Robert Crosman – The Pivotal Position of Henry V in the Rise and Fall of Shakespeare’s Prose

The Pivotal Position of Henry V in the Rise and Fall of Shakespeare's Prose

Robert Crosman

Published in Connotations Vol. 2.1 (1992)


The essay traces the proportion of prose in Shakespeare’s plays, identifying genre and chronology as the two major variables influencing the rise and fall over time. In his analysis—that offers closer examinations of prose by Falstaff and Young Hal in 1 Henry IV and the prose used by Hal (then King Henry) in his regal role in Henry V, namely in the disguise scene in 4.1 and the wooing of Katherine—he treats prose as entering into the body of Shakespeare’s work primarily through the comedies where it serves as a comic element of the “world of the tavern”. It then shifts to function, “by the end of Henry V, [as] the language of common humanity” used by the titular character in his mastery over all his roles: as scholar, soldier, statesman and spouse.

Only five of Shakespeare's thirty−seven plays have more lines of prose than of verse. All are plays attributed to the middle of his playwriting career, and four are comedies, the fifth being a history play, 2 Henry IV. With the help of a useful chart at the end of Brian Vickers' book on Shakespeare's prose, one can trace an interesting rise and fall over time: the proportion of prose in Shakespeare's plays increases with some regularity until about 1600, and then it begins to decline, ending at about where it began.1) The comedies have a higher proportion of prose than the other two genres, and the histories have more than the tragedies, yet the rise and fall can be traced in all three genres, and climaxes for all three between 1596 and 1601, if current dating of the plays can be trusted.

The two major variables in this story are genre and chronology. Comedy's link to prose is easy to see, but even that apparently obvious connection is complicated by the other, less easily understood variable, chronology. What is probably Shakespeare's first comedy, The Comedy of Errors, is about 13% prose, and with the exception of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice, the proportion of prose rises in every comedy until it reaches a preponderance in Much Ado, As You Like It, Merry Wives, and Twelfth Night, then gradually declines to 21% prose for The Tempest. And the histories (1 & 2 Henry IV and Henry V) written during the period (1596−1599) when prose was in the ascendant are nearly half prose, and one of two tragedies written during the same period, Hamlet (c. 1600), shows a high proportion of prose lines, almost one−third, although Julius Caesar (c. 1599) does not.2)

Apparently Shakespeare's use of prose was linked to certain ideas of decorum, of what was "appropriate" to certain moods, characters and [→page 2] situations. In the stage conventions of the 1590s, which Shakespeare did more than anyone to establish, prose is more appropriate than verse for comedies and for comic scenes, more appropriate for lower−class than for upper−class characters, and more suited to "realistic" speeches than to "idealistic" ones. But although these conventions make the comedies the richest loci of Shakespearean prose, the mixed genre of the history play is the best place to test their strength. There, as we shall see, Shakespeare began altering the conventions by writing prose for nobles to speak, and began writing prose for situations that were neither comic nor "realistic."

The question I ask in this paper is "Why?"—why did prose suddenly take over Shakespeare's histories (2 Henry IV: 54% prose lines), as well as his comedies (Merry Wives: 89.5%), and even make inroads into tragedy (Hamlet: 31%)? And then why did the trend reverse itself, and Shakespeare's use of prose gradually decline, so that by the end of his career he was writing comedies with less than a quarter prose, and a history (Henry VIII) with almost none at all? My answer has something to do with Elizabethan hopes for a continuation of a popular monarchy, and with the death of those hopes on the accession to the throne of James I. But let us go back to early 1597, the probable date of 1 Henry IV, and take up the story there.

Before writing 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare had already managed to write six history plays, none of them containing more than 14% prose (2 Henry VI), and four with none at all, including Richard II. Yet the very next history, 1 Henry IV, is nearly half prose—over half, probably, if we were to count words rather than lines. Whatever happened to make Shakespeare discover prose happened rather suddenly in 1 Henry IV.3)

"What happened," most students of Shakespeare would answer, "was Falstaff." Falstaff is the presiding genius of Shakespeare's prose. Not only does his arrival lead to a decisive turn toward prose in the rest of the second tetralogy, but his appearance in a comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, coincides with the high−water mark of Shakespeare's use of prose in any of his plays. In most productions of the two Henry IVs this disreputable character is so diverting that he quite steals the show, but Shakespeare made Falstaff disreputable not for his own sake, but as a partner, a lightning rod, and ultimately a foil for the prince. So at [→page 3] the very least we must modify our first assessment and say "what happened was Falstaff−and−Hal."

