“To try eloquence, now ’tis time”: Virtues and Vices of Rhetoric

Last week, in less than twenty-four hours, our country had the opportunity to experience two important political speeches: President Obama’s farewell address and Donald Trump’s opening statements to the first press conference he has held since last July. Both were prepared statements, though both appeared to involve some measure of ad-lib. Since President Obama’s farewell address was much longer, I chose to examine only a segment of it, of comparable length to Mr. Trump’s opening statement.

By the Numbers
Complexity and elegance in speech are not necessarily about sentence length or vocabulary level: they’re really more about variety. Does the speaker vary syntax? Does the speaker demonstrate a grasp of language’s fluidity and flexibility? Does the speaker use a wide or narrow range of descriptors? As Shakespeare knew, these traits create a character who is verbally facile and engaging. Going too far with them, however, can create a ridiculous character, such as Holofernes:

This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am
thankful for it.

The gift is in knowing how to apply language deftly, which is not the same as the oratory onslaught that defines much of Holofernes’s speech. Then there are characters like Dogberry, who reach for verbal greatness but somewhat miss the mark:

Neighbours, you are tedious.

It pleases your worship to say so, but we are the poor duke’s officers; but truly, for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a king, I could find it in my heart to bestow it all of your worship.

All thy tediousness on me, ah?

Yea, an ’twere a thousand pound more than ’tis; for I hear as good exclamation on your worship as of any man in the city; and though I be but a poor man, I am glad to hear it.


Some hard facts on President Obama’s speech segment:

  • 1393 words long, featuring 583 unique words (words used only once in the speech) (42% of the whole)
  • 869 of those 1393 words were monosyllabic
  • 202 had more than three syllables
  • His longest word was “responsibility” (six syllables)
  • His ten most commonly used words (excluding grammatical words like “the”) were I’ve, us, years, just, should, own, Americans, young, because, and up.
  • His Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level was 9th, with a Reading Ease score of 57.

Some hard facts on Mr. Trump’s speech:

  • 1365 words long, featuring 401 unique words (29%)
  • 877 of those 1365 words were monosyllabic
  • 7 words had four or five syllables, and none more than five
  • His ten most commonly used words (excluding grammatical words) were: going, very, lot, we’re, news, will, think, great, because, and veterans.
  • His Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level was 7th, with a Reading Ease score of 67.

To help you get a sense of the “feel” of those numbers, I include two word clouds below, one for each speech. (These clouds also omit, as word clouds typically do, common grammatical words such as “the”, “a”, “with”, “on”, etc. I have, however, opted to include “and”, “that”, “very”, “our”, and “us” in both, as their usage seems to exceed commonality in a significant way).


Word Cloud of President Obama’s farewell address segment


Word Cloud of Mr. Trump’s press conference opening statement

By the Rhetoric
(Be ye warned: there are Greek terms within. But fear not! I promise to define all of them)

If you’re interested in the full rhetorical mark-up of each speech, according to our R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric, I’ve appended those at the bottom of the post (with apologies for my handwriting). I’ll just hit a few highlights to discuss overall patterns.

President Obama, as I’ve noted before, is prone to auxesis, the arrangement of a series. In fact, he may be slightly over-prone to it; sometimes his series nest within each other and stretch beyond the set of three that’s most harmonious for a listener.


His other commonly used devices include:

  • isocolon, repeated sentence structure
  • antithesis, the arrangement of contrast
  • diacope, the repetition of a key word after intervening matter.

These devices often interweave and support each other. Look at the following snippet, where the arrangement of a series coincides with repeated structure:


When we hear language used this way, whether consciously or not, we recognize the intention behind it. No one speaks like that accidentally. Auxesis and isocolon support each other particularly well: our brains appreciate parallel sentence structure on an almost subconscious level, and when that overlaps with the creation of a list, the speaker can carry us along with his story more easily. President Obama also often uses one device to segue into another — notice how, above, the use of “creed” at the end of his series carries through to his summarizing statement, which in turn shares syntactical similarity with the series. Compare these interwoven patterns to those in Richard II’s speech as he capitulates to his deposition:

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads(1),
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage(2),
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown(3),
My figured goblets for a dish of wood(4),
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff(5),
My subjects for a pair of carved saints (6)
And my large kingdom for a little grave(7;1),
A little little grave (2), an obscure grave(3)

The most commonly used rhetorical devices across Mr. Trump’s speech are:

  • epizeuxis, the immediate or near-immediate repetition of a word
  • polysyndeton, where use of conjunctions creates run-on sentences
  • ellipsis, the absence of key words or phrases, often in the form of unfinished thoughts
  • parelcon, the insertion of redundant or superfluous words such as “very”.

