The Variety of Shakespeare's Prose

Term Paper 1983 19 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




Part one: Various forms of Shakespearean Imagery
1. Thematic Imagery
2. Situational Imagery
3. Atmospheric imagery
4. Subjective Imagery
5. Objective Imagery
6. Forensic Imagery

Part Two: Some Recurrent Linguistic Features in Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language
1. Repartee
2. Equivocation
3. Comic Logic
4. Malapropism
5. Repetition
6. Foreign and Regional English
7. Fondness for Proverbs and Sententiae
8. Wordplay and Punning
a) antanaclasis
b) paronomasia
c) syllepsis
d) asteismus

Part Three: Some Rhetorical Figures in Shakespeare’s Plays
1. anaphora
2. antimetabole (chiasmus)
3. epistrophe
4. gradatio
5. hypallage
6. isocolon
7. parison
8. par omoion




God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refresh- ment to the spirits of man; without which, buildings and palaces are but gross handyworks: and a man shall ever see that when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build state- ly sooner than garden finely; as if gardening were the greater perfection. Francis Bacon, Essay XLVI. – Of Gardens The aim of the following paper is to take a closer look at Shakespeare’s prose from a stylistic, linguistic and rhetorical point of view. Given the fact that Shakespeare’s prose occurs both in his comedies, tragedies and histories and prose is being used in his plays by characters of different social ranks the question is to be asked which various functions prose as a medium fulfils in relationship to such other functions as setting, dialogue, action and theme.

According to Brian Vickers Elizabethan audiences must have been aware of the alternation of prose and verse. It can be assumed that any deviation from the norm which was blank verse was a) felt by attentive audiences and b) had an impact on the way actors behaved on the stage.

In the following essay I shall employ the critical method devised by Vickers in his book “The Artistry of Shakespeare’s Prose”.

First, I shall be dealing with different forms of Shakespearean imagery. For the sake of convenience, I am making use of the categories suggested by Vickers.

Second, I am trying to find examples showing those recurrent Shakespearean devices which have a determinant influence on what Vickers calls ‘the linguistic structure’. These devices include features like repartee, equivocation, comic logic; malapropism, repetition; foreign and regional English; unusual syntax; fondness for proverbs; word play and punning.

Third, I shall prove that Shakespeare made frequent use of various rhetorical figures.

Part One: Various Forms of Shakespearean Imagery

1. Thematic Imagery

Vickers refers to this type of imagery as images “which certainly have a consistent relationship to the overall development of the play”.1 Examples falling into this category are the disease imagery in Hamlet and the food-disease-animal imagery in Troilus and Cressida.

Example a) Hamlet II, II, 293-3082


“I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and the Queen moult no feather. I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights me not – nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”


Although Hamlet promises his former schoolfellows whom he suspects to be spies being sent by the King and the Queen to tell them about his melancholy, he does not reveal to them the causes but only the effects, the symptoms of his neurosis. In fact, Hamlet is able to describe the beauties of the earth and heaven and the singularity of mankind in positive terms, but he is unable to appreciate these qualities psychologically. Hamlet’s knowledge of how his father was murdered has created in his soul obsessive anxieties which prevent him from seeing human beings and things positively.

According to Vickers, Shakespeare’s repetitive use of ‘this’, ‘in’ and ‘how’ helps to create tension which collapses as soon as Hamlet employs his metaphors starting with the words ‘to me’. Hamlet’s “Soliloquy on Man” shows his growing disillusionment and disgust.3

Example b) Troilus and Cressida II, III, 41-46

Achilles: “Who is there?”

Patroclus: “Thersites, my lord.”

Achilles: “Where, where? Art thou come? Why, my cheese, my digestion, why hast thou not served thyself in to my table so many meals? Come, what’s Agamemnon?”


Thersites, the approved clown, is being affectionally welcomed by Achilles, the Greek hero, who is going through a phase of lethargy and sleepiness.

Example c) Troilus and Cressida V, III, 101-107


“A whoreson tisick (i.e. cough), a whoreson rascally tisick so troubles me, and the foolish fortune of this girl; and what one thing, what another, that I shall leave you one o’ these days: and I have a rheum in mine eyes too, and such an ache in my bones that, unless a man were cursed, I cannot tell what to think on’t.”


Pandarus, the famous go-between, representing a Trojan character who is on the same social level as the clown Thersites in the Greek camp, might in this scene function as another male Cassandra. By referring to his personal bad health he might be anticipating the disastrous outcome of the next battle between Trojans and Greeks.

