Shakespeare wrote much of The Tempest in a dense, poetic language whose complexity and solemnity reflects the noble status of the majority of its characters. Prospero in particular tends to speak in long, compound sentences. Take, for instance, this sentence in which Prospero describes how Antonio usurped his position as Duke of Milan:
He [Antonio] being thus lorded,
Not only with what my revenue yielded
But what my power might else exact, like one
Who, having into truth by telling of it,
Made such a sinner of his memory
To credit his own lie, he did believe
He was indeed the duke, out o’ th’ substitution
And executing th’ outward face of royalty,
With all prerogative. (1.2.)
This sentence has a complex structure that features dependent clauses stuck inside other dependent clauses. The fact that units of thought repeatedly cross line breaks makes it even more challenging to follow Prospero’s meaning. The difficulty of this sentence also derives from Prospero’s use of poetic elision (i.e., omission). Prospero’s poetic elision is visible in his frequent omission of unstressed syllables (e.g., “out o’ th’ substitution”). The overall complexity of Prospero’s language serves to emphasize the greatness of his learning, and the solemnity of his poetry conveys the seriousness of his character.
Whereas Prospero and other characters of noble status speak in language that is solemn and grammatically dense, the language of the play’s less well-born characters often proves more playful. Take, for example, Trinculo and Stephano, who become increasingly drunk over the course of the play and frequently exchange jokes and witty one-liners. This kind of clever back-and-forth appears in Act 3, Scene 2, where Trinculo and Stephano jest about whether the “man-monster” Caliban will serve as their lieutenant or their standard bearer. This joke about Caliban quickly descends into a game of puns. Trinculo informs Stephano that Caliban will have to be his lieutenant because, as he puts it, “He’s no standard” (3.2.). Caliban can’t be a standard bearer because, being drunk, he can’t even stand up! Verbal playfulness is not limited only to the less nobly born characters. Antonio and Sebastian exhibit a similar dynamic in Act 2, Scene 1, where they make fun of Gonzalo behind his back.
The stylistic divide between the high- and low-born characters in The Tempest often plays out through differences in verse and prose. Shakespeare wrote the majority of the play in his characteristic blank verse—that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter. Generally speaking, the noble characters (especially Prospero, Miranda, Alonso, and Ferdinand) speak primarily in verse, whereas the less well-bred characters (especially Trinculo and Stephano) speak primarily in prose. Caliban represents an important and interesting exception. Although frequently deemed a lowly “monster,” Caliban received an education from Prospero and Miranda. Not only does this education afford him the ability to “curse,” as Caliban declares in Act 1, Scene 2, but it also enables him to curse eloquently. Thus, most of his speech is verse, excepting the scenes where he gets drunk with Trinculo and Stephano. Another exception to the general rule occurs when solemn situations call for verse. In such situations, even lowborn characters relinquish prose, just as the Boatswain does when reunited with his crew at the play’s end.