Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is a comedy where commoners and royalty speak together frequently, in both prose and blank verse. The usage is not always clear to the modern reader but is easily understood with sufficient knowledge of the literary styles of the period in which Shakespeare lived. This shift from one form of speech to the other gives many things to the audience, allowing them to better perceive and understand the situation and characters that Shakespeare is portraying. The effect of the change is easily felt by the Elizabethan viewers, and can be explained to the modern reader, such that the impact it has on the atmosphere of the play is made adequately apparent.

Generally in Elizabethan plays blank verse is used by nobility: such as Dukes, gentlemen, Kings, Queens, and the like. In contrast, prose is used mainly by fools, clowns, and the lower class. These two distinctive ways of portraying dialogue are particular and help to segregate the classes. Blank verse is the manner of writing, in which each line of the play consists of ten syllables, none of which usually rhyme. This is meant to be spoken in a halting and therefore dignified manner, with the speaker stopping at the end of each line; one had to pay attention to what the character was saying and was held in slight suspense waiting for the next line. The broken flow of the sentences portrayed the nobility in a higher light, showing they were not confined to the normal constraints of speech, and had a specific and unique way of talking that set them apart form the rest of the classes. In Twelfth Night all characters with wealth and prestige use this way of speaking: Orsino, the Duke; Sebastian, Violas brother; Viola, Sebastians sister; Valentine and Curio, two gentlemen; Olivia, a countess; the Sea Captain; and the Priest, the Lords and Officers. All these characters are people with power and money, something the blank verse becomes synonymous with.

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To compare, prosewhich is the ordinary form of the written or spoken language, according to the Canadian Oxford dictionaryis used by the lower class of people. Another definition given is that prose is the dull or commonplace form of speech or writing. Both definitions show the motivation for this type of writing style to be assigned to the general population. In the play it is used by the characters considered of lesser stature to the others: Antonio; the sea captain, friend to Viola; Malvolio; Fabian and Feste, Olivias servants; Maria, Olivias woman; and the sailors, the musicians and attendants. These are all people of service, and lower social standing.

Of course, in this play and others, there are exceptions to this rule of speech assignment. The characters Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, though obviously nobility by title, speak in prose as opposed to blank verse as their social class would suggest.
Andrew. Ay, tis strong, and it does indifferent well
in a damned-colored stock. Shall we set about
Toby. What shall we do else? Were we not born under
Andrew. Taurus? Thats sides and heart.

Toby. No, sir; it is legs and thighs. Let me see thee
caper. Ha, higher; ha, ha, excellent!
(Act I, Scene III, lines 131-138)
As one can see prose is used to represent their speech. Prose is used to indicate the lower classes, not knights as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are. The reason Shakespeare uses this form of script is because, though the two characters are nobility, they are portrayed as fools. A fool, in Elizabethan terms, is a comedic character, whose role is to provide comic relief. They are on occasion used in an ironic sense, as in the tragedies, when a horrific or serious event has passed and the fool babbles on in jest, taking away from the dark significance of the event. In Twelfth Night Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are used in a purely comical function. Their banter is amusing and witty, entertaining to the audience and reader alike. Fools were considered lower classes, idiots not to be taken seriouslyfor just reason, as their name would suggest. The two characters (Sir Andrew and Sir Toby) being of noble background make their dialogue even more amusing: they should be dignified as their aristocratic titles point towards.
Another exception is when Olivia is first introduced she speaks in prose, despite being nobility (Act I Scene V). The reason Shakespeare does this is for dramatic irony: the clown is accusing Olivia of being a fool, though she claims she is not. Despite her claim she has the speech pattern of a fool, not a countess. Everyone can see she is a fool except her.

The main usage of blank verse is to aid the audience in identifying the social class of the speaker. There are, however, other usages. Shakespeare by trade was a playwright, but also a poet. He would often insert poems and songs, as well as poetic schemes into his plays. Blank verse, having a rhythm pattern of ten syllables, is perfect for poetry, and Shakespeare exploited this regularly. Another advantage of blank verse is it allowed for the rhyming couplet. A rhyming couplet is two lines that rhymed, tied together to indicate to the audience the end of a scene. This was used frequently by Elizabethan playwrights.

Prose is used to show if a character is a lower class. As well, it is used to express comedic dialogue. The fast paced and witty wordplay used so often by Shakespeare would be sluggish and boring if it was articulated in blank verse. The pause at the end of each line would break the flow of the words, and every pun and clever remark would be lost in the empty space. This is another reason Olivia speaks in prose when she is first introduced: the exchange between her and the Clown would not be as effective if he spoke in prose, rapidly shooting off sharp comments, and she spoke in blank verse, chopping the speech and retarding the altercation and making it clunky.

The shift between prose and blank verse in Shakespeares plays help illustrate to the audience and reader the social background of the characters, as well as increasing the effect of the dialogue. Not only this, but it also shows what the character is portrayed as (nobility or commoner, not just their class. Twelfth Night gives many instances of the usage of both writing approaches, and allows the reader to absorb some examples of the best of each. The text of this play would not have been as witty and humorous had Shakespeare not taken full advantage of these literary devices, and Twelfth Night would not be the masterpiece it is known as today.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd. 1998.

Crane, Milton. Shakespeares Prose. London: Cambridge University Press. 1951.

Harbage, Alfred. A Readers Guide To William Shakespeare. New York: Octagon
Books. 1983.


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