Example d) Troilus and Cressida V, IV, 1-20


“Now they are clapper-clawing (i.e. beating soundly) one another; I’ll go look on. That dissembling abominable varlet, Diomed, has got that same scurvy doting foolish young knave’s sleeve (i.e. floss of silk) of Troy there in his helm: I would fain (i.e. with pleasure) see them meet; that that same young Trojan ass, that loves the whore there, might send that Greekish whoremasterly villain, with the sleeve, back to the dissembling luxurious drab, on a sleeveless (i.e. unprofitable) errand. O’ the other side, the policy of those crafty swearing rascals, - that stale old mouse-eaten dry cheese, Nestor, and that same dog-fox, Ulysses, is not proved worth a blackberry: they set me up, in policy, that mongrel cur, Ajax, against that dog of as bad a kind, Achilles; and now is the cur Ajax prouder than the cur Achilles, and will not arm to-day; whereupon the Grecians begin to proclaim barbarism, and the policy grows into an ill opinion. Soft! Here comes sleeve, and t’other.”


Thersites, the onlooking clown, is mocking the Greek and Trojan nobility without taking his own behaviour into account. He uses abusive language and compares the butts of his wit to animals. Particularly, Thersites is making fun of the obviously ineffective policy devised by Ulysses and Nestor to spur Achilles on to action.

2. Situational Imagery

Example: Coriolanus V, III, 56-62

Coriolanus: ”What is this?

Your knees to me! To your corrected son!

Then let the pebbles on the hungry beach

Fillip the stars; then let the mutinous winds

Strike the proud cedars ‘gainst the fiery sun,

Murd’ring impossibility, to make

What cannot be, slight work.”


Coriolanus expresses his surprise about the fact that his mother is kneeling in front of him by using the images mentioned above. In fact, this situation is very important for the further development of the play, since “the boy of tears” as Coriolanus is mockingly called by Tullus Aufidus is brought to spare Rome at the entreaty of his mother, wife and son. The passage quoted above represents blank verses.

3. Atmospheric Imagery

Example: Macbeth I, VI, 1-10

Duncan: “This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air

Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself

Unto our gentle senses.

Banquo: This guest of summer,

The temple-haunting martlet, does approve

By his lov’d mansionry that the heaven’s breath

Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,

Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird

Hath made his pendent bed and procreant


Where they most breed and haunt, I have observ’d

The air is delicate.”


As the Scottish King Duncan and his retinue are approaching the castle, where the newly created Thane of Cawdor Macbeth and his lady reside, the King and his general can only marvel at the beauty and geniality of the place. Banquo is particularly labouring the image of a martin as a symbol of unpolluted air and lovely ambience. The King’s and his general’s first impressions are in sharp contrast to what will be happening later.

Note: The lines quoted represent blank verses. (i.e. unrhymed verse, esp. in iambic pentameters.)

4. Subjective Imagery

Example: Othello IV, I, 30-44

Othello: “What hath he said?

Iago: “Faith, that he did – I know not what he did.”

Othello: “What? What?”

Iago: “Lie – “

Othello: “With her?”

Iago: “With her, on her; what you will.”

Othello: “Lie with her! Lie on her! We say, lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her! That’s fulsome. Handkerchief, - confessions, - handkerchief! To confess, and be hanged for this labour. First, to be hanged, and then to confess: I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is it possible – Confess! – Handkerchief! – O devil!”


This time Iago has finally managed to put Othello out of his countenance. Iago has worked Othello up into such a state of jealousy that the latter slips from the path of reason into the wilderness of linguistic chaos. For the first time Othello makes use of prose. The verbal explosion is being triggered off by the ambiguous meaning of “lie” (equivocation). Othello’s prose is highly repetitive, elliptic, exclamatory and includes a “grotesque antimetabole” (chiasmus).4 Othello particularly mentions the token of fidelity and affection, the handkerchief, which he once gave to his love and which he believes Desdemona has given to Cassio.

5. Objective Imagery

Example: Richard III, IV, IV, 79-81

Queen Elizabeth: “O! thou didst prophesy the time would come

That I should wish for thee to help me curse

That bottled spider, that foul bunchback’d toad.”

6. Forensic (i.e. manipulative) Imagery

Example: Othello I, III, 339-352


“It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will. Come, be a man. Drown thyself! Drown cats and blind puppies. I have professed me thy friend, and I confess me knit to thy deserving with cables of perdurable toughness; I could never better stead thee than now. Put money in thy purse; follow these wars; defeat thy favour with a usurped beard; I say, put money in thy purse. It cannot be that Desdemona should long continue her love to the Moor, - put money in thy purse, - nor he his to her. It was a violent commencement in her, and thou shalt see an answerable sequestration; put but money in thy purse. […]”


1 Cf. B. Vickers: The Artistry of Shakespeare’s Prose. London (Methuen) 1968, p. 20.

2 H. Jenkins (Ed.): Hamlet (The Arden Shakespeare) London (Methuen) 1982, pp. 252-254. For all the other quotations from Shakespeare’s plays I used W. J. Craig (Ed.): The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. London (Oxford University Press) 1945.

3 Cf. B. Vickers, op. cit., pp. 253-255.

4 Vickers, p. 346.


ISBN (eBook)
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Institution / College
Bielefeld University – Sprachenzentrum
Imagery recurrent linguistic features rhetorical figures




Title: The Variety of Shakespeare's Prose