI plays and Richard III, all of which date several years earlier, is to realize how great has been the poet-dramatist's advance, how impressive the mastery of the medium. Not only are some twenty-three percent of the blank verse lines in King Henry IV, Part 1 "run-on" lines (that is, running the sense and grammatical structure past the end of a given line and thus avoiding what has been called "iambic monotony"), but over fourteen percent contain speeches ending within the line. Consider, for example, the following quotation:

Wor. Good cousin, give me audience for a while.
Hot. I cry you mercy.
Wor. Those same noble Scots
That are your prisoners,-
Hot. I'll keep them all!
By God, he shall not have a Scot of them;
No, if a Scot would save his soul, he shall not!
I'll keep them, by this hand.
Wor. You start away
And lend no ear unto my purposes.
Those prisoners you shall keep.
Hot. Nay, I will; that's flat. (I.iii.211-18)

No one with any sensitivity to rhythm can miss the iambic beat in these lines, which conveys as well as prose possibly could the sense of reality, vivid and dramatic.

Rhymed iambic pentameter couplets occur thirty-two times, usually at the end of speeches and of scenes, for which they provide a particular kind of emphasis, as in these lines:

Hot. Uncle, adieu! O, let the hours be short
Till fields and blows and groans applaud our sport!(I.iii.301-2)
King. Our hands are full of business; let's away.
Advantage feeds him fat, while men delay.(III.ii.179-80)
Hot. Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse,
Meet and ne'er part till one drop down a corse.(IV.i.122-23)

By the time he came to write the Henry IV plays, Shakespeare habitually used prose for comic scenes, even for high comedy, not solely for broad or "low" comedy. When the comic element is to the fore, Prince Hal and all the others speak prose. Falstaff has already been identified as a speaker of great prose. His discourse has wide range and always reflects his sophistication and wit. His careful use of repetitions, rhetorical questions, apt allusions, balance, and antitheses is remarkable. His burlesque of euphuism, used when he plays the role of Hal's father, provides sufficient evidence that he recognizes the affected, the contrived, and the artificial for what it is. The following quotations will serve, perhaps, to illustrate his skill:

Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us
that are squires of the night's body be called thieves of
the day's beauty. Let us be Diana's foresters, gentlemen
of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we
be men of good government, being govern'd, as the sea
is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under
whose countenance we steal. (I.ii.26-33)

But, Hal, I prithee, trouble me no
more with vanity. I would to God thou and I knew
where a commodity of good names were to be bought.
An old lord of the council rated me the other day in the
street about you, sir, but I mark'd him not; and yet he
talk'd very wisely, but I regarded him not; and yet he
talk'd wisely, and in the street too. (I.ii.83-89)

If first honors belong to Falstaff, it must be acknowledged that Prince Hal exhibits great skill in prose discourse, matching Sir John similitude for similitude on occasion, as in the following lines:

Fal. 'Sblood, I am
as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugg'd bear.
Prince. Or an old lion, or a lover's lute.
Fal. Yea, or the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe.
Prince. What sayest thou to a hare, or the melancholy of
Moor-ditch? (I.ii.82-88)

The prose of both prince and knight provides an interesting contrast to that of the lowly carriers at the beginning of Act II, Scene 1 — and, for that matter, to the prose used by Gadshill a bit later in the same scene.

The range in kinds of prose may be further illustrated. Hotspur employs a style appropriate to subject, mood, and character in two different scenes: first, when he reads and provides commentary on the letter from the timorous lord whose support he has sought (II.iii.1 ff.); second, in the dialogue with his Lady Kate, the amusing if tactless satire of Mortimer and his Welsh-speaking wife (III.i.241 ff.).

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