“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

Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Plenary Session 4

Welcome to the fourth plenary session, and the first of day two of the conference! I am Mary Finch and I will be live blogging this session that runs from 9:00 – 10:15 am. Thanks for joining us!

Hsian-Chun Chu, National Changhua University of Education
Performing Magic on StageL Conventions, Strategies, and Audience Participation

Chu began by defining magic in order to understand the term correctly: “the art of producing illusion as entertainment by use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, and so on.” Using magic in plays can both intrigue and horrify audiences, and often contributed to the success of a play on the Elizabethan stage.

Sorcerer Plays, or magus plays, were a popular genre that featured a powerful magician at the center of events. The events normal included a search for power, a rivalry, a quest for advantage, and success (or failure) or the quest. In these plays, there were two kinds of magic: spiritual magic (which was more benign and used nature as a source of power) and demonic magic (which involved the invocation of otherworldy creatures). So the plays used literary and folklore traditions surrounding magic.

Chu then discussed the strategies for performing this magic on stage. The fantastical spectacles often use equipment, such as we see in The Tempest (a staff) and Doctor Faustus (books). Chu then analyzed an image from a title page of Doctor Faustus and images surrounding the magician: robes, books, a staff, and so forth.

Using Prospero as an example, Chu looked at the text to look at the appearance of a great magician. When Prospero removes his magic clothes he changes from being a magician to being a man. The robes were a means of transformation, and reflected the Elizabethan tradition of connecting clothes to status. Prospero also uses books, another sign of status and magic. The staff, which is only mentioned at the end of the text, is also used in The Tempest. Like a king’s scepter, it is a symbol of power and authority.

Jumping to the conclusion, Chu was interrupted by the bear.

Lauren Shepherd, University of Toronto
“Supposed to be distracted”: Performing the simple, mad, distracted lunatic

Shepherd went to England to examines the language of court records of institutions housing mental patients during the Early Modern period. These records allow actors and directors to make a connection between real life and the text of plays.

Starting with the word “lunatic,” Shepherd read several accounts of individuals being described as such and sent to Bethlehem. The origins of the word attributes the madness to the moon. Although not limited to women, the word was more commonly used to describe women. Looking at Twelfth Night, Shepherd asked actors to stage Malvolio’s diagnosis of being lunatic (Patrick Harris as Malvolio, Ian Charles as Feste).

Shepherd then turned to the term distracted, a word more commonly used to describe men than women. Hamlet’s madness frequently is described as such. Again, actors staged the moment when Hamlet considers murder (Patrick Harris as Claudius, Ian Charles as Hamlet). Distracted generally communicates not knowing how to behave, rather than a loss of control.

Finally, Shepherd discussed simple and ignorant, which are permanent rather than temporary (as lunatic and distracted were understood to be). Simple was often paired with distracted for female patients and alleviated some of the blame for their behavior. Again though, Shakespeare attributes these phrases to men more than women, in contrast of the common tradition. Shepherd staged the final monologue of Richard II (Marshall Garrett) as an example.

Temporary instances of madness are described as lunacy and distraction, while simple and ignorant indicate a permanent condition that is outside the control of the individual.

Sara B. T. Thiel, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
“Cushion come forth”: Materializing Pregnancy on the Stuart Stage

Thiel described the “chaste nymphs” of The Golden Age by Heywood which documents pregnancy, as being hidden and then discovered. In a dumb show, the characters undress and pregnancy is seen by all on stage and, maybe, the audience. The convention of an all male audience raises questions about what exactly everyone saw. This paper looks at the intersection between the boy actor and the pregnant character.

Pregnancy was a highly visible stage convention, and Thiel plans to look at possible ways of staging the pregnant body. In some cases, as in The Heir, costumes are removed to deconstruct gender and reveal a fake pregnancy or a disguise. Actors Marshall Garrett, Patrick Harris, and Ian Charles staged the moment of discovery with the stage direction “He flings the cushion at him” giving us a clue as to how they staged the pregnancy. The OED has a separate definition for this use of cushion, specifically known as “Mary’s Cushion” after Tudor Mary who was frequently mistakenly thought to be pregnant.

Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 2 also has a moment of claimed pregnancy when Doll Tearsheet is arrested for murder and the officer refers to a cushion.

