“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:

LEONATO
Neighbours, you are tedious.

DOGBERRY
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.

LEONATO
All thy tediousness on me, ah?

DOGBERRY
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.

Bless.

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.

Visualization
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).

wcobama

Word Cloud of President Obama’s farewell address segment

wctrump

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.

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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:

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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:

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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

“And you that love the commons, follow me”: Shakespeare and the Demagogue

Salon put out an article last weekend decrying the commandeering of Shakespeare by conservative think-tankers who believe that “Shakespeare offers future CEOs and business leaders the models they need to achieve ruthless success behind the veneer of ethical behavior.” While we at the ASC certainly believe that Shakespeare offers some lessons for leaders, the subjects of the article seem to have missed the mark and learned the wrong lessons. The article’s author, Chris MacDonald, does an excellent job analyzing where Shakespeare’s plays send messages that are conservative, liberal, or a little bit of both, pointing towards the concept that it’s not so easy to put him in one box, particularly since he does such a good job showcasing the vast spectrum of human experience. It got me thinking, though, about one element in Shakespeare’s plays that is resonating particularly loudly in this election year.

If Shakespeare has any consistent political message, it seems to be this: Beware the demagogue. Beware the one who tells you only what you want to hear. Beware someone who drives you towards chaos rather than towards construction. In a political climate where success seems to depend on little more than out-shouting one’s opponents, that’s a lesson we could all benefit from revisiting.

Visitors to the Playhouse this fall will have the opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s finest examples of populism gone horrible wrong in The Rise of Queen Margaret (Henry VI, Part 2), in the figure of Jack Cade. Though he claims he has noble heritage that entitles him to the crown, he appeals to the masses with promises that are so extravagant as to be ludicrous — but the crowd heartily cheers them:

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The cast of 2010’s 2 Henry VI; photo by Tommy Thompson

CADE
There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common… There shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score…
I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.

This would all be laughable if not for the fact that Cade’s followers take him seriously. His promises are ludicrous, and he has no plan for their implementation — he just assumes that, once he’s in power, he can do as he likes. Unfortunately, Cade’s influence shows what can happen when this fervor spins out of control. His supporters quickly turn violent, with the famous and almost-always-removed-from-context cry to “Kill all the lawyers.” Cade’s response is alarming because it uses the sort of logical fallacy that modern politicians also employ when they hope to make something absurd, offensive, or dangerous seem rational:

CADE
That I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.

This turn demonstrates the anti-intellectualism that also permeates much modern political discourse — the sense that, somehow, intelligence and education aren’t things we should want in our leaders. Cade and his followers express distrust of learned men, they claim that men who can read and write must be villains and that those who speak French are traitors, and they hang a clerk for confessing his literacy. From there, the violence blooms outward to encompass pretty much anyone that the crowd doesn’t like or that Cade thinks hasn’t shown him enough respect — “The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute” — leading to the gruesome beheadings in Act Four, scene seven.

Eventually Clifford turns the fickleness of the crowd against Cade, invoking the name of the popular hero Henry V. Realizing he’s been out-maneuvered, Cade states, “The name of Henry the Fifth hales them to an hundred mischiefs, and makes them leave me desolate.” Clifford proves ruthless, however; after promising the rebellious citizens amnesty and glory, he has them prepared to be hanged. King Henry VI pardons them, earning their loyalty — and making the audience wonder if Clifford intended that, making them all unconscious actors in a play staged to bolster support for the king. If so, it’s a psychologically cruel ploy, but an extremely effective one, and one that demonstrates the inherent danger of a populace too willing to hand over power to a speaker who flatters them and makes empty promises.

Shakespeare shows us another drama meant to manipulate the populace in Richard III, when Richard and the Duke of Buckingham stage a scene to win support for his usurpation of his nephew. Richard appears with two churchmen, feigning pious study and claiming he has no desire to the throne, whereupon Buckingham, surrounded by the Lord Mayor of London and various citizens, has to “convince” him both by praising his supposed virtues and by threatening to set someone else up in his place:

RICHARD
Alas, why would you heap these cares on me?
I am unfit for state and majesty;
I do beseech you, take it not amiss;
I cannot nor I will not yield to you.

BUCKINGHAM
If you refuse it,—as, in love and zeal,
Loath to depose the child, Your brother’s son;
As well we know your tenderness of heart
And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse,
Which we have noted in you to your kin,
And regally indeed to all estates,—
Yet whether you accept our suit or no,
Your brother’s son shall never reign our king;
But we will plant some other in the throne,
To the disgrace and downfall of your house:
And in this resolution here we leave you.—
Come, citizens: ‘zounds! I’ll entreat no more.

