Reading Shakespeare: Verse vs. Prose

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13349

Most of the Shakespeare quotes you know are poetry lines, but not all of his work is poetic. Learn why Shakespeare sometimes wrote in verse and other times not, and what it says about his characters!


Literary Studies, Theatrical Arts

Fine Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Pictured below is one of Shakespeare's most famous passages, the "To be, or not to be" speech from Hamlet:


  • Did you know that this speech is also a poem?

Large parts of Shakespeare's plays are poetry, known as verse, while some sections are in prose.

Learn the difference and discover what each type of text says about the character speaking it!

Identifying Verse and Prose

Verse - another name for poetry - and prose sound different, and they look different on the page too.

Before we discover what Shakespeare's use of verse and prose can tell us about his characters, let's first find out what they both are and how to identify them when reading Shakespeare.

Remember that verse and poetry are the same thing while you watch What's the difference between Verse and Prose? from Dr Aidan:

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As the video explains, verse is poetic and structured, while prose is free of structure like a passage in a novel. While verse is poetry, remember that it does not have to rhyme.

When trying to decide if a passage is verse or prose, look for the following clues:

How is the passage laid out on the page?

  • Is all the text crammed into the left-hand side of the page, or does it look like a solid block of text in the same way a novel does?

Because verse only has a certain number of syllables per line, it will be crammed to the left, whereas prose will sprawl out.

Where are the capital letters?

If every line starts with a capital letter, whether or not it starts a new sentence, you're probably looking at verse.

What Verse and Prose Mean for Shakespeare's Characters

Shakespeare didn't just randomly decide when to use verse and prose. There are specific reasons why he shifts from one to the other, and whether a character speaks mostly in prose or verse says a lot about them.

Think of verse as the default mode for most of Shakespeare's plays. If a character breaks out of Shakespeare's usual pattern of verse, it likely says one of these things about them:

They are of a lower social class.

Most of Shakespeare's lower-class characters speak in prose. Servants, drunks, jesters, and the poor will almost never use verse. Verse sounds more polished, and these characters are not meant to sound that way.

In Elizabethan England, there were strict social class divisions, so it makes sense that Shakespeare would give lower-class and upper-class characters different styles of speech.

They are a comedic character.

Often, Shakespeare uses his lower-class characters for comedic relief, especially in his tragedies. But in some cases, an upper-class character may speak in prose, most often in the comedic plays.

For example, in Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedick become lovers even though Beatrice initially hates Benedick and men in general. This feisty courtship is full of wit and humor, and this comedic pair often speak in prose even though they are of a high social class.

Prose can easily sound more like natural banter, which is one reason Shakespeare uses it for comedic characters.

They are under severe stress.

When a character is under emotional or mental stress, especially if they are going crazy, they will sometimes go from verse to prose.

In Hamlet, for example, Hamlet speaks in verse at the beginning of the play. However, when he later starts to act insane, he switches to prose unless he is with his trusted friend who knows he is only pretending to be mad.

Hamlet is signaling his madness to the other characters by breaking from verse, which he would usually speak in as a high-class character.

Review the difference between the two and see an example of Hamlet speaking in prose to Ophelia in What are Prose and Verse? | Text Detectives | Royal Shakespeare Company from RSC Shakespeare Learning one:

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When you've watched the video, move on to the Got It? section to test your knowledge of verse and prose!

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