Consider the following segment:


At first glance, the markup of Mr. Trump’s speech appears more rhetorically dense than President Obama’s, but it is worth noting that rhetoric is not always only about the words. Often, it is also about the delivery of those words, particularly in matters of emphasis, specificity, and intention. Silva Rhetorica discusses this when examining stylistic vices:

Every dimension or aspect of style has vices associated with it, and every vice has a corresponding virtue. Indeed, the very same locution may in one sense be regarded as exemplifying a stylistic virtue, and in another, a vice.

It is helpful to understand that all figurative language alters the normal meaning or arrangement of words to some degree. When figurative language is apt for a given context and purpose, it is eloquent and effective (and thus exemplifies one or more of the virtues of style); when figurative language is not apt for a given context and purpose, it is ineloquent and ineffective (and thus exemplifies one or more of the vices of style).

This distinction often becomes important in regard to devices of repetition, because the speaker’s affect lets the listener know whether the repetition was chosen or unchosen. Chosen repetitions can run the gamut of sounds, words, phrases, and structure. Consider, as I’ve noted before, the repetition of structure in Brutus’s funeral oration, or Antony’s repetition of phrases in his — or look at Edmund in King Lear, musing on the word legitimate:

Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word, legitimate.
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards.

Edmund repeats the word to draw a contrast between the status it confers and his own bastardy. It is hard to imagine an actor performing these lines as though Edmund were not choosing that word in each instance, particularly since he uses with slightly different context each time, and “fine word, legitimate” indicates that he is thoroughly aware of the word’s weight and power.

Unchosen repetitions fall into the category of stylistic vices, including battalogia, the continual unnecessary reiteration of the same words, phrases, or ideas; tautologia, the unnecessary repetition of the same idea in different words; and homiologia, tedious or inane repetition. These devices might tell us much about a speaker’s overall verbal intellect or about their current emotional state. Consider Othello, overwrought with jealous suspicion:

Lie with her? lie on her? We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her: that’s fulsome. Handkerchiefconfessions: handkerchief. To confess, and be hanged for his labour. First, to be hanged, and then to confess: I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus (pish): noses, ears, and lips: Is’t possible? Confess?handkerchief? O devil.

Immediately after this, Othello “falls into a trance”, elucidating that he is not in control of his physical self, and his words indicate that he is likely not in control of his intellectual and emotional selves, either. Those “lies” early in the speech might or might not be an intentional riff on the word, but the whorling repetitions of “handkerchief” and “confess” seem to have no definable pattern. They are disjointed thoughts to which Othello cannot seem but help to return.

Other stylistic vices involve figures of addition, such as:

  •  perissologia, the vice of wordiness
  • pleonasm, the use of grammatically superfluous words
  • periergia, over-use of words or figures of speech
  • bomphiologia, self-aggrandizing exaggeration.

Take Fluellen, for example:

Fortune is painted blind, with a muffler afore her eyes, to signify to you that Fortune is blind; and she is painted also with a wheel, to signify to you, which is the moral of it, that she is turning, and inconstant, and mutability, and variation: and her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls, and rolls, and rolls.

Is that run-on sentence deliberate or accidental? I have no idea. It’s a choice for the actor to make, and it’s going to create a different character depending on which way it goes. Is Fluellen rambling, absorbed in his own musings and oblivious to the effect on his listeners? Or does he use those conjunctions and parentheticals intentionally, so that no one interrupts him, thus keeping him in control of the scene? Either choice could be correct, but much depends upon the delivery.

