Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Rhetoric

- Berowne, Love’s Labour’s Lost IV.iii.16

Rhetoric is often construed as an overwhelmingly broad concept. In its most complex sense rhetoric encompasses an in-depth system of tools for language formation and analysis, employing terms such as “chiasmus” and “paralepsis” to categorize almost every imaginable pattern of speech. More generally, however, it encompasses a basic idea of expressing language effectively and influentially. In his sixteenth century work The Arte of Rhetorique, Thomas Wilson described rhetoric broadly as “an Arte to set forth, by utterance of words, matter at large,”[1] yet he narrowed this statement by specifying that three things were required of an orator: to teach, to delight, and to persuade.[2] 

The fundamentals of rhetoric are closely tied with the rise of the early modern educational movement, humanism. This newfound interest in the study of the humanities was highly popular during Shakespeare’s time. In fact, the study of rhetoric was one of principle foundations of the liberal arts curriculum around which humanism was based. Humanism drew from classical rhetoric such as Greek and Roman forms, yet it also became important as the primary vehicle for teaching a variety of subjects. Rhetoric provided the framework in which ideas of the time were presented. This constant striving to construct a language of instruction which was also powerful has been dubbed by scholar Hanna H. Gray “the pursuit of eloquence.”[3] It is important to note, however, that this “eloquence” was not intended to be pompous in any way; rather, it was meant to convey a union of wisdom and style. Finally, rhetoric was a tool not only meant to express lofty ideas or impressive prose to listeners, but also to show off the skill of the author.[4] 

To be a master of rhetoric was a highly valued skill during the sixteenth century, and several texts informed and instructed on the subject, including Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique, George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie, and Henry Peacham’s The Garden of Eloquence. Each of these works offered detailed, technical explanations of rhetoric. The title page of Peacham’s text stated, “The garden of eloquence conteining the most excellent ornaments, exornations, lightes, flowers, and formes of speech, commonly called the figures of rhetorike. By which the singular partes of mans mind, are most aptly expressed, and the sundrie affections of his heart most effectuallie uttered”[5] – an apt description of the Renaissance view of language. George Puttenham, in turn, claimed the science of “poesie” “cannot grow but by some divine instinct, […] or by excellence of nature and complexion, or by great subtiltie of the spirits & wit, or by much experience and observation of the world, and, course of kind, by peradventure by all or most part of them.”[6] Each of these passages illustrates a tremendous faith in the power of the word. 

It is clear from Shakespeare’s canon that he tapped into the practices expressed by these works. Rhetoric is everywhere in Shakespeare’s plays; indeed, one could say rhetoric is Shakespeare’s plays. Through his characters, he alternately employs rhetoric for the purpose of humor, drama, romance, and wit. Through his works as a whole, moreover, Shakespeare utilizes rhetoric to enhance his native tongue. Early modern playwright and actor Thomas Heywood showed that men like Shakespeare were well aware of the role of the theater in shaping and refining the English language. Heywood stated, “[O]ur English tongue, which hath ben the most harsh, uneven, and broken language of the world […], is now by this secondary means of playing, continually refined, every writing striving in himselfe to adde a new florish unto it; so that in processe, from the most rude and unpolisht tongue, it is growne to a most perfect and composed language.”[7] Certainly the theater provided one of the principal platforms for all types of rhetoric.

The ability to possess a superior knowledge of rhetoric was necessary for both playwright and player. An actor in Shakespeare’s day would have to be well-versed in rhetoric, studying it carefully in order to present his speeches to an audience in the prescribed performance conventions of the time. Heywood took care to point out the importance of rhetoric to an actor because it teaches him “to speake well, and with judgment, to observe his commas, colons, & full points, his parentheses, his breathing spaces, and distinctions, to keepe a decorum in his countenance, neither to frowne when he should smile, nor to make unseemely and disguised faces in the delivery of his words, not to stare with his eies, draw awry his mouth, confound his voice in the hollow of his throat, or teare his words hastily betwixt his teeth, neither to buffed his deske like a mad-man, nor stand in his place like a lifelesse Image […]. It instructs him to fit his phrases to his action, and his action to his phrase, and his pronunciation to them both.”[8] Therefore, rhetoric was the means of creating the perfect player.