In fact it is Henry, not Falstaff, who fires the first substantial salvo in Shakespeare's prose revolution. Falstaff enters on a line that is only one foot short of being blank verse—it is even conceivable that Shakespeare wrote it as verse and then changed it, by some such deletion as the one provided by my bracketed insertion:

Falstaff   Now Hal, what time of day is it, [my] lad?

Prince   Thou art so fat−witted with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping−houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame−color'd taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day. (1 Henry IV 1.2.1−12)

To most critics who comment on this speech, Hal seems merely to be filling the choreic role of introducing his fat companion with a character−sketch, but Hal is, after all, the more important person here, who has just been censured in the previous scene by his father the king ("riot and dishonor"). Hal's first, low−comedic speech on the subject of liquor and bawds seems amply to confirm his father's characterization—by associating with a person such as he describes, Hal is apparently condemning his own character along with Falstaff's.

Yet this first speech is also a mocking diatribe against Falstaff's character, accusing him of gluttony, lechery, and (by implication) of dissembling ("What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?"). When he quibbles with Falstaff's question, Hal is already engaging in what will become Falstaff's favorite figure, asteismus, "the returning of a different sense of a word" (Vickers 92) before his companion has a chance to do so. In short, it is not Falstaff but the prince who initiates the luxuriant, disingenuous style we associate with the former. But added to this style is something uniquely his own—a stinging wit based not only on logic but also on perfect moral pitch: the "lowness" of Hal's subject−matter is redeemed by the clarity with which he sees its baseness and labels it as such. At this point Shakespeare's use of prose is still [→page 4] comic, if you will, but something new is present: a dignity and discernment that we associate with his well−born characters, and with blank verse. Talking to Falstaff, Henry must speak prose, perhaps, but being a prince and an English folk hero he must not sound foolish.

Both Jonas Barish and Brian Vickers have written valuable analyses of Hal's first speech. Both find ways of making its rhetorical structure visible in the way they print it on their pages, and both demonstrate that it has a rising, climactic shape that illustrates careful planning on Shakespeare's part, and something akin to forensic genius on Hal's, if we are to credit him with the speech's artistry:

Improvisation needs ground rules [Barish writes], and Hal's construction of a certain syntactic frame gives him freedom: he does not have to worry about what to do with his clauses, or where to put them. Having erected a rapid scaffolding that presupposes some degree of balance and likeness, he can proceed to forget it and concentrate on the details; he can extemporize, as he does, with lordly abandon. The suspended sentence, for him, is no stranglehold, but a set of strong struts. Shakespeare may be planning his effects with the utmost care, but Hal, at least, seems to be talking with perfect naturalness.4)

Yet for Vickers the brilliance of Hal's prose is somehow made to redound to Falstaff's credit, and despite the fact that he speaks first, speaks brilliantly, and speaks from an independent, even a dominant position of logical and moral clarity, Hal is made to seem little more than Falstaff's straight man.5)

Milton Crane's book, Shakespeare's Prose, seems also rather to scant Hal's role in this linguistic universe. At one point he observes that while the other characters can be assigned to one of the two "worlds" of verse or prose, "Hal's position remain[s] always ambiguous."6) Then he observes that "The Prince, in general, takes his cue from his company, speaking prose in the tavern and verse in the court with equal facility" (87). When finally Hal speaks verse to Falstaff (5.3.39 ff.), Crane attributes this to a character−change: "Hal is now no longer the boon companion, but the valiant knight, and reproves Falstaff in straightforward verse" (87).

The implication of these various pronouncements is that Hal is the central character of this play only in the sense that he binds everything together—the two [→page 4] plots, the two "worlds" of court and tavern, the two styles of verse and prose—like connective tissue, perhaps, a reactive character who "takes his cue from his company." And indeed Hal is a hard character to sort out in terms of style, a chameleon poet whom we can sometimes catch in an indeterminate middle−state:

Prince   What, stands thou idle here? Lend me thy sword.
Many a nobleman lies stark and stiff
Under the hoofs of vaunting enemies,
Whose deaths are yet unreveng'd. I prithee,Lend me thy sword.