More rhetoric is not necessarily better rhetoric. 
We’ve looked before at Claudius’s rhetorically dense and nigh-incomprehensible speech in 1.2 of Hamlet, which I think is as good an example as any in Shakespeare of the maxim that density of rhetoric is not necessarily a virtue. It may be overblown — the vice of macrologia refers to excessive wordiness in an attempt to appear eloquent — or simply inept, as in aschematiston, which may refer to either the unskilled use of figures of speech or starkly unornamented language. As with so many things in life, in speaking, balance is key, lest the speaker turn a virtue into a vice.

Full rhetorical mark-up of President Obama’s speech segment

Full rhetorical mark-up of Mr. Trump’s speech

23 reasons why the ASC should never have performed BBAJ – and why it’s a blessing that we did anyway (#15 will knock your socks off!)*

Amy Wratchford, Managing Director of the American Shakespeare Center, was in the midst of a presentation to my MFA class about the administrative side of “arts administration” when she dropped the bomb that exploded my worldview. I remember it vividly: it was May of 2015, I was knitting, the room was too hot, all of my classmates were bouncing slowly up and down on the exercise balls the group had silently consented must replace all chairs, and Amy was so very excited to confide in us that in the American Shakespeare Center would be opening its 2016 Summer/Fall season with a production of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

I distinctly remember Amy punching the air with a self-satisfied “yes!” as everything I ever knew or loved crumbled into dust around me.

This should probably go without saying, but we’re the American Shakespeare Center, not the American Shakespeare-and-also-the-occasional-uncannily-well-timed-modern-rock-musical Center.


Does anything about this say “Shakespeare” to you?

Admittedly, no, we don’t exclusively perform Shakespeare. But we’ve been open for more than 25 years (performing in the Blackfriars Playhouse for 15), mounting between 16 and 18 productions a year since we added the Actors’ Renaissance Season in 2005, and Shakespeare only had a hand in 38 surviving plays. We would be super bored if we only performed Shakespeare. And anyway, isn’t “Shakespeare” less the name of a specific playwright than a generic phrase referring to a vaguely Renaissance-y time period? You see “Shakespeare” in the name of the company and it basically goes without saying that we also perform the works of his contemporaries: Marlowe, Middleton, Beaumont, Fletcher – sometimes even Beaumont and Fletcher because let’s face it, they all collaborated anyways. And even if they didn’t, it’s all iambic pentameter at the end of the day. “Shakespeare and his contemporaries” opens the door to many plays, but Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson ain’t one of them.

Okay, yes, I will also concede that we perform works that do not fit into even my loose definition of “Shakespeare.” We perform Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol every year — but show me a theatre that doesn’t. We’ve performed Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac twice, once in 2007 and again in 2014, but we used the Anthony Burgess translation both times — which puts Rostand’s rhyming French Alexandrine verse couplets into the very Shakespearean rhyming English iambic pentameter couplets — which makes it basically Shakespeare. Yes, we’ve done Tom Stoppard’s 1964 adaptation Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead, but we did it in repertory with Hamlet, so that hardly counts. Okay, fine, we’ve even done a “rock musical” before – the 2014 smash hit Return to the Forbidden Planet, but every line of dialogue in that play not set to the tune of a jukebox musical number originally came from Shakespeare. And I’m pretty sure George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare were actually the same (undead) person (which explains Arms & the Man) and everybody knows that Shaw was a huge admirer of Oscar Wilde (Importance of Being Earnest) which is arguably similar in style to Wittenburg by David Davalos who just so happened to be in an off-off-Broadway play with Kevin Bacon! Wait, what are we talking about?




The actual criteria for deciding which shows we’ll perform at the Blackfriars Playhouse is less about a certain author or time period and more about identifying plays that work in our space — that is, that work with Shakespeare’s staging conditions. Will the play work on the merits of its words alone, sans sets or lights or soundscapes on a bare, universally lit thrust stage? Can it be done unplugged, with live sound cues and acoustic instruments? Does it include natural opportunities for contacting the audience? Does it allow for continuous flow of action — the Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” — where actors in a new scene enter while speaking even while the previous scene’s actors are exiting? Does it have opportunities for actor doubling? How about cross-gender casting? Can it be done in “two hours traffic of the stage”? If the answer is yes to most or all of those questions (as it is for the aforementioned plays), then it deserves at least a fair trial on our stage. If it works super well, we might do it again (see: Cyrano, Importance of Being Earnest) and if it doesn’t… well, at least we tried?

