Milan Dragicevich was in town recently and I got to attend one of the workshops based on his new book, The Persuasive Actor: Rhetorical Power on the Contemporary Stage. So brilliant! Fifteen years ago, Milan was the one who first got me hooked on rhetoric and fascinated by the way Shakespeare and tens of thousands of his peers practiced it.
Rhetoric had already been at the core of education for two thousand years when Will Shakespeare was in school. It was one of the three pillars of the Trivium, which defined the first stages of education for every child, in schools called “trivial” schools—essentially what we now call elementary schools. The Trivium was grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar (reading and writing) was the most basic, of course, and in the Middle Ages logic was elevated slightly above rhetoric because of the tortured attempts to make biblical teachings conform to the classical philosophers, mostly Plato and Aristotle.
But by the time Shakespeare went to school, rhetoric was ascendant. This is because of the impact of the curriculum designed by Erasmus. In its most simple terms, logic is IDEAS and rhetoric is the PACKAGING of ideas. Rhetoric is persuasion. Rhetoric is salesmanship. People can be persuaded, for better of for worse, of both fine ideas or foolish ones: wise and beneficial ideas or deadly ones. Erasmus knew that people tend to “buy” ideas that are well packaged, and he was intent on “selling” the classics to all educated persons. He truly believed that all knowledge and all wisdom could be found in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.
There are hundreds of rhetorical figures (also called devices, schemes, or tropes) that date back to the 5th century BC and the Sophists in Greece. Shakespeare learned most of his from Grammaticae artis institution by the German humanist, Johannes Susenbrotus, published in 1539. In his Epitome troporum Susenbrotus defines one hundred and thirty-two tropes and figures and gives examples of their use in ancient and contemporary literature. A few of them may be at least vaguely familiar to us today, but many won’t even pass spell check. How about apophasis, or zeugma, ekphrasia, anthypophora, anaphora, epistrophe, epanalepsis, anthimeria, chiasmus, epizeuxis, catachresis, anadiplosis, or hendiadys?
I’ve either peaked your interest or lost you. Either way, I’ve only scratched the surface. And, no, I can’t define them all myself, but I guarantee Shakespeare could. In my book, Good Behavior and Audacity, the chapter on rhetoric is called “Per quam figuram,” because that was the daily question a headmaster asked his students when they were speaking or writing: “What figure are you using?” And you can be sure they had to give a correct answer or answer for it!
The more you learn about them the more you understand the mystifying brilliance of the poetry of Shakespeare and dozens of his peers.
I have a pretty good chapter explaining the use, history, practice, and teaching of rhetoric, but I’m having to revise it (yet again!) after Milan’s workshop. If you’re interested, his book is a great place to start!