Prose (I’m not so sure about this play, Part One)

There’s quite a bit of prose in The Taming of the Shrew… almost 21% of the play (even if you removed the Sly framing device, the percentage of prose goes down only .14%, with the total still rounded up to 21%).  This is nearly twice as much prose as was employed in The Comedy of Errors.

A couple of months back, when we were attacking Errors, we talked a little about the use of prose and how we could see two rationales

  • the ol’ “verse = nobility :: prose = common man” trope (hackneyed, and–as we’ve seen–not at all a one-size-fits-all solution)
  • the conveyance of the mundane and banal… the concepts are neither earth-shatteringly important nor deeply philosophical, so they don’t need the heightened language that verse affords

OK, so let’s take a look at some of the major uses of prose here in the play:

In the Induction, Sly speaks only in prose until he begins to see himself as a lord.  He goes from

What, would you make me mad? Am not I Christopher Sly, old Sly's son of Burton Heath; by birth a pedlar, by education a cardmaker, by transmutation a bear-herd, and now by present profession a tinker?

— Induction.ii.16-19

to (in his very next speech)

Am I a lord and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dream'd till now?
I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak;
I smell sweet savours, and I feel soft things.
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed,
And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly.

— Induction.ii.66-71

It’s funny to see this change in Sly.  Not only is there audible difference; the prose doesn’t scan at all while the verse is thumpingly regular iambic pentameter (with the only deviations being trochees on two syllables [that contain “I” and “Christopher”]).  But in the verse, he has a more constant use of the personal pronoun “I” … his ego has run amok.  So in this case, the nobility = verse standard actually applies.

In Act One, Scene Two, we combine the lower class/prose and mundane arguments in a scene in which Petruchio and Hortensio meet and speak in verse, but Petruchio’s servant Grumio speaks mainly in prose.  This is done again in Act Three, Scene Two with Biondello’s reportage of Petruchio’s approach, and again in Act Four, Scene Four with Lucentio and Biondello discussing the secret marriage plan, and still again in Act Five, Scene One with the wackiness between Vincentio, the Pedant, and Biondello (again).

In the purely servants = prose column would be instances in Act Four, Scenes One and Three (Petruchio’s servants before his arrival, and Grumio and the Tailor, respectively).

But let’s look at some different uses as well:

In Act One, Scene One, when Gremio and Hortensio discuss the wooing of Bianca (and the not inconsequential need to marry off Kate first).  The concept of love would seem to beg for verse, but this is prose.  Is this Shakespeare’s way of differentiating true love (verse) from marriage (prose)?

In Act Two, Scene One, Gremio’s presentation of the disguised Lucentio (as “Cambio) to Baptista and father Minola’s response are in prose.  Mundane?  or Love/Verse vs. Marriage/Prose?

In Act Three, Scene One, Lucentio and Bianca’s flirtatious Latin lesson is in prose… this one’s a tough one, and I think the prose is purely logistical and practical (a metered verse might not have served the needs of both Latin pronunciation and the hidden dialogue).

Finally, in Act Five, Scene Two, Petruchio and Hortensio’s dialogue concerning the widow’s role in the final scene’s bet (with prose interjections by Biondello [what is it with this guy?]) are in prose.  Here, I’d vote for “mundane” because all of this bet build-up IS mundane, we’re just readying for the verse of Kate’s final speech.

So we’re back to where we were back when we were attacking the Errors prose: there’s no single answer… we (as directors, actors, and readers) just need to find the right rationale for the moment at hand.

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