The Lord Mayor ends up begging Buckingham and the citizens to come back and entreat Richard once again, and he begs Richard to accept. Richard knew how to play against their expectations, gaining the crown by pretending he did not want it.
Even some of Shakespeare’s finest rhetorical speeches can be seen as examples of a leader using clever language and popular appeal to ignoble ends. Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech is perhaps as fine an example of persuasive wordcraft as one can find in the English language — you can see Dr. Ralph’s mark-up here — but it’s persuading men to die for a cause that (as other characters in the play point out) is not necessarily just. Mark Antony eloquently whips the Roman plebeians into a fervor in Julius Caesar, skillfully manipulating them to turn against Brutus, the man they had lauded only moments before. Both Henry and Antony feign modesty of some kind — Henry says he does not care for gold, or clothes, or “who doth feed upon my cost”, and Antony claims “I am no orator, as Brutus is” — but both are playing their own attributes down in an attempt to align themselves with the common interest.

JULIUS CAESAR rehearsal-45

Patrick Poole in rehearsal as Antony; photo by Jay McClure

Antony’s speech is more effective than Brutus’s partly because while Brutus makes an argument designed on logic (even if it’s often false logic), meant to appeal to the listener’s head, Antony goes straight for the heart. He appeals to emotions, and he receives an emotional response. He also offers the commons a more concrete reward than Brutus does, however. While Brutus says that the benefit of Caesar’s death will be the somewhat nebulous “place in the commonwealth” for every citizen, Antony pulls out Caesar’s will and promises them their inheritance — 75 drachmas to each man, as well as access to public parks, given to the populace in perpetuity. By the end of his speech, the citizens of Rome set off to burn houses and murder anyone they connect with Caesar’s death, including the hapless Cinna the Poet. Antony openly admits — to the audience, at least — that his purpose was manipulation: “Now, mischief, thou art afoot; take thou what course thou wilt.”

So, what political message can we truly consider Shakespeare’s legacy? Conservative, liberal, or moderate, Shakespeare’s message seems to be to think. Listen carefully and critically. Don’t accept what any potential leader says at face value, even or perhaps especially if they’re promising you something you want — because they want something, too.

–Cass Morris
ASC Academic Resources Manager

“Thy life hath had some smatch of honour in it”: Virtue, Politics, and Julius Caesar

The time has come once more for my annual Ides of March posting about Julius Caesar. This play always resonates particularly strongly in election years. I’ve talked before about how ideas of rhetoric connect across the centuries, but today, I thought I’d go for something a little different. Much of this year’s political debate has centered not on policy but on personality — on what makes someone “presidential”, on what behavior is considered above-board and what’s below the belt.

As it happens, that’s something I focused on in the Julius Caesar Study Guide, too — how Shakespeare balanced pagan Roman virtues with early modern Christian virtues and how students can then relate those concepts to their own modern sensibilities of what is right and appropriate, in public and in private. So this year, I’m sharing a snippet of that Study Guide, in the hopes of generating fruitful discussion both about Julius Caesar and about our own political tangles.


Perspectives: Honor and Virtue

Many of the characters in Julius Caesar are preoccupied – obsessed, even – with ideas of honor and virtue. They want to act in a way that is “right” and just, that will not bring shame upon them, and that will benefit not only themselves, but the nation of Rome. Concepts of honor and virtue, however, are not concrete. They change throughout time and from culture to culture. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has to balance the Roman pagan ideals of his historical subject matter with the Christian morals of the world in which he lived (and in which he had to get his play past the government censors). This activity will explore concepts of virtue both in Roman antiquity and in Shakespeare’s England, as well as examining ways to relate those ideas to modern frameworks of honor and morality.

This activity will also touch on the issue of suicide as depicted within the play. As this is a sensitive issue and possibly triggering for some teenagers, you may want to use this discussion as an opportunity to bring in a guidance counselor to speak to your students about suicide.

Roman Virtues

Roman virtues tended to spring from how a man related to society, based on qualities that formed a model for excellence in both private and public life. Attainment of these virtues was important because it allowed society to run smoothly. Some of the most important virtues were:

  • Auctoritas, the totality of one’s social standing built up through experience and reputation, a measure of clout and influence
  • Dignitas, a man’s good name and prestige, a sense of self-worth and personal pride
  • Gravitas, a sense of sobriety, responsibility, and earnestness, a sense of substance and depth rather than frivolity
  • Pietas, encompassing not just religious devotion, but a respect for the natural order of society and ideals of patriotism, as well as the sense of duty to the state and to one’s family
  • Veritas, “truthfulness,” honesty and respectability in dealing with others

These virtues had near-tangible currency for the Romans. They were not just abstract concepts; the Romans conceptualized them in a way that has no precise analog in modern society. For the Romans, it was almost as if each man had a jar for each virtue, and his actions (or those of his friends and family, reflecting on him by association) could either add beans to his jar or take them out. Though there was no actual record-keeping of a man’s virtuous standing, Roman men (particularly those with political ambitions) had a constant awareness not only of their own measures, but of the measures of their allies and opponents within the political system. A man with insufficient auctoritas could not hope to win high political office. A scandal could damage a man’s dignitas, making his social life considerably less pleasant.