I’m assuming this “why not try?” philosophy was behind the decision to stage Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and let me tell you why we should not have tried. First – no, it can’t work on the merits of its words alone because roughly 74% of its words are expletives (and 40% of statistics are made up on the spot). No, it can’t be done unplugged – it is a rock musical written for electric guitars and strobe lights, not Patrick Earl with a fake microphone backed by Chris Johnston on a cocktail drum kit. Any potential moments of audience contact would be forced upon the play, not built into it — because Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was not written with a visible audience in mind. It has huge, cumbersome sets that wouldn’t even fit inside our building, let alone allow for a continuous flow of action. Also, it’s a terrible play, and a musical to boot.


Look at this! It is such a musical!

No, I had never seen it or read it, but that’s not the point. Did I mention I hate musicals?

I wasn’t rooting for the play to fail so much as I had already accepted the inevitability of it doing so. I made doomsday predictions about having to leave Staunton, towing along my three degrees in Shakespeare while searching for somewhere else to work, because this disastrous production would cost us all our subscribers and close the ASC’s doors for good. I went to the dress rehearsal in gloomy spirits, bracing for the impact of a trainwreck.

A dress rehearsal is never a true indication of the quality of a production, but nevertheless, I was confused when what I saw didn’t suck. I wrote that off as a fluke and remained pessimistic during previews. But they didn’t suck either, and then all of a sudden the play was open and running and not only did it not suck, it rocked. And not only did it rock — it sold. And not only did it sell — it worked. Prolific theatre reviewer Eric Minton of Shakespeareances.com wrote in his review that “In fact, the Blackfriars aesthete singularly enriches the quality of Timbers’ and Friedman’s piece,” which in its Broadway form took place on “a cluttered hodge-podge” of a set. “Scenic designer Donyale Werle’s inspiration seemed to have come from watching a Disney Bear Jamboree while sipping on an Andro-laced LSD cocktail,” Minton quips, citing his own review of the original production.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | American Shakespeare CenterIn comparison, the ASC set includes a giant flag, a desk, some stools, the actors and their instruments, and “the couple of dozen audience members sitting on ‘gallants’ stools’ on either side” of the stage, who, Minton notes, also “serve as props.” We told this story of our American history the way Shakespeare would have had to: unplugged and universally lit. As a result, BBAJ at the Blackfriars Playhouse took on all the best qualities of Shakespeare’s history plays. The production was not just a retelling of past events but a shrewd commentary on current ones, speaking as much about the insane political climate of today as it ever did about the insane political climate in and for which it was written (in the case of BBAJ, the 2008 Presidential Election). In short, it worked, and not by a slim margin… which meant both that Amy had been super right and I had been super wrong.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | American Shakespeare CenterI can admit that now, because being so completely and utterly wrong about BBAJ at the Blackfriars Playhouse is one of the most refreshing things that has ever happened to me. It reminds me of something ASC co-founder and Director of Mission Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen likes to say: we think we’re smarter than the Elizabethans because we’re alive and they’re dead. We turn the last 400 years of knowledge into a weapon against our ancestors, always using the modern to re-examine the historical, as if being alive makes us more qualified than they to discuss issues of humanity (which, spoiler alert, haven’t changed in 400 years because evolution doesn’t work that fast).

Theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, has always provided a robust playground for this sort of recasting. In between the writing of Othello and today, we invented and dissolved the African American slave trade, for example. Shakespeare knew nothing about it, nor America’s resultant (and persistent) systemic racism, but try reading Othello without acknowledging what we know now. Rinse and repeat for The Merchant of Venice with the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, or Taming of the Shrew with suffrage and misogyny — we are always looking at the past through the tinted window of the present. This not “bad” or “wrong” but it is limiting and laborious. By painstakingly applying 400 years of technology and criticism to his texts in a bid to somehow suddenly “understand” them on some sort of nonexistent (but super enlightened!) level, we are always working for Shakespeare.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | American Shakespeare CenterBloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Blackfriars Playhouse allowed Shakespeare to work for us, instead. The production offered up a new understanding of our present by staging it through the lens of the past — and I mean that literally. By using Shakespeare’s staging conditions, we discovered poignant moments of actor-audience contact that both didn’t (and couldn’t) exist in the original staging of BBAJ. At the Blackfriars Playhouse, those moments allowed (and sometimes even forced) audiences to identify personally with the play’s subject matter. Those moments cut through the expletives and dance numbers to create keen satire out of what would otherwise be merely gratuitous shock-jock humor with the occasional catchy hook. The conditions of the production brought out the best of the play itself, the hard questions and the moral ambiguities we’ll never escape, no matter who’s President. I watched this play affect audience members profoundly and personally, the way Shakespeare’s plays often do, the way that makes them discuss the whole thing over dinner for hours and years afterwards.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | American Shakespeare CenterBloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Blackfriars Playhouse proved that using Shakespeare’s staging conditions is not just a way, as our mission says, to “recover the joy and accessibility of the Renaissance stage” (emphasis mine) but also to discover the new and potentially hidden joys and accessibilities of the modern stage. The plays written for this staging conditions are not the only ones that thrive within them. Shakespeare’s plays can and do thrive superbly when performed in modern staging conditions – The Blackfriars Playhouse is not the only theatre to ever stage a successful, enjoyable, provocative, delightful production of a Shakespeare play. That’s not what the American Shakespeare Center does, but that doesn’t mean we think others shouldn’t. Modern explorations of Shakespeare making use of advanced modern technology are valuable and necessary for what it can teach and show us about Shakespeare and ourselves. We exist to provide that modern exploration of Shakespeare making use of early modern technology in the form of our staging conditions – which, of course, teaches us more about Shakespeare and ourselves. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was a modern exploration of a modern play through the use of early modern technology, and in this singular and very unexpected instance, that exploration led us to profound new discoveries about this modern play that turned it into the captivating, convivial, thought-provoking theatrical event it never quite managed to be before.

The fact that we stand a good chance of discovering something magical when applying the same staging conditions to a wide variety of theatrical genres means that the Blackfriars Playhouse ultimately has no limit on its repertoire. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Blackfriars Playhouse shattered the limits of what we can do with (and learn from) Shakespeare’s staging conditions. I guess Amy was right to be excited, after all.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson | American Shakespeare Center— Lia Wallace

*No, this isn’t a list. Dashed expectations are what you get when you click on clickbait.

Top photo by Michael Bailey.
All other photos by Lindsey Walters | Miscellaneous Media Photography.


Solo Loqui

I feel it prudent to begin this post with: I am not a mathematician. I’m a writer. We try to keep me away from numbers. Almost everything I know about statistical analysis, I learned from Mythbusters. I am, quite explicitly, in charge of words for ASC Education.

But sometimes, what you need is data.


No, not that Data.

I’ve been working on a Study Guide for the Henry VI plays, and when pulling text for an activity on audience contact, I noticed… there are almost no soliloquies in 1 Henry VI. Almost no moments where the actor is alone with the audience. Huh. So, I tweeted about it. Then ASC actor Tim Sailer let me know that, from what he’d seen of Coriolanus, there were almost none in there, either.

Weird. Two relatively little-performed, and dare I say? little-loved plays, both with such low quotient of soliloquies. This got me wondering: is there a pattern to that? Are plays with more soliloquies generally better-received? My instinct said yes — but my instincts have been wrong before. I needed data to find out for sure.

Diving into this, I had to do two things: tally up the soliloquies per play and find out if my perception of the plays’ popularity was close to the mark.

