Why Cass Loves Rhetoric

Yesterday I had to ask Twitter for help finding an example of syllepsis in Shakespeare, but asking that question necessitated first defining the term adequately, and finding the answer necessitated defining what syllepsis is not. Then I had to examine the suggestions that came in to determine which were and were not examples of syllepsis. It’s a tricky term, and getting a grasp on it requires tackling some of the issues that frequently come up when working with these devices — where do the boundaries lie, and how can I distinguish one rhetorical figure from another? When, with help from colleagues across the world, I was able to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion — a neat, concise definition with a clear and relatively unambiguous example — I felt triumphant, jubilant. I had won.

I love rhetoric. That is absolutely no secret. I become giddily happy when some part of my day involves sitting down with a chunk of text and pulling it to pieces to find all the rhetorical goodies inside. Sarah once asked me why it is that rhetoric excites me so much. In many ways, it’s down to that feeling of winning when I figure something out — rhetoric is like a game to me. It’s an exciting challenge, a goal that I can meet. I imagine this is the way that math-oriented people feel about numbers or the way that computer programmers feel about coding. I look at a block of text and think: This is a problem, and I know I can solve it. For that reason, I find working with rhetoric immensely satisfying on a quite visceral level.

I also think rhetoric has a lot to teach us, not just about how Shakespeare uses language, but about how we all do. Anthimeria, once a marker of exceptionally high verbal and creative intelligence (as I’ve discussed before), is now something that almost every English-speaker does on a daily basis, largely due to the influence of communications technology — we Google something, rather than using Google to find it, we friend someone on Facebook rather than becoming someone’s friend on Facebook. So it’s not as though these concepts are archaic or of value only to poets and graduate students; it’s just that often we don’t know the terms for what we’re doing. Knowing about rhetoric, I believe, makes you a smarter, more aware, and more active listener.

I play the rhetorical game with myself when I listen to political speeches — I have these tools which make me aware of when someone is trying to manipulate my thoughts or emotions. That’s a valuable skill, and one I believe more of us should have a grasp of, particularly in a pluralistic society with so many different people expressing their opinions, and with the 24-hour news cycle allowing so many of those people to jostle for our attention on a regular basis. A decent grasp of rhetoric can help you separate the wheat from the chaff. Rhetoric helps you answer the questions: Who should I listen to? Who expresses himself well? Who’s hiding something from me? Our political structure demands informed decision-making from voters (or, at least, it ought to), and a grasp of rhetoric can make you more informed. If nothing else, listening more critically to how public speakers use language encourages the audience to question, to probe, and to think critically about the message, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Finally, knowing your way around rhetoric helps you become a more effective and more graceful writer and speaker. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew this, and so did anyone receiving a classical education from the medieval period on up through the 19th century, but it’s an art that has, if not quite died out, at least faded over the past century. It’s now a more specialized skill for certain kinds of writers than it is a part of the general knowledge base for anyone with an education. And that’s a shame. In our communications-driven world, writing is an essential skill for success, but we no longer provide students with this set of tools that they can use to become excellent writers. Rhetoric helps you craft your message in a way that is clear and effective, and that’s a talent worth cultivating, no matter what trade you’re in. If you want to sell yourself and your ideas, rhetorical devices will help you get there.

I’ve seen some opinions that rhetoric shouldn’t be used in high school classrooms — that it’s too advanced, too confusing, involves too many frightening Greek words. While I agree that throwing hendiadys, anthimeria, and anaphora at beginners right off the bat would be a mistake, I don’t think there’s any reason that high schoolers can’t learn rhetoric. I encountered many of these devices first in Latin class, as a tenth-grader. Was it a challenge to learn the figures and to determine how authors use them? Of course. But just because something is challenging doesn’t mean that teachers should shy away from it — entirely the opposite, in fact.

Towards that end, I’m building a two-tiered introduction to rhetoric for both teachers and students. The first level of initiation is R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric, born out of my desire to simplify and Christina’s innate talent for mnemonic devices. At the entry-level, rather than learning the specific Greek terms, my goal is to get students to recognize five basic kinds of rhetorical manipulation: Repetition, Omission, Addition, Direction, and Substitution. The divisions are my own; I didn’t follow Aristotle or Quintilian or Puttenham. I decided to start fresh with a system that would be accessible and easy-to-understand for modern students.

