Prose, verse, and rhyme: an Othello case-study

Much of any given Shakespeare play is poetry, mostly blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter (more on that here). Sometimes some of those poetic lines rhyme, but mostly not. And some of the play (just over a quarter by average; just over 16% in tragedies, though Othello has closer to 20%) isn’t even in verse; it’s just prose.

So, the question always comes up, “Why do this in verse and that in prose?” Well, the standard, cliched answer is the ol’ “verse = nobility :: prose = common man” trope. And while that may be true in many cases, it’s certainly not true all the time.

So what’s going on?

Since Shakespeare didn’t leave us any dramaturgical theses (and since I can’t read Shakespeare’s mind over the vast expanse of over four centuries [heck, I can’t even read my wife’s mind…much to her disappointment])… we can only guess:

Verse by its very nature uses heightened language; this would be best for conveying both deep emotional content and complex themes. On the other hand, prose is perfect for conveying the mundane and banal… here, the concepts are not earth-shatteringly important nor deeply philosophical. Or in Othello, moments of less than clear communication (read: “the fit”).

As you can see, there’s no satisfactory one-size-fits-all answer here… and it doesn’t get any easier when we ask why some of the verse rhymes. Take your pick:

  • singling out an entire body or block of content
  • singling out a couplet of content (for emphasis, particularly at the end of a speech)
  • content from outside the play itself–poems, songs, even entire plays that are performed within the context of the scene
  • portrayal of other worldly-entities
  • rhyme AS answer (either completing another character’s rhyme–in a sense, topping it–or answering and responding to another character’s statement)

With all of that as prologue, let’s take a look at a fascinating chunk of Othello: Act One, Scene Three. Up to this point in the play, there have been only a handful of prose lines in the play (some of the bestial comments an anonymous Iago makes to Brabantio in the first scene of the play). Just after Othello states his case for the non-witchcraft wooing of Desdemona, and she arrives to corroborate his story, and her father Brabantio disowns her. The duke attempts to smooth over any ruffled feathers, and we get the following exchange:

Let me speak like yourself and lay a sentence
Which, as a grece or step, may help these lovers
Into your favor.
When remedies are past, the griefs are ended
By seeing the worst, which late on hopes depended.
To mourn a mischief that is past and gone
Is the next way to draw new mischief on.
What cannot be preserved when fortune takes,
Patience her injury a mock’ry makes.
The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief;
He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.
So let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile;
We lose it not so long as we can smile.
He bears the sentence well that nothing bears
But the free comfort which from thence he hears;
But he bears both the sentence and the sorrow
That, to pay grief, must of poor patience borrow.
These sentences to sugar or to gall,
Being strong on both sides, are equivocal.
But words are words. I never yet did hear
That the bruised heart was piercèd through the ear.
I humbly beseech you, proceed to th’ affairs of state.
The Turk with a most mighty preparation makes for Cyprus. Othello, the fortitude of the place is best known to you. And though we have there a substitute of most allowed sufficiency, yet opinion, a sovereign mistress of effects, throws a more safer voice on you. You must therefore be content to slubber the gloss of your new fortunes with this more stubborn and boist’rous expedition.
The tyrant custom, most grave senators,
Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war
My thrice-driven bed of down. I do agnize
A natural and prompt alacrity
I find in hardness, and do undertake
This present wars against the Ottomites.
  • I.iii.199-234

At the beginning of this sequence, the duke begins with unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse). After he introduces his thesis (to “lay a sentence” to put Othello and Desdemona back “into [Brabantio’s] favor”), he moves into rhyming couplets, four in total. He even has a shortened poetic line before launching into rhyme; this pause accentuates the shift. This use of rhyme would definitely fall under “singling out an entire body or block of content.” The rhymed advice itself is paternal, and could easily be seen as patronizing.

Given Brabantio’s response, I think he takes it that way. He responds with five rhymed couplets of his own–definitely “answering” the duke’s statement. It’s defiant, but he does an interesting thing: he ends his speech with a standalone line, “I humbly beseech you, proceed to th’ affairs of state.” This leaves the door open for the duke to complete the line, topping the hurt father’s statement. He might top the old man, but it would also continue the discussion of Brabantio’s plight.

Only the duke doesn’t: not only does he turn his attention to “th’ affairs of state,” but he does so in prose. The foreign policy is just as (or politically more) important than the domestic subject matter which precedes it, but the duke reduces it to the mundane, the banal by leaving the heightened language of verse and opting for the more (well) prosaic prose. It’s a linguistic insult, especially when the duke calls Othello by name, a sign of respect not shown to Brabantio. When the duke’s speech about Cyprus is done, Othello returns the language to verse.

All this is interesting, especially when we take into account the context of the only other extended use of rhyme in the play: Iago’s faux praise performance at the harbor. With this in mind, we can see that rhyme is used in Othello to show off, to grandstand.

But if this is the case, then why doesn’t Othello use rhyme in either his shock-and-awe opening argument or in his testimony before the senators in this same scene?

Is this a comment on Othello’s intelligence? or genuineness?

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