For my purposes of counting up lines, I had to define precisely what I meant by “a soliloquy”, and what I arrived at was this: an actor alone with the audience, neither responding to nor being responded to by any other on-stage/in-scene character. So, if you’re on-stage with a corpse or a sleeping body, you can soliloquize — so long as you’re not addressing said corpse or sleeper. What I’m interested in is that dynamic between actor and audience, where only one performer is actively influencing the audience — so I place no litmus test of content upon it. I am as willing to take expository soliloquies as emotional ones, and indeed, they often overlap. I did make note of what kind of soliloquy each was (with full admission that this is a subjective judgment on my part): functional/expository, introspective/emotional, or comic/musical. This percentage of the whole, I refer to henceforth as the “soliloquotient”. (It’s also worth noting that I was going off of the Norton Shakespeare’s versions of the play, so that involves quarto/Folio conflation in some instances. I recognize that there might be valuable differences to discover there, but, alas, I could only devote but so much time to this particular bee in my bonnet.)

As for determining play popularity, 281 individuals were kind enough to answer a survey on the subject. Admittedly, this sample set is drawn from people within one to three degrees of separation from me and the ASC, so it’s naturally people more inclined to like Shakespeare than, perhaps, the general populace. But I was actually okay with that. Because I wanted to compare more popular to less popular plays, the opinions of people who had only seen, say, Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be less valuable to me.

So what did I find out?

Broadly? My assumption was totally wrong! The data utterly cut the knees out from my hypothesis, but that’s okay. I still learned a lot. As we so often tell students in our workshops, sometimes you have to be wrong in order to figure out something right — and this rabbit hole definitely lead me to some interesting observations.

The Soliloquotient
To start with, my perceptions of which plays were the most soliloquy-heavy were not spot-on. Richard III and Much Ado about Nothing were both lower than I expected; The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Timon of Athens were significantly higher. A few of the oddities are almost entirely due to Choruses; if I altered my definition of a soliloquy to remove those (thus basing soliloquies only on characters within the play), then Pericles drops from a chart-topping 13.71% to a mere 1.63%; even Henry V drops from 10.33% to 3.27%, leaving the Boy’s short soliloquy and Henry’s “ceremony” speech as almost the only character-driven soliloquies in the play. Romeo and Juliet, though, suffers a much smaller drop — from 7.69% down to 6.75%. But, for the sake of number-crunching, we’ll stick with my initial definition and keep in the Choruses.

The average soliloquotient is 4.82% per play — though the median is lower, 3.95%. A standard deviation of 2.87% indicates that the bulk of the plays fall between 1.08% and 6.82%. Only one play, Coriolanus, falls below that 1.08% mark, but 9 fall above 6.82%. Macbeth, Cymbeline, 3 Henry VI, Romeo and Juliet, and Timon of Athens are all between one and two standard deviations out (between 6.82% and 9.69%), while Henry V, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Pericles are all above two standard deviations out (greater than 9.69% soliloquies). Here’s a histogram to visualize the spread of soliloquotients across the plays:


Looking just at that data, it would seem that a high proportion of soliloquies is at least as likely to make a play hated as loved. But let’s dig further:

My instincts about the plays’ popularity were largely borne out. Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, Hamlet, and Macbeth top the charts whether I took the simple average of reported enjoyment (on a scale of 1-5, where 1 was “I loathe this play” and 5 was “I love this play”) or whether I looked at the percentage of respondents who rated the play “above the fold” — ie, a 4 or a 5. Charts of both are below, and while they’re not wildly different, to measure a play’s loveability, I prefer the “above the fold” version (and its partner, “below the fold”, those plays with a significant number of respondents rating a play “dislike” or “loathe”), both because it smooths out the variance in how many people have seen which plays and because it distinguishes between plays that are really liked or loathed versus those which people just feel neutral about.



Fully 22 plays land with more than 60% of respondents “above the fold”. Most of those are fairly expected: Richard III, Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1 Henry IV, The Winter’s Tale, and Henry V round out our top ten, and of those, all but Winter and Henry V get more than 75% in the top two boxes. I’m not wholly surprised that Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar don’t get quite as much enthusiasm, considering those are often plays served as tonics to students (and plays that are, I believe, pretty easy to screw up), but they still come in at a respectable 70% and 67% above the fold.

