Literary or informal language

The Taming of the Shrew, first page, first folioLinguistic signifiers

Shakespeare employs a wide range of rhymes and rhythms in his plays:
  • Blank verse does not rhyme but it has a regular rhythmic pattern, generally that of iambic pentameter
  • Rhyming couplet are often used to signify the end of a scene or lengthy speech, providing a ‘proverbial’ sentiment to conclude the action
  • Prose does not have a specific rhyme or rhythmic pattern, but follows the flow of natural speech and is more often associated with informal dialogue or characters of lower social status. However, a range of rhetorical devices can give depth and interest to the language.

Status

Verse is more often used by characters of a higher social status than by characters of a lower rank. In the Induction in The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare uses and breaks this linguistic convention for comic purposes. The Lord and his servants speak in verse, whilst initially Sly uses only prose and his language is full of insults and colloquialisms, along with botched Spanish sayings and mistaken historical facts:
 
Ye are a baggage: the Slys are no rogues; look in the chronicles; we came in with Richard Conqueror. Therefore paucas pallabris; let the world slide. 
Induction Scene 1     
 
It is interesting to note when Sly’s language starts to change and how the shift in language reflects his perceived social status. The more convinced he is by the attentions of the Lord’s men and by their story of his madness and his true identity, the more he speaks in verse and his rough complaints become tempered by pious sounding phrases (‘By my fay, a goodly nap’; ‘Lord be thanked for my good amends’).
 

Humour

A similar change occurs in Grumio’s language. As the bumbling and mischievous servant to Petruchio, his language is characterised by a rough prose such as in the following exchange in which he consistently misunderstands his master’s request to knock on the door:
 
Petruchio: Here, sirrah Grumio; knock, I say.
Grumio: Knock, sir! Whom should I knock? Is there any man has
rebused your worship?
Petruchio: Villain, I say, knock me here soundly.
Grumio: Knock you here, sir! Why, sir, what am I, sir, that
I should knock you here, sir?
Petruchio: Villain, I say, knock me at this gate
And rap me well, or I'll knock your knave's pate.
Grumio: My master is grown quarrelsome. I should knock you first,
And then I know after who comes by the worst.
Act 1 Scene 2     
 
The final rhyming couplet draws attention to Grumio’s comic routine, which is about to be roughly concluded as Petruchio gives him a clip round the ear.

Adopting registers

Early on in the play Shakespeare gives Lucentio different registers for comic effect (although both are in verse). When the ardent young man speaks of romantic love or of his love of learning, he uses complex imagery and makes lofty statements:
 
And therefore, Tranio, for the time I study
Virtue, and that part of philosophy
Will I apply that treats of happiness
By virtue specially to be achieved.
Tell me thy mind, for I have Pisa left
And am to Padua come as he that leaves
A shallow plash to plunge him in the deep,
And with satiety seeks to quench his thirst.
Act 1 Scene 1     
 
Such language contrasts with the abrupt shift to down-to-earth language when he discusses practical necessities:
 
Gramercies, Tranio, well dost thou advise.
If, Biondello, thou wert come ashore,
We could at once put us in readiness,
And take a lodging ....
Act 1 Scene 1     

Sharing verse

Rhymed verse that is shared between characters can also heighten drama and comedy, such as is the case at the end of the play. The patterned and thus shared sentiments of Lucentio and his father emphasise Petruchio’s delight in Katherina. 
 
Petruchio: Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. 
Lucentio: Well, go thy ways, old lad, for thou shalt ha’t. 
Vincentio: ’Tis a good hearing, when children are toward. 
Lucentio: But a harsh hearing, when women are forward. 
Petruchio: Come, Kate, we’ll to bed. 
                     We three are married, but you two are sped.
’Twas I won the wager, though you hit the white;
And, being a winner, God give you good night!
Act 5 Scene 2     
 
The final rhyming couplets add weight to Petruchio’s farewell to Lucentio and gentle mockery of the other men whose wives have lost them their bet.
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