In The Golden Age, the text draws attention to the pregnant body; actors again stage the moment, but this time the actor’s belly is upstage and therefore out of sight and the actors’ reactions tells the audience what has happened. In a second staging the actors faced forward allowing the audience to see the prosthetic belly. In other plays, the birth of a child reveals the pregnancy, but in this play it is the physical swelling that signals pregnancy.

Looking at this moment from The Golden Age illustrates how pregnancy can both create and dismantle the costume of the boy actor on the stage.

Claire Bourne, Virginia Commonwealth University
Turn It Up (Or Down): Dramatic Action and Typographic Experiment in Early Modern Playbooks

Bourne begins by challenging the assumption that 17th century printers were unconcerned with the typographic design of printing their plays. The awkwardness of the page shows “active experimentation” rather than indifference.

The turn up/over method showed that printers considered the relationship between dialogue and stage directions, and the nature of verse. Printers attempted to account for action on stage and make it legible to readers. In the earliest examples, the occasional brief stage direction was simply set to the edge of the page. As time goes on, stage directions become more detailed and more carefully situated on the page and varied in font, corresponding with the dialogue that should accompany action. Combing lines was also an economical decision; less lines meant less pages which meant a cheaper printing.

Bourne showed several examples of printers using parenthesis to indicate how the stage direction relates to lines other than the ones with which it shares space. In some cases, there are multiple of these where the stage direction spans several lines.

The printers used these cues to show the integral relationship between the interlexical business and the dialogue. The use of different alignment, font, and conventions were not meant to create division between the words and the directions, but meant to be legible and easy to understand.

Claire Kimball, independent scholar
Important Silence: Dumb Shows in Dekker and Middleton’s The Bloody Banquet

Kimball opened by announcing that The Bloody Banquet was staged for the first time in four hundred years this summer in Washington DC. As the title suggests, the play was served with lots of gore to a positive acceptance. Within this play, are two dumb shows which has caused scholars to question how they came to be in the play. Kimball asserts that these dumb shows are not textually inferior, but a moment for actors to take creative liberty.

The first dumb show gives exposition, and the second gives important plot and reviews major events; both are [paired with lines from the Chorus. Based on stagings and readings that remove dumb shows, it seems that many think these are antiquated and redundant.

“We don’t always trust them” — scholars and directors are unwilling to fully trust the text (and the dumb shows).

In staging the dumb shows, Kimball recounts how actors must give it an honest chance without making fun of it, even when the events are seemingly absurd. Kimball used actors to contrast the use of a chorus and the use of a dumb show (actors Ian Charles, Merlyn Snell, Meredith Johnson).

One audience member from the performance in Washington DC listed the dumb show as one of the most branding images of the play, equal to the gruesome cannibalistic violence.

Kimball closes by insisting that dumb shows are in the text for a reason, and that directors have a responsibility to stage the silent moments seriously, in order to see if they are worth performing.

“Pantomime performances are thorny, but inventive spaces,” and should not be lightly cast aside.

— Mary Finch
MLitt Student at MBC Shakespeare and Performance

“These be the stops that hinder study quite”: In Defense of Enjambment

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my current project is building a scansion workbook — a practical guide to understanding, marking, and performing meter in Shakespeare’s plays. This workbook follows a far different structure than our usual Study Guides, based on the scaffolding of language skills rather than on elements of a play’s plot, history, and staging challenges. Once we get through the basics of syllables, feet, and pentameter, we get to play with the aspects of scansion that pertain more to character and performance.

I came to scansion through Latin long before I came to it through English. Years before anyone had bothered to explain to me what iambic pentameter is, beyond perhaps a token mention of “that’s the stuff they make sonnets out of,” I was beating out the long and short vowels of Ovid, Catullus, and Horace. In my AP class, we had to recite Latin poetry aloud, which meant careful attention to the cadence of the lines. I learned a lot about elision — particularly when it comes to slurring vowel sounds together — and I learned about enjambment. One of the things my teacher hammered into my adolescent head was the concept that you don’t stop at the end of a line unless that’s actually where the thought ends. Of course, where the thought ends can be a tricky matter to determine, since Latin originally had no punctuation, and no spaces, for that matter. You either have to choose to trust the editor of your text (which I did far more readily at 16 than I do now), or else you had to figure it out for yourself through the translation. Once you made the determination, you had to put it into your voice during the recitation. Taking an unnecessary breath docked points from our grade.