The most-hated plays are pretty expected, too. Because this was a sample of Shakespeare enthusiasts, only a few plays had more than 15% of responses in the bottom two boxes: Merchant of Venice (17.24% dislike or loathe), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (18.86%), All’s Well That Ends Well (21.43%), The Taming of the Shrew (22.14%), Troilus and Cressida (22.3%), The Two Noble Kinsmen (22.86%), The Merry Wives of Windsor (27.91%), Timon of Athens (29.01%), and Henry VIII (30.58%). Some very early plays and some very late (and co-authored) ones, as well as a smattering of those with significant issues for modern feminists. Merry Wives is the only real surprise there, and I’d be curious to know what about that comedy falls so flat for many viewers.

A rating of 3 marked a play as “neutral or mixed feelings” — and King John, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Henry VIII top that list, all with over 45% in the middle box. I find it interesting that some of the most hated plays are also the ones with the most mixed feelings. The same is not true of the best-loved: the top six there are the lowest six in the neutral category.

Cheeringly, perhaps, there is no play that no one loved: two people marked even Henry VIII in the very top box. There’s also, however, no play that no one hated: 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, 1 Henry IV, and Richard III all got precisely one “loathe” vote.

But there are a few fun surprises. What’s Richard II doing in a relatively high position when I look at the “above the fold” data? That play isn’t what we’d call “popular” — it’s one of the least-frequently-seen in this survey. But people who do see it? Seem to love it. It comes in at a respectable 65.76% above the fold, and only 8.15% below.And that makes a kind of sense, particularly when you remember that Shakespeare wrote it the same year he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. Something in the language seems to resonate with those who get exposed to it on stage.

Richard II is also fascinating for what its soliloquotient reveals about the play. It’s very, very light on soliloquies — until you hit Act 5 and Richard’s massive 77-line beast of a heart-to-heart with the audience. Looking at it as data, not just as scenes, helped me to realize that until that point, Richard is never alone. Literally never. He is a king who always has someone on hand. His entire life is a public performance — and then it’s all stripped away.

Once I noticed that trend, I started finding similar patterns in some other plays. Antony and Cleopatra are never alone together. Cleopatra is never alone at all. Timon starts out never alone, like Richard, but then spends a significantly larger portion of his play in isolation. Hal/Henry’s only soliloquies of any length are “I know you all” in 1 Henry IV and then “general ceremony” in Henry V; Falstaff gets the bulk of the audience’s time in the Henry IV plays. Hamlet starts off, as you would think, with a lot of time with the audience — but hands that privilege off to Claudius for most of acts three and four, and no one soliloquizes in act five. Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Two Noble Kinsmen are the only plays where the women soliloquize more than the men (though Helena and Hermia put in a good showing in Midsummer — Puck and Bottom just barely edge them out, and Juliet would win Romeo and Juliet if you take out the Choruses; she certainly has more time alone with the audience than Romeo does).

So, all in all, this data gave me a lot of fun information to turn over in my brain, and I expect I’ll return to some of it in future ponderings; but, it turns out, there is really no correlation between soliloquotient and a play’s likeability. Note the following charts:


If anything, a higher soliloquotient — those over 2 standard deviations away from the norm — seems to hurt a play far more than help it. Even creating secondary versions without Choruses and other non-character commentaries didn’t change much — the line would tilt up a very little, but nothing significant.

There does seem to be something of a “sweet spot”, though, as you can see from the clustering: the most-loved plays all have a soliloquotient between 3.5% and 7%. Plays above or below that don’t make the mark — but that’s not really determinant evidence, since not all plays within that sweet spot do land in the top tier of popularity and love-ability.

If I were to continue this experiment, I’d try to focus it more narrowly — specifically, to find out if people are more favorably inclined towards shows they’ve seen in the Blackfriars Playhouse or another theatre with universal lighting and direct audience contact. Take Timon of Athens, for example: this is among the least-loved plays in the survey, but anecdotally, I know that people who saw it on our stage with Rene Thornton Jr. in the title role absolutely loved it. Can one strong performance change an audience member’s outlook on an entire play? Does the soliloquotient matter more in a theatre with universal lighting?

My instinct and hypothesis on both is yes — and perhaps someday I’ll have the data to back that up!