Verse and prose

Linguistic style and status

Most of the high ranking characters – for example Leontes, Hermione, Polixenes, Paulina, Camillo, Florizel – and Perdita, a princess though she has been brought up by shepherds - speak for much of the time in blank verse (usually easy to spot on the page as each line is printed beginning with a capital letter).

In contrast, the ‘low-life' characters, such as the shepherds, often speak in prose, as we hear the Clown do in Act IV, sc iii

‘I cannot do't without counters. Let me see; what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on.'

It is sometimes suggested that we can make an easy division and say that Shakespeare's higher-ranking characters speak in blank verse and low-life ones in prose.

But it is not so simple:

  • For example, Autolycus, a former courtier, speaks in prose
  • Shakespeare also makes the courtiers in Act V, sc iispeak in prose (which gives a greater sense of occasion to the significant, following scene when Hermione is restored)
  • The Old Shepherd speaks much of the time in prose, but also has some important speeches in blank verse- for example when he bids Perdita welcome her guests in IV. iv. – which lend him an added dignity.

Contrast of court and country

Nevertheless, there is in general a contrast between the way the courtiers and the country-folk speak; this is not only a matter of the use of blank verse or prose, but of the range of vocabulary:

  • As soon as we meet the shepherds (in III. iii.), we encounter words which suggest a more rural dialect: ‘wenches' for ‘girls', and ‘barne (or ‘bairn') for ‘baby', and the homely image ‘as you'd thrust a cork into a hogs-head' – the kind of language we cannot imagine courtiers using
  • Later, in Act IV, sc ii, we hear the Clown (the young shepherd) counting to himself, again in dialect terms: ‘Every ‘leven wether tods' – which means ‘ Every eleven sheep will give a tod (28 lbs, or about 13 kilos) of wool'
  • In the sheep-shearing scene (Act IV, sc iv) there is much mention of the things of the country – sheep, flowers, gardens – and of peasant life, such as the thrill at the arrival of a peddler selling ribbons and ballads, which have not been referred to at all in the court scenes.

Rhyming couplets

Occasionally Shakespeare uses neither prose nor blank verse, but rhyme – especially groups of two lines which rhyme together, known as rhyming couplets.

  • This is particularly noticeable in the monologue that Time gives in Act IV, sc i, to tell of the passage of sixteen years; the use of rhyming couplets marks this speech out as different from that of other speakers, underlining the fact that Time is a personification rather than a ‘real' character:
‘I, that please some, try all: both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings. Impute it not a crime…. ‘
  • Rhyming couplets are also used in the songs in the sheep-shearing scene (Act IV, sc iv). For example:
‘Get you hence for I must go
Where it fits you not to know'…..
It becomes thy oath full well,
Thou to me thy secrets tell.'

Scene conclusions

There is another use of rhyming couplets in many Shakespearean plays – though not in The Winter's Tale - which is to mark the ends of scenes.

More on concluding couplets: There were no curtains on the Shakespearean stage (see also Design of theatres) but, although the audience could not see that a scene had reached its conclusion (and in the absence of scenery, they might have to imagine the next part of the action taking place in a different setting) they could hear the clue given them by a rhyming couplet, as in these examples:

‘Come, let us go:
Our corn's to reap, for yet our tithe's to sow.'    Measure for Measure

‘God's benison be with you, and with those
That would make good of bad and friends of foes.'     Macbeth

In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare chooses other methods to indicate the end of a scene, often having characters announce their departure. For example:

‘Come sir, away.' (Act I scene ii)
‘Leave me. And think upon my bidding.' (Act II scene iii)
‘Go: fresh horses! And gracious be the issue!' (Act III scene i)
‘Come, and lead me to these sorrows.' (Act III scene ii)
‘hastily lead away.' (Act V scene iii)
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