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Prose is flowing writing with no particular rules. It is conversational and less formal than verse. In Shakespeare, prose is used by characters like Gobbo who are lowly servants rather than educated gentlefolk. Portia, an aristocratic character, uses verse most of the time, and certainly on formal occasions. She does use prose, however, when she is talking informally and confidentially with Nerissa. This reflects a lack of formality between them.

  • Find an example of this:

Solanio and Salerino usually use verse, but in places they use prose. Find examples of the following examples of prose use in Act III:

  • When speaking to each other confidentially. (Reflects the lack of formality between these close friends.)
  • When speaking with Shylock. (Who is obviously unimportant enough for them to feel no need to speak too formally.)


Shakespeare’s formal language, called blank verse, is rather like poetry. It has a regular rhythm created mainly by the way words with different numbers of syllables are joined together and how words or sounds are repeated.

Blank verse has a tighter structure than prose. Most of the lines are regular, and they consist of five iambic feet. An iamb is a foot of two syllables:

The qual/ i/ ty / of mer/cy is / not strain’d/ (Act 4, scene 1, line 180).

  • How many syllables are there in this line?

Now choose a line in which the verse looks regular, and tap the beat while saying it aloud. How many beats are there to each line? Write it down here, identifying the syllables with the / symbol:

Now choose a speech written in prose. Does it have the same, consistent number of beats?

Now look at the first scene. Although they are discussing personal matters, Antonio’s friends use the formal verse that is to be expected from educated ‘young men about town’ of some social standing.

If you look at the last two lines of most of the scenes, you will see that they rhyme. The rhyming couplet as it is called, at the end of scenes has the added advantage of warning the audience that the scene is ending, and it will be okay to cough or shift position.

  • Write one down here: