It’s no secret that Shakespeare’s plays have some complex language. They are often thought of as wordy, complicated, or hard to understand. The reality is that in his day Shakespeare was writing for the masses. Though modern speech has evolved away from “thee” and “thou,” we can pick up on clues in the text and Shakespeare’s works become easier to decipher and enjoy.
The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of speech in Shakespeare’s plays: verse and prose. And despite being full of flowery language, they are very different from each other.
The majority of Shakespeare’s plays are written in verse. A character who speaks in verse is a noble or a member of the upper class. Most of Shakespeare’s plays focused on these characters. This speech is poetry. It can either rhyme or not (also called blank verse) but each line has an internal rhythm with a regular rhythmic pattern. The pattern most favored by Shakespeare is iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is defined as a ten-syllable line with the accent on every other syllable, beginning with the second one.
PROSPERO: So dear the love my people bore me, nor set
A mark so bloody on the business, but
With colours fairer painted their foul ends.
These lines are written in blank verse and iambic pentameter.
Prose is the form of speech used by common people in Shakespearean drama. There is no rhythm or meter in the line. It is everyday language. Shakespeare’s audience would recognize the speech as their language. Mainly, characters such as murderers, servants, and porters use prose; however, many important characters can also speak in prose.
TRINCULO: Here’s neither bush nor shrub, to bear off any weather at all, and another storm brewing; I hear it sing i’ the wind: yond same black cloud, yond huge one, looks like a foul bombard that would shed his liquor.
Trinculo is a drunken servant and therefore spends most of his time speaking in prose. In these lines there is no meter or rhythmic pattern.