Enjambment means, quite simply, that the thought or sentence continues past the end of the line. Here’s an example from Macbeth (click to expand):


Now, this speech is a goldmine of information when it comes to both scansion and rhetoric (elisions! stressed conjunctions and pronouns! antithesis!), and my markup is far from the only potential choice in many of those lines. For the purposes of this conversation, however, just look specifically at those little right-pointing arrows. Each of those indicates an enjambed line. Many of them, as you can see, then lead to caesuras — those mid-line breaks — and many involve feminine endings, a final unstressed eleventh syllable tagged on to the end of a pentameter line.

Compare that to something like this speech from Richard II (click to expand):


It’s one of the most rhetorically dense passages in Shakespeare — but not a single enjambed line. I could make an argument for ignoring the comma at the end of line for, after “head”, perhaps, and enjambing that line, but all the others are very clearly end-stops. They vary between full-stops, like periods, and partial stops, like commas, but in this passage, there is a sense that each line completes a thought or clause of some sort, even if the sentence continues. On the whole, Shakespeare’s later plays are more enjambed than his early ones — but you can certainly find end-stops in Macbeth, Othello, Coriolanus, and The Tempest, just as you can find enjambed lines in the Henry VIes, The Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew. Plays which are heavily rhymed, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are more likely to have more end-stops as well, as enjambment tends to obscure the rhyme.

Enjambments and end-stops are one of the topics I’ll be covering in this new workbook. As I’ve been researching and discussing the process, however, I’ve run across the doctrine — apparently far more dominant, at least in some spheres, than I’d ever imagined — that an actor should take a brief pause at the end of each line of iambic pentameter, whether or not the punctuation and sentence structure make that indication. I’ve heard it justified as “the way the verse works” — which ignores the fact that enjambment is, itself, part of how the verse works, a conscious choice by an author to go on rather than to create a break. I’ve also heard that it’s necessary, because ten syllables is about how much an actor can say with one breath — which seems not only to undervalue the lung capacity of actors, but to ignore the playable value of that breathlessness, should it occur.

This is a weird concept to me. How can you ignore enjambment like that? Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that punctuation alone is unreliable, what with the variant preferences of typesetters. From my explorations of the Folio and quartos, however, it’s generally pretty clear where a line is end-stopped versus enjambed, even if the precise nature of the stop as a period, semicolon, colon, or question mark might be up for debate. Even where you can’t trust the punctuation, you can also figure out where a thought terminates or turns. (Rhetoric can help here, too, by identifying shifts in focus or alterations to a pattern).

End-stopped lines and enjambed lines operate differently. If you pause indiscriminately, you lose the crucial information that the enjambment gives you — that breathless, rushing quality which is a character clue and a clue for performance. Pausing at the end of each line in that speech of Macbeth’s doesn’t just interrupt the flow of thoughts — potentially obscuring comprehension of an already-difficult bit of text — it also misses out on something critical about Macbeth himself. The entire speech is, after all, about his attempt to squish time together and “jump the life to come,” to get to the end without pausing at the middle. It makes sense that, metrically, he’d be rushing, eliding, and running ahead of himself. His cadence transmits emotional information.

One of the comments that the ASC most frequently gets from our audiences is that our plays are accessible, easy to understand. I believe part of the reason for that lies in enjambment. Our actors speak their lines with attention to scansion and stressed syllables, but also as though they are… sentences. Things that people would actually say, in the manner they would actually say them. Enjambment is a part of pentameter. I have to think that our actors’ acknowledgement of that piece of the pattern, following a thought through to its natural end rather than carving it into bits, contributes to our audience’s ease of understanding. So, when it comes to the ASC Scansion Workbook, we’re going to promote what’s worked here at the Playhouse and in our classrooms: pause when the thought indicates you should, not just because you’ve said ten syllables and need a break.

What were you taught? What do you use in practice or teach others? Can you hear a difference when listening to Shakespeare in performance?

–Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager

Podcast Archives: 2008

2008 Actors’ Renaissance Season

2008 Spring Season

2008 Summer and Fall Seasons

Colloquy XII: Staged and Unstaged Binaries/Evil

Ashley Pierce here (again, again) blogging the 12th colloquy “Staged and Unstaged Binaries/Evil.” Chaired by JIm Casey with presenters Brittany Ginder, Joanna Grossman, Gabriel Rieger, and Danielle Sanfilippo. This session takes place Friday October 25th from 2:30 to 3:45 PM in conjunction with the 2013 Blackfriars Conference. In lue of describing their papers, the presenters will be discussing their various topics. Though I will provide a brief description and titles of the papers, via an abstract provided at the colloquy.

Violence and the Body: The Obscene and the Ob-scene by Jim Casey “In Lynda Nead’s distinction between art and obscenity, “Art is being defined in terms of the containing, of form within limits; obscenity, on the other hand, is defined in terms of excess, as form beyond limit, beyond the frame of representation.” In this paper, I explore the ideas of containment and excess in scenes of early modern violence. For example, Lavinia’s rape in Titus Andronicus seems to have been something the early moderns would have considered obscene. Consequently, it occurs ob-scene. Other moments of excessive violence in the play, however–Titus’ mutilation, Mutius’ murder, for example–remain in full view. I am interested in exploring the boundaries of acceptable violence to better understand the sociocultural expectations of gendered bodies.”

Tongues in Richard II by Joanna Grossman “The myriad instances of grotesque mutilation in Elizabethan revenge plays have long captivated audiences and readers alike. Frequently, the disfigured body part depicted on stage is a severed tongue, with Lavinia in Titus Andronicus being perhaps the most famous example. But although the image of Lavinia’s horrible defacement proves difficult to expunge from one’s memory, this paper argues that Richard II is in fact the Shakespearean play that most thoroughly and imaginatively explores the organ’s potential dramatic functions. In “Sins of the Tongue”, Carla Mazzio considers early modern portrayals of tongues and concludes that this period witnessed a paradoxical construction of the organ as a simultaneously moral and immoral–but, most importantly, autonomous–actor. Surprisingly, for all the wealth of examples that Mazzio draws upon, she makes no mention of Richard II, which contains more references to tongues than any other Shakespearean work. Although the presence of tongues is undeniable, the playwright’s application of the motif in this history play is subtle, especially when compared to revenge dramas. For this reason, the subject of tongues has been unwittingly pushed to the background in favor of discussions on the pervasive religious symbolism or the use of the sun, water, and countless other emblems throughout the discourse. This paper examines what has been an undeservedly overlooked aspect of the first installment in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. I hope to show that the play’s religious undertones are best understood in relation to Shakespeare’s frequent use of tongues and that Richard II posits an inverse relationship between this particular organ’s autonomy and the welfare of the state, namely because the unbridled tongue constitutes an impediment to effective leadership.”

“Made of the Selfsame Metal”: Regan as King Lear‘s Soldier/Daughter by Brittany Proudfoot-Ginder

“King Lear’s daughters have long been placed within the Manichean binary of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ The innocent Cordelia is the embodiment of feminine nature and the bringer of all things ‘good’ whereas Goneril and Regan are categorized as ‘evil,’ jealous, and manipulative monsters. This binary scheme, like most, is flawed. Cordelia is rarely dissected past the cliched image of Christ, and the judgments made in regard to the elder Lear sisters are grossly out of proportion with their supposed injustices. While a larger study on Regan’s place on the stage and in the Lear family is the topic of the thesis I am currently writing, I will be focusing in this particular essay on how this middle daughter breaks not only the binary scheme of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ but also the binary of acceptable ways for men and women to commit acts of violence on the Renaissance stage.”

“The Whirligig of Time”: Twelfth Night and the Politics of Revenge by Gabriel A. Rigger

“One of the most compelling questions in Shakespeare’s canon occurs in the final scene of Twelfth Night, in which the steward Malvolio, having vowed to “be revenged on the whole pack” of the court of Illyria, leaves the stage with an unsettled lawsuit against the sea captain who has delievered. Theatre historian Ralph Berry observes that “[a] modern production of Twelfth Night is obliged to redefine comedy, knowing always that its ultimate event is the destruction of a notably charmless bureaucrat.” The comedy of destruction can sit uneasily with a contemporary audience.
Much of that comedy hinges upon the revenge plot enacted upon Malvolio by his rival Feste tat jester and Feste’s cohorts in the court of the Countess, and indeed the notion of repayment, of “quiting,” runs throughout. Cesario quites Olivia’s disregard for Orsino, while Olivia’s love for Cesario, like Orsino’s love for Olivia is unrequited. Throughout the comedy we witness “the whirligig of time bring[ing] in his revenges,” and indeed its climactic scene hinges upon the vengeance played between Feste and Malvolio, the two rivals at the court of Illyria who split the play between them. Ostensibly, the two characters represent oppositional modes of social experience, but a closer analysis reveals that for all of their superficial opposition, the two characters have much in common and, I will argue, serve a similar dramatic function in the universe of Twelfth Night, providing examples of fundamental, disordered melancholy in contrast to the performative melancholy of the aristocracy.”

