Shakespeare’s Use of the Liberal Arts: Rhetoric

81Few4FQ9cL[1]In her invaluable book Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, Sister Miriam Joseph tells us that, according to Shakespeare scholar T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare “was trained in the heroic age of grammar school rhetoric in England, and he shows knowledge of the complete system, in its most heroic proportions. He shows a grasp of the theory as presented by the various texts through Quintilian.” In fact, a contemporary reported that Shakespeare was a country schoolmaster before he came to London, and at that time the grammar school would have significantly familiarized him with the arts of language.  Many passages in Shakespeare’s plays show such a familiarity with the technical vocabulary of rhetoric.

In the first scene of The Taming of the Shrew, having arrived in “fair Padua, nursery of arts,” Lucentio says to his servant Tranio, “Here let us breathe and haply institute a course of learning and ingenious studies” (1.1.2, 8-9). Tranio replies, “No profit grows where no pleasure is ta’en” (1.1.39), and so advises, “Let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray; Or so devote to Aristotle’s checks as Ovid be an outcast quite abjured: Balk logic with acquaintance that you have and practice rhetoric in your common talk” (1.1.31-5).

In the play As You Like It (5.1.42-49), the clown Touchstone warns William not to pursue the country maid Audrey in this discourse:

Touch: Give me your hand. Art thou learned?
Will: No, sir.
Touch: Then learn this of me: to have, is to have; for it is a figure in rhetoric that drink, being poured out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ipse is he: now, you are not ipse, for I am he.

Shakespeare’s characters often mention figures of speech, as in Love’s Labour’s Lost (5.1.67), “What is the figure? what is the figure?” or as in All’s Well that Ends Well (5.2.11-14) in this discourse between Parolles and the Clown:

Par: Nay, you need not stop your nose, sir: I spake but by a metaphor.
Clo: Indeed, sir, if your metaphor stink, I will stop my nose…

But perhaps the strongest evidence of Shakespeare’s education in formal rhetoric is the oratory that he puts into the mouth of his characters. Speeches that come from Shakespeare’s pen are considered some of the greatest in the English language, and figure well as examples to use in any rhetoric course. Let me briefly mention a few by giving their most famous lines:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” – Julius Caesar (3.2)

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – Henry V (4.3)

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” – Macbeth (5.5)

“To be, or not to be: that is the question” – Hamlet (3.1)

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” – Romeo and Juliet  (2.2)

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” – As You Like It (2.7)

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath” – The Merchant of Venice (4.1).

For more, Sister Miriam Joseph’s book is well worth the read.

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