  • Discuss:
    • Which of the virtues do the major characters display?  Ask your students to back up their opinions with examples from the text.
      • Example: Caesar displays great (even excessive) dignitas when walking through Rome for the Lupercalia festival (1.2).
    • When do these characters invoke these ideas of virtue (even if they don’t use the actual words for them) to influence or manipulate other characters?  Again, have your students find examples in the text.
      • Example: Cassius calls upon Brutus’s pietas to get him to join the conspiracy (1.2); Antony rhetorically questions Brutus’s veritas to get the plebeians on his side (3.2).
    • What happens in the play to make any characters gain or lose one of these virtues?
      • Example: Cassius’s shady financial dealings (4.2) call his veritas and dignitas into question; the idea that Caesar is afflicted with the falling sickness, possibly seen as a curse from the gods, might damage his auctoritas or pietas (1.2).
    • At the end of the play, whose “virtue-jars” are fullest?
  • Writing Prompt: In a journal entry or short essay, ask your students to choose which of the Roman virtues they think is most important in Julius Caesar and to defend that choice with quotes from the text.

Elizabethan Virtues

The major difference between the Christian concept of virtue and the Roman ideal is, essentially, one of private life versus public life, or, to put it another way, the idea of internal responsibility versus external. Honor and virtue in sixteenth-century England sprung from a Christian sense of duty to God and were concerned with a man’s individual soul, not with his relation to society. Dishonorable or unvirtuous conduct was most threatening to the individual, who would be held accountable for his actions in the afterlife; the only concern for others was that he might inspire similar inappropriate conduct. Christians also had a codified set of rules to obey, passed down in the Bible, the works of notable Christian authors, and the mandates of the Church. Though the universality of this code was less distinct in the decades following the English Reformation and the rise of Protestantism than it had been during the centuries of Catholicism’s unbroken dominance of Europe, many ideas of sin and virtue still carried over even with the advent of the Church of England.

Medieval tradition recognized Seven Heavenly Virtues with corresponding Seven Deadly Sins: Lust vs Chastity, Gluttony vs Temperance, Greed vs Charity, Sloth vs Diligence, Wrath vs Patience, Envy vs Kindness, Pride vs Humility.

For Romans, an individual’s responsibility was more to the state. Dishonorable conduct was a disruption of order that did not just threaten the individual, but the fabric of society. The afterlife was far less of a concern, because in Roman conception, nearly everyone ended up in the same underworld. Roman gods did not play by one codified set of rules, but were as fickle and contrary creatures as any human, subject to whim, persuasion, and bribery. Ideals of moral behavior came, instead, from philosophers, focusing more on ethics and being good for virtue’s own sake, rather than having anything to do with religion.

In a pluralistic society like ours, ideas of honor and virtue are no longer as concrete or well-defined as they were for either the Romans or the Elizabethans. We don’t have one overarching system demanding our compliance; instead, our society is a mixture of different influences and modes of thinking.

  • Discuss:
    • What are our modern virtues?  What makes a person today honorable?
      • Make a list on your blackboard, whiteboard, or smartboard.
    • Where do these ideas of virtue come from? Religion? Social rules and etiquette? Books and movies?
      • List as many origins for concepts of honor and virtue as possible.
      • How many of these institutions may come into conflict with each other?
    • What (or who) enforces these virtues? Peer pressure? Laws? Parents and teachers?
      • Again, list as many as possible and see where they may contradict or come into conflict with each other.
      • Discuss the idea of enforcing morality. How effectively is this done in the United States? What about in other countries?
  • How can you mate these concepts of modern virtue to the ideas of virtue portrayed in Julius Caesar?
    • Are any of the Roman or early modern ideals of honor and virtue still relevant today?  Do we think of the same or similar concepts by different names or within different parameters?
    • Consider how a production of Julius Caesar might draw on these ideas for costuming, makeup, or props.

You can download the full “Honor and Virtue” activity here, or you can buy the full Julius Caesar Study Guide — discounted 15% in honor of the Ides! — from Lulu.com.