When and why did the teaching of rhetoric in grammar schools end?

Following up on two previous posts on Shakespeare’s education in rhetoric (Collaborative Classroom Hilarity and What’s With All the Rhetoric), I don’t have a concise answer to this question, but I’ve been searching for one. (I once typed the question into Google and got some hilarious answers, some of which I quote in my book.) If any of my readers want to join in this exploration I’d be overjoyed.

One thing I do know is that at the time of Samuel Johnson, rigorous training in rhetorical speech and writing was still alive and well, and its use was the subject of much deliberation. I’ve just finished The Club, by Leo Damrosch and found plenty of evidence to support this. It’s a terrific read. It’s about the literary club founded by Joshua Reynolds and Johnson, which met weekly all through the second half of the 18th Century. I had to brush up on my knowledge of the literature and society of that era and all of the esteemed members of The Club. I haven’t read Johnson or Boswell since college, have only read a few speeches by Burke, have never read Gibbon, and skipped economics so, to my shame, am only peripherally aware of Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. Of course I’ve gazed at plenty of luminous paintings by Joshua Reynolds but knew very little about the man himself. But in addition to filling in some gigantic holes in my knowledge of that era, scattered through the book there is enough there to tell me that all of those brilliant writers, orators, and artists were well educated in rhetoric.

And that means that there was yet another “Generation of Genius” to emerge from the humanist education designed by Erasmus!

Damrosch does not offer any information about 18th Century education, but writing and speaking style was clearly a hot topic at the time, and that is certainly a reflection of training. A lot of attention was paid to it. By the time of Samuel Johnson, our language had developed distinct rhetorical styles. Here Damrosch describes the happy period and the periodic style:

     Samuel Johnson

“Of course style is much more than words alone, whether long or short. In one of the essays Johnson describes the challenge of shaping each sentence and paragraph into a compelling whole: ‘It is one of the common distresses of a writer to be within a word of a happy period, to want only a single epithet to give amplification its full force, to require only a correspondent term in order to finish a paragraph with elegance, and make one of its members answer to the other; but these deficiencies cannot always be supplied; and after a long study and vexation, the passage is turned anew, and the web unwoven that was so nearly finished.’

“Johnson refers to ‘a happy period’ because his style is the kind that used to be known as periodic. When we use the word ‘period” we mean simply the punctuation mark. But in traditional rhetoric it meant the whole interconnected structure of clauses that brings us to that conclusion. ‘The periodic stylist, Richard Lanham says, ‘works with balance, antithesis, parallelism, and careful patterns of repetition. All of these dramatize a mind which has dominated experience and reworked it to its liking.’”

I can’t think of a better description of the struggles experienced daily by every writer in our language struggling with the arc and structure of the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the book. In great writing you can really see the rhetorical training that goes into the “balance, antithesis, parallelism, and careful patterns of repetition.”

           James Boswell

Johnson’s writing was very much in the classic tradition. Boswell’s style was totally different, but also much appreciated. In fact, Boswell in his day was pretty much a total lightweight: an alcoholic and a womanizer who never attained any significant success either as a lawyer or a politician, but his colorful and chatty writing style made him a delight to read and saved him for posterity. Each of the early members of of The Club was held in great esteem for their literary abilities, and each had his own highly developed and distinctive style.

Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language did a great deal to further the evolving plasticity and expressiveness of our amazing English language. To quote again:

“On the two hundredth anniversary of his death, the Times declared, ‘The chief glory of the English is their language; and Johnson’s Dictionary, the only one in any language compiled by a writer of genius, had a lot to do with its rise to glory…..

“In France, the Académie Française was also preparing a dictionary, with the intention of fixing the ‘correct’ meaning of every word for all time. Johnson, altogether differently, invented the mode of defining words that was later carried forward by the Oxford English Dictionary. He wanted to show all the ways they had ever been used, and to include examples from earlier writers that  would illustrate their usage in specific contexts.”

So Johnson recognized the richness of the mutability of meanings of words in our language, which has done so much to make it a such a muscular, nuanced, and infinitely inventive mode of expression. Shakespeare and his peers at the turn of the sixteenth century gloried in their freedom with their newly fashionable and much loved vernacular, which, because it had been essentially a street language for centuries, had virtually no rules. It was a malleable material with which to create wonders. Instead of ossifying our language with rules, as the Académie Française has attempted to do with French, Samuel Johnson continued to encourage its adaptation to his age and ages to come by showing how it was evolving in its ability to express new ideas in new ways.

