Shakespeare’s Use of the Liberal Arts: Logic

81Few4FQ9cL[1]The classical Christian school movement is seeking to revive a form of education that helped shape some the greatest minds of western civilization. But how do we know that our father’s were trained according to the Trivium? One delightful demonstration of this is William Shakespeare’s frequent and detailed use of the liberal arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric in his plays and poems,  a use thoroughly identified by Sister Miriam Joseph in her book Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. In this well-researched book, she argues that Shakespeare’s application of formal logic is evidenced in his use of definition, genus and species, syllogistic vocabulary, applied syllogisms, enthymemes, and more. Let me give some of her clearer examples.

Definition “Define, define, well-educated infant” (Loves Labour’s Lost I.2.99).

Shakespeare poetically defines terms in several poems and plays. Sonnet 116 defines love by saying what it is, “an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wandering bark”; as well as what it is not, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove”; it is not “Time’s fool…Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks.” Love is one of Shakespeare’s favorite terms to define. In As You Like It, Phebe begs Silvius, “Good shepherd, tell this youth what ’tis to love.” Silvius replies with several descriptive definitions: “It is to be all made of sighs and tears…It is to be all made of faith and service…It is to be all made of fantasy, all made of passion, and all made of wishes, all adoration, duty, and observance, all humbleness, all patience, and impatience, all purity, all trial…” (5.2.89-104).

Genus and species “the division of each several crime” (Macbeth 4.3.96).

In Macbeth, the King’s son Malcolm complains that he does not have “king-becoming graces” and then lists several species of kingly virtue, three external virtues, each followed by three internal: “Justice, verity, temperance, stableness, / Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, / Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude” (4.3.91-4).

Syllogistic vocabulary “Inferring arguments of mighty force” (King Henry VI Part 3 2.2.44).

We can find several examples of Shakespeare’s use of the technical vocabulary of the parts of logical argument: “The law I bear no malice for my death; ‘T has done, upon the premises, but justice” (King Henry VIII 2.1.62-63); “I deny your major [premise]” (King Henry IV Part 1 2.4.543); “For man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion” (Much Ado about Nothing 5.4.110).

Applied syllogisms “If that this simple syllogism will serve” (Twelfth Night 1.5.55).

Though complete syllogisms are rare in literature, we see examples in Shakespeare. When asked by Flavius if he has forgotten him, Timon replies, “I have forgot all men; Then, if thou grant’st thou’rt a man, I have forgot thee” (Timon of Athens 4.3.480-1).  When Prince Hal asks Falstaff, “Sirrah, do I owe you a thousand pound?” Falstaff replies, “A thousand pound, Hal! a million: thy love is worth a million: thou owest me thy love” (King Henry IV Part 1 3.3.153-5).

Enthymemes “bid me argue like a father” (King Richard II 1.3.238)

Enthymemes, which are syllogisms with an assumed statement, are more common in literature, since this is how men actually argue (e.g. note my use of an enthymeme there). But some enthymemes in Shakespeare figure as excellent examples for analysis. “He would not take the crown; Therefore ’tis certain he was not ambitious” (Julius Caesar 3.2.117-8), the assumed premise being that all ambitious men would take the crown. Or consider Portia’s argument, “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man” (Merchant of Venice 1.2.60), the doubtful assumed premise being that anyone made by God is a man.

For many, many more examples, Joseph’s book is well worth a thorough study.

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