It is possible that Shakespeare’s own instructions regarding elegant rhetoric are embedded within the text of Hamlet. Prior to the staging of The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet offers the players some advice on how best to speak their lines: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as live the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently […]. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to totters, to very rags, to spleet the ears of the groundlings.” Hamlet continues, “Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action [a sentiment identical to Heywood’s], with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end […] is, to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature.” He finishes with the complaint, “O, there be players that I have seen play […] that, neither having th’ accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellow’d that I have thought some of Nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably” (III.ii.1-30). It is easy to imagine Shakespeare himself speaking these lines to his company, expressing, perhaps, his own annoyances with the way his fellow actors performed his plays and slyly vocalizing how he wished his own rhetoric might be effectively presented. 

Despite whatever criticisms Shakespeare might have had for “periwig-pated” players performing his works, many of his contemporaries were full of praise for him and displayed a distinct understanding of his contribution to language and his skill in the art of rhetoric. Englishman Leonard Digges, who likely knew Shakespeare personally, proclaimed, “Poets are borne not made,” and he seemed to see into the future when he extolled the “never dying Shakespeare.” Digges saw within Shakespeare’s rhetoric “the patterne of all wit, Art without Art unparaleld as yet” and deemed it “language exquisite.”[9]  

Margaret Cavendish, an English noblewoman, also spoke highly of Shakespeare’s “Wit and Eloquence.” According to Cavendish, Shakespeare did not “want Wit to Express the Divers, and Different Humours, or Natures, or Several Passions in Mankind; and so Well he hath Express’d in his Playes all Sorts of Persons, as one would think he had been Transformed into every one of those Persons he hath Described.” Cavendish also stated that Shakespeare uses language so powerfully that one would swear he had been in his lifetime a king, coward, or jester; that in his own life Ceasar had not spoken to his people better than Shakespeare imagined him to have, or that Shakespeare had loved as deeply as his most ardent lovers. Shakespeare “Presents Passions so Naturally, and Misfortunes so Probably, as he Peirces the Souls of his Readers with such a True Sense and Feeling thereof, that it Forces Tears through their Eyes, and almost Perswades them, they are […] Present at those Tragedies.” “[I]ndeed,” Cavendish concludes, “Shakespeare had a Clear Judgment, a Quick Wit, a Spreading Fancy, a Subtil Observation, a Deep Apprehension, and a most Eloquent Elocution; truly, he was a Natural Orator as well as a Natural Poet.”[10]

Links to the ASC

Both Digges and Cavendish speak to the playwright’s ability to use rhetoric in order to lift up the English language and to transport his audience beyond the walls of the theater through the power of speech. This is a tradition which is carried on today by the actors at the American Shakespeare Center. During the rehearsal process, rhetoric plays an important role and actors have to be intelligent about the text which they are reading. “We’re alive to the language,” as resident actor James Keegan succinctly puts it. Keegan believes that actors today do not have as much training in the technical aspects of rhetoric as early modern actors would have had, but he also believes that this does not matter to the practices of the ASC. For Keegan, much of rhetoric is intuitive. A modern actor, he says, will understand that they are using certain rhetorical forms without necessarily knowing the proper names for them. In this way, contemporary performers of 
Shakespeare may continue to highlight his rhetoric, making it as accessible to current audiences as it was to original audiences of Shakespeare’s works.

On a personal level for Keegan, rhetoric means “playing with language – manipulating it to serve your wit.” This is especially evident to the actor when he plays a character such as Falstaff, who uses rhetoric extensively in his speeches. The way in which rhetoric is approached by the ASC offers a chance for modern actors to explore and re-interpret characters. A wide range of audiences attend productions at the Blackfriars playhouse, from academics who have spent a lifetime studying Shakespeare to people who are discovering the playwright for the first time. Through a change in rhetoric, a theatergoer may be surprised into discovering a new version of a play s/he had never before considered. Rhetoric can, in fact, be as intuitive for the audience as it is for the actor, says Keegan. As he puts it, a person does not come to a play saying, “Gosh, I can’t wait to hear that polysyndeton!” 

In a culture in which “we’re bombarded with language at a non-poetic level,” the reason that “we can’t leave Shakespeare alone” is because of his language. It is Shakespeare’s language and his rhetorical mastery that draws in audiences over generations. In an unconscious echo across the centuries, Keegan summarizes what the actors do at the American Shakespeare Center by saying simply, “Our object is to delight,” – a sentiment of which Thomas Wilson would have undoubtedly approved. 

