On Verse and Prose: Why do Shakespeare’s Characters Speak It?

May 11, 2015
Practice
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602648_10151370535930809_1540290606_nAs a playwright Shakespeare seems to leave little to chance.  He feeds his characters with a heartbeat, a breathing pattern, and if you follow first folio work as I do, a whole series of clues and movements that allow the language too physically and internally move the actor.  Shakespeare’s earlier plays may have been engaged in blank verse as the common practice, however as an actor, he would have had an immediate physical reaction and intimate knowledge of how it affects the performer and drama from the inside.

This intimate knowledge of playing and theatre coming from the practising artist perspective gives us the wonderful meta’s moments like “ O for a muse of fire…” and “We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”.  These all carry a deep meaning to the people who toil in the realm of making the imaginary real.  By placing words  “…a pour player who struts and frets…” in Richard Burbage’s mouth, the most famous actor of his time (or as he might have wished to believe) on a stage Burbage owns, Shakespeare, like any good playwright, is playing the actor as much as the audience.

As his plays developed, the choice of who speaks in verse or prose and when becomes more and more specific.  Both Coriolanus and Volumnia in Coriolanus speak in prose as well as verse, despite being an aristocratic characters, Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo all have verse in The Tempest despite being of low status and not limited to magic.  Michael Pennington’s comments in Sweet William maybe of use to us here – “The more characters suffer the more articulate they become”.  Does speaking in verse fall into articulation?

globeplans1Additionally, Shakespeare’s genius as a story teller lies in his ability to take a common practice and break the rules in couple short strokes for dramatic effect.  He does this with story, with structure and, like all great poets, with verse.  As an actor and a playwright with a tremendous sense of character, it stands to reason he would also use the tensions between prose and verse, not just for the audience reception, but for character.

I have developed a theory regarding performance arts practices.  This theory follows the idea of rising states in the need communication. If we imagine ourselves trying to get information about a fire across to someone who cannot understand us, there is a progression in the attempts to communicate and this equates to a performance practice.  First you speak normally  – this equals spoken prose; then as the stakes go up you look for ways to explain, you try and control or structure your information – this equals verse or poetry; next we start making sounds – this equals song or opera; and lastly we engage in movement, waving our hands around franticly and gesturing – this equals dance.  Interestingly, as the need to communicate rises, the discipline required within the corresponding art form rises as well.  At East 15, Simon Usher spoke to freedom through form in “the form is the key to the emotion”.  If the key for the actor is through the form (and I agree with this), can the form be an active character choice just as a character in a musical doesn’t sing for no reason?

If Shakespeare is consciously using verse and prose, line structures and the words in them to signify differences and move actors, and the act of speaking verse automatically plays on both the actor and audience, what does the choice (whether consciously or subconsciously)  to use verse of verse give us and how can it shed light on the characters given circumstance or phycology?

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