Dimensions of Shylock Beyond “Hath Not a Jew Eye?” by Danielle Sanfilippo

“Readers of The Merchant of Venice speech are likely to point to Shylock’s much-quoted “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech as the most crucial moment of Act 3, Scene 1. After all, it is in this speech that Shylock gives his reasons for his dramatic revenge. However, just a few lines later, Shylock’s fellow Jew Tubal enters, providing an even richer, if often overlooked, layer to the scene. RSC direcing legend John Barton astutely notes that this part of the scene is very dependnt on the actor playing Tubal. As is common in Shakespeare, there are no stage directions indicating how the actor should play the part. Yet this minor character can help provide important perspectives on Shylock as well as a larger picture of the Jewish community.
The weight of the scene depends on the abrupt (and often comic) mood shifts that Tubal wrings out of Shylock. Mentions of Jessica’s spendthrift habits plunge him into despair while news of Antonio’s debt fills him with glee. Tubal is also present for the emotional moment when Shylock realizes that Jessica has given away her mother’s ring. Far from being a toady, Tubal is a wealthy independent character whose presence highlights Shylock’s emotions and helps him come to the ultimate decision to seek revenge. Most crucially, Tubal gives a perspective on Shylock that is not seen elsewhere in the play; that of a peer in the Jewish community. Tubal’s lines are largely neutral, a frequent Shakespearean technique. The actor must choose Tubal’s reaction. Does he agree with Shylock’s perverse plan or is he somewhat disapproving? In demonstrating the immense importance of this character to the revenge plot of The Merchant of Venice, I would like to have two actors help me with contrasting readings of Tubal’s lines.”

Blackfriars Conference 2013 — Colloquy Session #7: Rhetoric

Good afternoon, everyone — Cass Morris here with one of today’s four colloquy sessions: Rhetoric. The participants in this session are: James Beaver, Scott Crider, Fiona Harris-Ramsby, Jane Jongeward, and Kyle Vitale, moderated by Chelsea Phillips. I will be liveblogging this session from 3:30-4:45pm.

Phillips begins by suggesting that the participants introduce each others’ papers, move onto the papers themselves and discussion of the role of rhetoric in  each participant’s larger work, then move on to the responses to each paper. Phillips also encourages the auditors to participate throughout.

We begin with Beaver and Jongeward introducing themselves and each other.  Jongeward’s paper concerns statistical analysis of unfinished lines in King Lear – using mathematics to judge verse irregularities, specifically unfinished lines. Lear has the highest ratio of unfinished lines (11%). Jongeward finds this high proportion significant, as it is “a play full of people who will not listen to each other.” Beaver’s paper argues that the rhetoric used for describing the wood in Titus Andronicus shapes the social relationships on-stage. He notes both the discrepancy between the court and the woods, with the latter perfect for enacting violence, as well as Tamora’s use of rhetoric to effectively build a set. Beaver relates to Latour’s concepts of objects (in this case, the woods) as both social and physical.

Second, Vitale and Harris-Ramsby introduce each other. Vitale’s paper argues that scholarship neglects to account for Elizabethan notions of reverence. He examines how Shakespeare’s attitude towards reverence is complex and uses to satirize and appropriate religious conformity fostered by the Tudor state and reinforced throughout time. Concerned with relationship dynamics of reference, Vitale questions how Shakespeare enacts the bodied act of reverence in royal figures. Vitale argues that Shakespeare collapses the concepts of “crown” and “crowd” through an examination of Richard II. Vitale notes that he is also working with Beaver on “books as gatherings.” Harris-Ramsby’s paper looks at Troilus and Cressida, challenging the notion of Cressida as subjugated female body by arguing that Cressida’s rhetoric fights against that idea and against the external construction of Cressida’s self by others. She looks particularly at Cressida’s use of aposiopesis, arguing that she literally “becomes” that figure of speech. Harris-Ramsby’s larger work looks backwards towards the origins of rhetoric in the construction of character in Greek drama, and how that informs modern theories of performativity.