The Fundamentals of Rhetoric:11

Below is a table of some of the more common devices employed for emphasis in Shakespeare:

alliteration      repetition of the same initial consonant sound throughout a line of verse

"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought...." (Sonnet XXX) 

anadiplosis    the repetition of a word that ends one clause at the beginning of the next

"My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain." (Richard III, V, iii) 

anaphora       repetition of a word or phrase as the beginning of successive clauses

"Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!" (King John, II, i) 

anthimeria      substitution of one part of speech for another

"I'll unhair thy head." (Antony and Cleoptra, II, v) 

antithesis       juxtaposition, or contrast of ideas or words in a balanced or parallel construction

"Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more." (Julius Caesar, III, ii) 

assonance repetition or similarity of the same internal vowel sound in words of close 

11 J.M. Pressley and the Shakespeare Resource Center, “Shakespeare’s Grammar: Rhetorical Devices,” 
"Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks." (Romeo and Juliet, V, iii) 
asyndeton      omission of conjunctions between coordinate phrases, clauses, or words

"Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,

Shrunk to this little measure?" (Julius Caesar, III, i) 

chiasmus       two corresponding pairs arranged in a parallel inverse order

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair" (Macbeth, I, i) 

diacope          repetition broken up by one or more intervening words

"Put out the light, and then put out the light." (Othello, V, ii) 

ellipsis           omission of one or more words, which are assumed by the listener or reader

"And he to England shall along with you." (Hamlet, III, iii) 

epanalepsis    repetition at the end of a clause of the word that occurred at the beginning of the clause

"Blood hath bought blood, and blows have answer'd blows." (King John, II, i) 

epimone         frequent repetition of a phrase or question; dwelling on a point

"Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him I have offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any speak; for him have I offended." (Julius Caesar, III,ii) 

epistrophe      repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses

"I'll have my bond!

Speak not against my bond!

I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond." (Merchant of Venice, III, iii) 

hyperbaton    altering word order, or separation of words that belong together, for emphasis

"Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall." (Measure for Measure, II, i) 

malapropism   a confused use of words in which an appropriate word is replaced by one with similar sound but (often ludicrously) inappropriate meaning

"I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honor two 

notorious benefactors."

"Are they not malefactors?" (Measure for Measure, II, i) 

metaphor      implied comparison between two unlike things achieved through the figurative use of words

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York." (Richard III, I, i) 
metonymy substitution of some attributive or suggestive word for what is meant (e.g., 
"crown" for royalty)
"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears." (Julius Caesar, III, ii) 
onomatopoeia use of words to imitate natural sounds
"There be more wasps that buzz about his nose." (Henry VIII, III, ii) 
paralepsis emphasizing a point by seeming to pass over it
"Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it.
It is not meet you know how Caesar lov'd you." (Julius Caesar, III, ii) 
parallelism similarity of structure in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses
"And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days." (Richard III, I, i) 
parenthesis insertion of some word or clause in a position that interrupts the normal 
syntactic flow of the sentence (asides are rather emphatic examples of this)
"...Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester— 
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered." (Henry V, IV, iii) 
polysyndeton the repetition of conjunctions in a series of coordinate words, phrases, or 
"If there be cords, or knives,
Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams,
I'll not endure it." (Othello, III, iii) 
simile an explicit comparison between two things using "like" or "as"
"My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease" (Sonnet CXLVII) 
synecdoche the use of a part for the whole, or the whole for the part
"Take thy face hence." (Macbeth, V, iii)

[1] Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique (London: 1585), 1.
[2] Wilson, 2.
[3] Hanna H. Gray, “Renaissance Humanism: The Pursuit of Eloquence,” (Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 24, 
No. 4), 498. 
[4] Gray, 497-509.
[5] Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence (London: England, 1593), title page.
[6] George Puttehnam, The Arte of English Poesie (London: England, 1589), 1-2. 

[7] Thomas Heywood, An Apology For Actors (London: England, 1612), 35.

[8]  Heywood, 14-15.
[9] Leonard Digges, Upon Master William Shakespeare, the Deceased Author and his Poems (1640), in Brian Vickers, 
ed., William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, Volume 1: 1623-1692 (New York, NY: Routledge, 1974), 28. 
[10] Margaret Cavendish, letter 113 from CCXI Sociable Letters, written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and 
Excellent Princess, The Lady Marchioness of Newcastle (1664), in Vickers, 43.