Twelfth Night
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Giles Block

To verse or not to verse

Prose and Verse in Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is one of only four plays by Shakespeare that has more prose in it than verse. It is easy to distinguish the difference between the two when you see them on the page: Viola’s three verse lines sit in the middle of the page, whereas Malvolio’s prose fills the page to the margin:

Viola She took the ring of me, I’ll none of it.

Malvolio Come sir, you peevishly threw it to her: and her will is, it should be so returned: If it be worth stooping for, there it lies, in your eye: if not, be it his that finds it. (Exit)

Viola I left no ring with her: what means this lady?
Fortune forbid my out-side have not charmed her 

Prose and verse sound different too: Malvolio more pompous, Viola much simpler and more reasonable. And it’s worth observing that Olivia said nothing to Malvolio about throwing the ring to Viola – she says that she ‘left no ring with her’. His use of the words ‘peevishly threw’ suggests more about his character, and the audience sees and hears that. No, there is something unpleasant about his manner at this point in the play; he is being neither straight nor honest.

Later, he turns on Maria, when he has failed to quell Sir Toby’s raucous behaviour:

Malvolio Mistress Mary, if you prized my lady’s favour at any thing more than contempt, you would not give means for this uncivil rule; she shall know of it by this hand.

Again we hear the puffed-up language of Malvolio’s prose – ‘means for this uncivil rule’ – rather than saying something simpler and more direct, like ‘allow them to get drunk’.

But why do Shakespeare’s characters sometimes speak in verse and sometimes in prose?

Let’s say right away that verse doesn’t mean ‘poetry’, and that for Shakespeare this ‘verse’ was his way to capture how he hears characters speaking, but at the same time to bring out what they are feeling.

Here’s Viola speaking to Orsino:

My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be perhaps, were I a woman, 
I should your Lordship. 

Simple, easy to understand words, they sound natural (not poetic), but they also covey a sense of how difficult it must be for Viola, dressed as a boy, to speak to this man, with whom she is in love. Listening to her we feel for her situation.

This ‘verse’ has a great deal in common with the way we all talk when we have something important to say. The length of the lines corresponds to how much we can easily say in one breath, and an unpunctuated line like 'My father had a daughter loved a man' means that any of us could do the same. As the next line has some punctuation in it, you might also want to breathe imperceptibly there, mid-line, as well.

So think of the lines not as poetry (though they might well be poetic), but simply as the sound of someone saying something important.

Besides the length of the line, verse has a pulse running through the line, the rhythm which echoes our heartbeat:

My father had a daughter loved a man

And when we have important things to say, we also often fall into this rhythm ourselves. So if I was talking to you, I might say:

I’m hoping that the things I say make sense

And this would not only sound quite natural, but that same rhythm would encourage you to feel that I meant it. The rhythm is persuasive. You should try it out for yourselves.

So Shakespeare’s verse is based on the size of our lungs, and the rhythm of our hearts. The lines you see on the page are made in our image. To bring the lines to life, just discover what the words mean, and then say them out loud. The rhythm will take care of itself; you never have to stress the rhythm, and magically the result will be that those listening will feel what your character is feeling.

The audience will therefore believe that you mean what you are saying. So I call this blank or unrhymed verse the sound of sincerity.

But what then is prose? It is speeches that are not divided up into regular lines, and do not fall into a regular heartbeat-like rhythm. So why does Shakespeare desert his magical verse for prose? His sound of sincerity?

The answer is that there are many characters in his plays that have no interest in being sincere. Malvolio is certainly one of them. Characters who want to play around, to fool others, or to hide their intentions often use prose - and Twelfth Night is full of such characters.

Prose is created in the mind; verse from our emotions. Prose can be quick-witted and inventive, the language of the clever fools, like Feste. But it can also be the language of those who are attempting to be cleverer than they are; sometimes it’s the sound of the mad as well.

Malvolio mostly speaks in prose. Malvolio hides his true self behind a mask of self- righteousness and an assumed self-importance, playing the Puritan and kill-joy, while he secretly pursues Olivia in a rather unpleasant way. Maria has his number though, and hits upon the perfect plan to unmask him. At the end of the play, and for the first time, he speaks differently, openly, demanding to know why he has been made a fool of, vowing revenge on them all: and now his speech is in verse. And his language is simpler.

With Maria’s letter in his hand, which he mistakenly thinks that Olivia has written to him, he says:

You must not now deny it is your hand,
Write from it if you can, in hand or phrase,
Or say, tis not your seal, not your invention. 

And at the end, in his final verse line, he shows himself in his true colours:

I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.

In Twelfth Night many of the characters alternate between prose and verse. When Viola and Olivia first meet they are both hiding their true selves. In prose, behind a kind of mask, they are playing games, and the mask only drops (almost literally) once Olivia removes her veil. And then verse takes over; and Olivia falls in love, not with Viola really, but with whom she takes Viola to be.

Occasionally Shakespeare wants his verse lines to rhyme and there are quite a few of these rhyming lines in Twelfth Night. Rhyming verse, unlike blank verse, can’t be called the ‘sound of sincerity.’ Curiously I’d say it is either much more, or much less than that.

We can’t help noticing a rhyme when we hear one, and Shakespeare uses them to pinpoint something to which he wants to draw our attention. Something out of the ordinary. It could simply be a joke, or it could be a magic spell. Here is one from A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

Be as thou wast wont to be
See as thou wast wont to see 
Dian’s bud, o’er Cupid’s flower, 
Hath such force and blessed power. 

Or more surprisingly, it frequently gives us a snapshot of a character when they have made a discovery, of something they were unaware of before. Here’s Romeo when he first sees Juliet:

O she doth teach the torches to burn bright:
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night, 
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear: 
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear. 

Likewise in Twelfth Night, here Viola suddenly realises that she’s fallen in love with Orsino:

I’ll do my best
To woo your lady: yet a barful strife, 
Who e’re I woo myself would be his wife.

There are more such heady rhyming moments like these in our play; see if you can find them and let me know when you do. You may also find some words that used to rhyme and no longer do; you could tell me about those too.

Giles Block
Globe Associate - Text
Giles is the author of Speaking the Speech: An Actor’s Guide to Shakespeare