The third pair is Phillips and Crider. Crider argues that the Macbeths use periphrasis, among other rhetorical devices, for unethical purposes, and that their use of it initially brings them together but ultimately erodes their relationship. He believes that the rhetorical constructions in Macbeth help to illustrate the slippery slope between words and action. Crider comments that he is looking more closely at Ciceronian concepts of rhetoric. He is interested in working with others who are interested in figuration as integrated with the larger world of rhetoric. Phillips is examining instances of repetition in Othello (see the Wordle she created to illustrate). Her focus is centered on the psychological effect of repetition — that the truth of a statement is assumed with its repetition. Phillips looks particularly at Iago’s use of repetition to manipulate Othello, and that his ability to do so decreases after Emilia takes it over. She focuses on three forms: general repetition (from audience or reader perception), intentional repetition (character perspective), and compulsive repetition (spontaneous from character perspective). Phillips argues that Emilia’s imitation of her husband’s rhetorical forms reveals his villainy.

Phillips then opens up to questions. Vitale asks Crider if he’s thought at all about how the play Macbeth itself acts as figuration, presenting an idea for the audience/reader. Crider responds, “My answer at first is, ‘I don’t know.’ But that doesn’t mean I won’t respond.” Crider says he finds that acts of persuasion within a play often act upon the audience in a similar manner. He questions the idea of if a rhetorical figure can, in itself, have an ethical configuration — and concludes that, no, probably not, they have to be examined in context — particularly since the figures generally appear tangled with each other in use. He says he does believe that the figures in the play and the play on the whole do have the potential to move the audience ethically. Vitale further questions if Crider thinks it relates to the early modern/Puritan idea of theatre’s ability to affect the audience. Crider responds that he thinks the play itself negates the probability that the audience would rest at complicity with the Macbeths, since we see the outcome.

Phillips notes that this idea of morality in rhetoric appeared in several of the papers, particularly turning the attention to Harris-Ramsby’s ideas on Cressida as intentionally performing certain figures or as speaking them spontaneously. Harris-Ramsby discusses that, with aposiopesis particularly, it draws attention to the compulsive power of silence. “It depends on how the actress embodies the figure, because there’s a decision to be made as to the duplicity of the figure itself.” Is it that Cressida is overcome by bashfulness, or does she break off her speech in order to reflect? Is she reclaiming some of her own power, working against the constitution of her as duplicitous? Phillips connects this to the silences in Jongeward’s paper — what do we do with these silences? Jongeward notes that her discovery led her to question that, if we see a rhetorical device heavily in use in one play that we don’t see in others, “can we change how we normally see it?” Phillips relates this to how we think a lot about “not seeing” in Lear, but that Jongeward’s paper made her think about other sensory deprivations, particularly “not-hearing”. Crider interjects that “rhetorical figures have a very broad effect.”

Phillips tells the auditors that the group has had a lot of comments on how “rhetoric creates reality” or space, and directs the conversation to that theme. She draws attention particularly to Beaver, to the issue of language “literally creating space” on the early modern stage. Beaver says he wants to “get away from thinking of language as referential,” noting that no stage tree is going to be able to do all the things that Tamora says or implies. And, he doesn’t think the audience expects that. “They want the image of the words conjuring something.” He also notes how Aaron sort of forces her to shift her approach, since she starts out “in the wrong genre.” Beaver notes that Tamora’s speech draws us off into different temporalities, particularly with her use of seasonal vocabulary and her ventriloquizing of other voices.

Vitale has an interesting reading of the first scene of Richard II, noting it as one of the only representations of a “divine king already troubled”. He relates the conversation in this scene to passages from the Book of Common Prayer. He considers that the language, in a way, transposes the audience to the space of a church, importing the desires and meanings of prayer, and the “potential failures of all that that prayer is wrapped up in”, essentially “placing the audience before the Eucharist”. Vitale notes that “reverence is an incredibly invisible term” — oft relied upon, rarely enumerated. Reverence, he claims, was used as both strategy and tactic in the early modern church. Relating to the idea of the forceful use of reverence, Harris-Ramsby says that she thinks that, when we discuss rhetoric constructing reality, we tend to think too restrictively. Troilus and Cressida, she notes, is very much about reconfiguring — and notes that the typical construction of Cressida as a whore is problematic in lights of that subversion. Crider discusses how it relates to the idea of praise and dispraise, and to rhetorical underpinnings of “the sublime”.

