While interning these last few weeks here at the American Shakespeare Center, I’ve had the opportunity to attend the workshops and workshop training for the ASC’s 2015/2016 Dangerous Dreams touring troupe before they go on the road. (During its touring season, the troupe will not only perform but also conduct education workshops.) While attending the workshop training, I have learned a number of new and exciting ways to approach and teach Shakespeare better. A prime example is realizing Shakespeare’s amazing use of rhetoric.
The Oxford English Dictionary Online’s first definition of “rhetoric” is
The art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others, esp. the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques to this end; the study of principles and rules to be followed by a speaker or writer striving for eloquence, esp. as formulated by ancient Greek and Roman writers.
• In the Middle Ages rhetoric was included in the seven liberal arts and was taught as part of the trivium (see trivium n.).
Having taken a public speaking course, I knew the literary meaning of rhetoric and its association with the ancient Greeks. But I had never associated rhetoric with Shakespeare. But, as indicated in the example given in the OED, Shakespeare, like most of his educated contemporaries, would have been taught the art of rhetoric while in school. And goodness, Shakespeare put his knowledge to good use! The use of rhetoric in his plays was a central component to how he crafted his verses and prose.
Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric—or his characters’ use of rhetoric—aids in telling his stories in a number of ways. His masterfully uses rhetoric to reflect whether his characters were smart, witty, and strong orators or foolish, unwise, and poor ones. An example of this are two characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena and Bottom. Helena’s words portray her as wise and witty—even when she is upset, sad or desperate, she uses rhetorical devices such as puns and metaphors:
For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine.
And when this Haile some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolv’d, and showers of oaths did melt.
But unlike Helena, Bottom is shown to be a fool long before any of the characters acknowledge him to be so, through his use (or rather, misuse) of large words:
We will meete, and there we may rehearse more obscenely and courageously.
Bottom tries to sound intelligent but instead proves the exact opposite. In this way, Shakespeare instantly and indirectly informs the audience that Bottom is a fool.
Another example of Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric was to illustrate a character’s intentions— such as persuading others to follow a course of action or accept a certain point of view, or wanting others to think of them as witty—without specifically stating those intentions. An example of this is the use of repetition in Marc Antony’s speech given at Caesar’s funeral in Julius Caesar. Over and over, Antony states that Brutus and the other conspirators are “all honorable men,” all the while contrasting these statements with the many good deeds Caesar has done, eventually pushing the crowd into outrage and frenzy against the conspirators. Being able to recognize when a character is using rhetoric (whether skillfully or poorly) helps one to understand better the character’s motives. Asking why that character is using rhetoric can help one to better understand the events of the play and the reasons for the actions a character takes.
My new understanding of Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric through his characters and his plays is only one of the many jewels I have learned during my internship and at the workshop training. I am very thankful for the work of the ASC’s education artists and education department for informing me and allowing me this wonderful opportunity to work and learn here these past three weeks.