R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric will be included in next year’s Study Guides as part of the expanded “Basics” section. We’ll be encouraging teachers to look to rhetoric for character clues and to bring out greater comprehension of Shakespeare’s use of language. Recognizing the patterns and the choices made by an author, whether Shakespeare or anyone else, helps you to understand how that author crafts character, mood, motifs, and ideas. With Shakespeare, the exploration is particularly exciting, because he’s just plain so good at it. I think introducing rhetoric to the study of Shakespeare at the entry-level is a way to help students see why it is that we make such a fuss over him. Students won’t need to take a teacher’s word for it that he was brilliant if they can see for themselves how he used the building blocks of wordsmithing in inventive and ingenious ways. Rhetoric is, to take a scientific way of looking at it, empirical evidence that Shakespeare really is as good as we say he is.

The second tier of rhetorical study opens up examination of the specific terms. Nuance is important; looking at the sweeping generalities of type will certainly yield results, but for the student or actor who wants to get deeper into the mechanics of a character’s language, to find the hidden clues to personality or thought process, delving into a detailed rhetorical analysis has great profit. That’s where the specific terms come into play — and I do mean play. I think that treating rhetoric with a game mentality could be a great way to engage both halves of the brain, and thus to reach students who might otherwise struggle with the concept. I freely admit that this may not be for everyone, perhaps especially at the high school level (it wasn’t to the tastes of everyone in my class at the grad school level, after all), but for those students who are interested or for those teachers looking to challenge their classes, I want to give them the tools to explore.

To this end, I’m devising a Teacher’s Guide to Rhetoric. This guide lists fifty of the most common rhetorical devices, broken down first by R.O.A.D.S. and then by specifications within those categories. For example, a device of repetition might be listed as repetition of sounds, of words or phrases, or of grammatical structure. For each device, I provide a selection of examples of its use in Shakespeare’s plays, along with a commentary about what that may indicate for character choices and questions to ask when you encounter the device in use. Though I call it a Teacher’s Guide, due to the inclusion of classroom-oriented activities and writing exercises, I don’t see that there’s any reason a student or an actor couldn’t use the guide as well. The bulk of it is designed for accessibility, to explain the terms in a clear and concise way that opens doors for better understanding of Shakespeare’s characters and the dynamics of his plays.

I’m also creating a set of rhetorical flashcards — each one has the name of a device on one side, then the R.O.A.D.S. type, the definition of the term, and at least one example out of Shakespeare on the other. We’ll be giving these flashcards out to the teachers who attend our April Teacher Seminar, and hopefully we’ll also eventually have them for sale to any interested parties. These flashcards will be ideal for studying, to learn the terms, but will also be a valuable quick-reference source.

And, for anyone who was wondering, syllepsis is when a single word which governs or modifies two or more other words or phrases must be understood differently with respect to each. The example we settled on was Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, declaring, “Let’s have a dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives heels.” And isn’t that a lovely way to turn a phrase? As I post this entry, however, Dr. Ralph is debating the application with me (is a difference between figurative and literal interpretation enough to qualify?) — so, if any of our readers have an even better example, I’d love to hear it! Another great thing about rhetoric: it opens up so many discussions about using language.

3 thoughts on “Why Cass Loves Rhetoric

  1. Cass, LOVE this, and may I sign up for a set of flashcards now, since I won't be at the April Teacher's Seminar? I have been trying out some basic rhetorical devices with my students this year, and they get it – the structure, the persuasive power of crafting the language. If you need a place to test out your process, I will be happy to supply you students.~Sally

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  2. SO excited to see this post, as I'm trying to determine where / how to bring rhetoric in to my classes more. I'd like to sign up for a set of flashcards, as well. Thank you for providing fodder for discussion!

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  3. Sally & Dionne — I'll definitely let you know when we've got the flashcards and the Teacher's Guide ready, and we'll figure out how to get them to you. So glad to see teachers interested in getting rhetoric into their classrooms!

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