Phillips then turns the group’s attention to the performance possibilities of these rhetorical understandings — how does the actor embody them, and what affect does that have on the audience? “Can it be genuine flustration,” Phillips asks (wondering if she can use that as a word) “in one instance” and somewhat intentional and crafty in another? Harris-Ramsby notes that, even if it is intentional, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly seen as a strategy of self-preservation.

Harris-Ramsby then asks to interrogate the notion of persuasive rhetoric as seen in a negative light, especially in Othello, and if that changes when Emilia subverts the expectation, turning it more cathartic and “gets the bad guy”. Phillips replies that Emilia’s repetitive rhetoric starts off with her caught in a cycle, repeating “My husband”, but that she eventually becomes able to use that in order to damn Iago. Phillips notes that these repetitions cue Iago to speak, but also prevent him from speaking — and that she finds something quite powerful about how the character who has had 1100 lines is thus not only silent, but frustratingly silent. The group spends a moment discussing the rhetorical struggle between Iago and Emilia in that last scene, and Harris-Ramsby notes that Emilia’s triumph moves the audience from being passively complicit with Iago to feeling themselves represented and vindicated by Emilia. Phillips states that, “What is really insidious about Iago is that he doesn’t have to repeat things very frequently to make people lose their minds over it.”

Beaver brings up the fact that everyone wrote about rhetoric in tragedies, and particularly the idea of repetition leading into violence, as well as the focus on repetition, either within a trope or of a trope. Phillips thinks it relates specifically to Crider’s points about the relationship between language and action. “Maybe we run out of rhetoric at some point and then have to stab somebody.” Auditor Peter Kanelos notes that, in comedies, “They use rhetoric and then, instead of stabbing somebody, they kiss somebody.” Crider points out that you may have to do either; Kanelos notes that, “if it’s Jacobean, you do both at the same time.”

Crider states that he started look at the Macbeths because he wanted to look at a marriage, not a courtship. He’s interested in how the use of rhetoric to deliberate does eventually force an action on the stage. “If we think of human deliberation as a category, we can then see why speech yields to action.” Vitale relates that to the early modern period’s ideas on theology — and thus, its logic — in a way that the 21st century doesn’t necessarily track. Crider thinks that relates to the romances, with their strong themes of redemption and transformation. Phillips asks Crider if Macbeth’s deliberation seems to grow less frequent; he confirms and says that he thinks it moves from periphrastic to hyperbole to a plain style by the end of the play.

Crider seeks to shift the focus to the idea of how people respond to being treated “with a kind of verbal violence” in Troilus and Cressida and King Lear, and he inquires if Cressida acquires agency in the kissing scene through the rhetorical forms. Harris-Ramsby thinks she is “more performing the complete illogicality of what’s happening to her”. Crider then asks if she rather compels an audience to recognize how her agency has been taken from her. Engaging with an auditor, Harris-Ramsby discusses what choices Cressida has in that moment. When the auditor asks, “Could she pull a Lucretia and kill herself?”, Harris-Ramsby replies, “I think I’d rather just break off my speech.”

Noting that we are nearly out of time, Phillips poses a last question, inspired by a point in Beaver’s paper: Looking at rhetoric and performance as a cycle of reproduction, what is then produced? Beaver says his best answer is, in his text, what Aaron says, “an excellent piece of villany”. Jongeward notes that, at least in the tragic worlds of these plays, what they produce is only destruction, and therefore nothing. Vitale thinks that mere catharsis is too passive; he sees “a call that requires a response of some kind”. Crider wants to know what it is that actors get out of rhetorical consideration of the text. Harris-Ramsby agrees, stating that “rhetoric and performance always intersect at the body”. And Phillips says that that was her answer: what we get is performance possibility.

Thanks to everyone who attended this session! (We had a very full room). This was a great discussion and I think will generate a lot of further thought and study.