Prose/Poetry Shifts

So yesterday we discussed (fleetingly) the seemingly haphazard use of prose and poetry in As You Like It. Today, let’s look at the transitions between those uses.

The play opens with a scene and a half of prose. It shifts to verse with the entrance Duke Frederick and his dialogue with the wrestler Charles, and the verse continues to the end of the scene. But then with beginning of the next scene and the dialogue between Rosalind and Celia, we’re back to prose, only to have it interrupted with verse again with the entry of Duke Frederick. Once again, the use of verse continues past his exit and on through to the end of the scene.

Only this time, with the beginning of the next scene (and Act Two), the verse continues with the introduction of Duke Senior in the Forest of Arden, and the verse continues through this scene and the next, with Duke Frederick back in court, and the scene that follows, still in Frederick’s court, with Orlando and Adam. With Act Two, Scene Four, and Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone’s entrance into the Forest of Arden, we return to prose.

Now, at this point, I’m thinking I may have cracked the code to the transitions: whenever one of the Dukes appears (whether it is in the court or the woods), we move automatically to verse, and when a subsequent scene begins without such a character not in the court, it starts in prose (Adam and Orlando, Rosalind and Celia [x3]).


With the entrance of Corin and Silvius comes the return of verse; Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone’s interaction with the shepherd is a mixture of prose and awkward verse, and only with Corin and Rosalind’s dialogue do we get stronger verse.

In the next scene (Act Two, Scene Five), save for the songs, the rest of the dialogue is prose, as is Adam and Orlando’s entrance into the forest in the following scene. When the last scene of Act Two begins, we’re again with Duke Senior and we’re back to verse (and here, Jaques is in verse, though he was speaking in prose two scenes earlier), and that verse rolls through songs into the end of the scene and act. When Act Three begins, we’re back to Frederick in the world of the court, and this scene is in–you guessed it–verse.

In Act Three, Scene Two, however, we get our first transition (or in this case, NON-transition) to verse that acts like what we’ve seen before in Shakespeare: Orlando, in the throes of love, hangs his love poems, and speaks not only in verse but in rhymed verse, with a scheme of A-B-A-B C-D-C-D EE… (if we only had a third quatrain, this could be a sonnet… only we don’t and it’s not–and this may be seen as part of Orlando’s ineptitude as a poet). So it makes sense that the rest of the scene is in prose, except for the characters reading (or mocking, in Touchstone’s case) Orlando’s doggerel. And this prose includes the playful meeting of Orlando and Ganymede and the beginning of the false wooing.

The next scene’s pseudo-real wooing of Audrey by Touchstone is all in prose, as is the following scene between Rosalind and Celia, right up to the point where Corin enters and he speaks in verse, pulling Rosalind into poetry for the end of the scene. The Silvius and Phebe scene, including Rosalind’s entrance (and Ganymede’s entrancing of Phebe) is all in verse, seemingly as an extension of the previous scene–which did end, after all, with Corin, Celia, and Rosalind leaving to witness the Silvius/Phebe interplay.

The fourth act begins with Jaques and Ganymede/Rosalind in prose, as is the entire scene, including the wooing and wedding of Orlando and “Rosalind.” The next scene finds Jaques speaking in prose during a scene that’s dominated by a poetical song. When Act Four, Scene Three begins, it is with Rosalind and Celia and they speak prose, but when lovelorn Silvius enters with Phebe’s letter, he’s in verse, he pulls Rosalind into verse, and the letter is in verse. At the end of the letter, however, when Ganymede chides Silvius, s/he does so in prose. With the entrance of Oliver, however, we get the return of verse, and the rest of the scene appears to be heading to a poetical conclusion, until Rosalind faints, and when she wakes, the artifice is destroyed (the counterfeit is doubted), and we’re back to prose (save for an Oliver couplet near the end).

Act Five begins with another Touchstone/Audrey prose scene which continues into the next scene with Oliver and Orlando, then Orlando and Ganymede, all speaking in prose. When Phebe (in a passion for Ganymede, and with Silvius following like a puppy) enters, she brings with her verse, into which she pulls the other three. It’s only when Ganymede puts the discussion to an end with her orders that they all meet her the next day for a wedding, does Rosalind revert back to prose. Which continues into the third scene of the final act and another Touchstone/Audrey scene, where the prose is broken only by a song.

When the play’s final scene begins, it’s with Duke Senior and the now expected verse, which continues until the entrance of Touchstone, who brings with him prose (and I’m pretty sure that he never speaks verse in the play… ), which is broken by the entrance of Hymen to begin the wedding, and we’re all verse from there on out… until the epilogue…

which is in prose.

And it’s the only epilogue in all of Shakespeare that is in prose.

What. The. Hell.

So that’s what we’ve got, transition-wise.

But what does it all mean?

I’m not sure, but think about this: Except for scenes where we have the entrance of a lovelorn character (Orlando, Silvius, and Phebe), and we get the expected pop of heightened language and verse, the play seems happy enough to roll in prose. Except for the Dukes, which bring (courtly?) prose with them whenever they enter the scene, which explains all but two to-verse transitional speakers: Corin and Oliver.

But think about it. Duke Senior is the rightful duke and he should have power (and in the woods, with his men, he still does). Duke Frederick has the power through usurpation. Oliver is the eldest son, and thus has the power in his family (and note that when Oliver has decided to grant Orlando all of what is due to him from their father, Oliver speaks in prose). And Corin? In the forest world, he has the power, as he knows how to live there, and knows what’s going on in the woods.

Verse is the scepter wielded by those in power in the play. Except in those cases when we get the heightened language of love… could Shakespeare be saying that passion is power, too?

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