While the excellence of Shakespeare’s verse requires no more eulogies, the quality of his prose remains a miracle. The prose of the greatest bard of English was the finest. It may seem an enigma and some may hesitate to admit Shakespeare in the company of the greatest writers of prose in the English language on the ground that he wrote dramatic prose. However, that would be a faulty concept of prose-writing which excluded from its ambit historians, biographers, critics, philosophers, scientists, theologians, dramatists, and in the process such writers of faultless prose as William Congreve and G.B.Shaw and Edmund Russell. This makes the position clear and in the greatest clearing the matter, it admits Shakespeare writer of English prose as well.
Shakespeare’s prose in fact is the richest and most varied in the English language being the effective vehicle of dramatic thought in the mouths of his various characters. At its highest pitch, it contributes tremendously to the portrayal of a personality in action while it remains a veritable factor in making for an atmosphere. When it is in low key as in the expository of narrative scenes, it is less obtrusive than purely pedestrian verse which may be anything from neutral to downright depressing.
Shakespeare uses both prose and verse in his plays as the dramatic situation demands, the exact proportion between the two being left to the functional requirements of the plays involved. For example, King Lear is a tense tragedy of emotion with the main protagonist, Lear invested with a kind of rare poetic emotion, and as such the play has more of verse than prose.
The prose in King Lear is given varied functions to perform and it does them well. In the dialogues between Goneril and Regan, it establishes cynical realism in all its tonal manifestations; a peculiar tone of gruff frankness peeps through the prose utterances of religious Kent; the hard Machiavellism of Edmund is aptly conveyed in his prose talks; the madness of Lear and the feigned madness of Edgar find their proper vehicles in appropriate prose and so do the babblings of Lear’s philosopher, the Fool. This prose again does not run counter to what poetry does in King Lear but supplements it and ably combining with it, create new and unexpected harmonies weaving formal patterns unique even in Shakespeare.
Statistically, prose covers one-third of the play while two-third is left to verse – a proportion inverse to what we have seen in Much Ado About Nothing, which is a comedy. It is well-known that Shakespeare uses verse to express the intensity of emotional states and also for speeches generally of high characters. His use of prose is generally restricted to matter-of-fact conversations where the dramatic necessity is to furnish information and not to rouse or evoke emotions. Moreover in Shakespeare generally low characters speak prose, comic scenes are in prose as well as letters which are written in prose, However, it would be wrong to conclude that it is always the social status of characters that determines the usage of prose poetry in Shakespeare’s plays; the main determinant is rather the dramatic situation. Thus we find that prose is often used to lower the pitch while the verse is used to heighten dramatic effect. Lear sometimes, talks prose and at others, verse. The same is also the case with other characters of King Lear. The Fool, basically a comic character, talks prose while Lear, the tragic hero, does most of his talking in verse. We may note, however, that the change from prose to verse and vice versa always signifies in Shakespeare a change in dramatic situation and that Shakespeare never forgets to make “a judicious and skillful use of verse and prose” of which perhaps King Lear is the most shining example.