As for the other genius members of the club—

David Hume:

     David Hume

“A modern editor of Hume’s History of England says that Hume’s style ‘is the fastest and smoothest vehicle in historical literature.’ That may be the style most appreciated today, but it’s not Gibbon’s, any more than it was Johnson’s. Their style was periodic, and their unit was the fully crafted paragraph. “It has always been my practice,” Gibbon says, “to cast a long paragraph in a single mould: to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen until I had given the last polish to my work.”

Adam Smith:

       Adam Smith

“After giving public lectures in Edinburgh, where he had no academic post, in 1751 Smith became Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Glasgow. A year after that he was elected Professor of Moral Philosophy, and he did indeed think of himself as concerned with human behavior in all its aspects. His lectures that Boswell heard were on rhetoric, by which was meant not just literary style, but persuasive public language in the tradition of Cicero. The emphasis was on language as a social instrument, and Smith recommended a straightforward plain style instead of the elaborate figures of speech that older rhetoricians liked to use.”

Edmund Burke:

      Edmund Burke

“Most of the 558 members of the House of Commons never dreamed of making speeches, but star orators could hold forth for hours at a time. Persuasive eloquence was essential, and so was quickness in cut and thrust debate. Burke excelled at both. And although the debates weren’t supposed to be reported in the press—that was why Johnson had to invent them in his journalistic days—the speakers could always publish their own speeches afterward, which Burke regularly did in pamphlet form.”

         David Garrick

And then, of course, there was the actor and producer David Garrick who changed the course of theatre in England. And, there were a host of smart, published writers who were not members of The Club, some of them women!: Fanny Burney, Hester Thrale, Elizabeth Montequ, the playwrights Hannah More and Elizabeth Griffith, and on and on.

So, once I get Good Behvior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius published, maybe I’ll have to start gathering material for another book, proving the point again. I’ll repeat it again: simple adjustments to modern pedagogy, emphasizing performing arts and elevated oral and written language, could nurture our own “Generation of Genius.”


All of the above quotes are excerpts from: Leo Damrosch. “The Club.” iBooks. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-club/id1455106450Excerpt From: Leo Damrosch. “The Club.” iBooks. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-club/id1455106450




This is fun!

In The Taming of the Shrew, before the shrew, Kate, matches wits with Petruchio in their hilarious first encounter, the illiterate servant Grumio warns her that Petruchio will “disfigure” her with his “rope-tricks.” He’s referring to Petruchio’s scathing facility with rhetoric (which Grumio hears as rope-tricks) and his ability to use rhetorical “figures” to counter and obliterate any argument she might throw at him.

Student reciting

A schoolroom, woodcut from Alexander Nowell (1573)

When Shakespeare was a student, only a few generations after the printing press had been invented, rhetoric had been at the core of a child’s education for over two thousand years. Before literacy was prevalent, the ability to persuade though speech gave enormous power to the “rhetor,” the public speaker. The ability to make language punch and pop, to make the listener sit up and pay attention (or else!), was considered the most important skill of a person educated in the liberal arts. All through ancient times, the middle ages, and well into the Enlightenment, the “Trivium” (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) were the foundational subjects taught first to a child in elementary, or “trivial” school.

Shakespeare had to be able to recognize and practice in his speaking and in his writing at least 132 rhetorical figures, tropes, and devices. He had to be able to practice expressive, physical rhetoric (or rhetorical dance) every time he stood on his two feet and spoke to his teachers or his classmates. “Per Quam Figuram?” was the question asked repeatedly, all day, every day: “What figure are you using?”

Here are a couple of  passages from my book to illustrate:

* * *

Today a well-educated person might be able to list about twenty-five figures that are still commonly used. Examples would be alliteration, allusion, amplification, analogy, antithesis, apostrophe, assonance, climax, dilemma, epithet, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, metonymy, onomatopoeia, paradox, parenthesis, personification, simile, and synecdoche. But there were dozens more that Shakespeare had to learn. How about:

Epizeuxis:      Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl!   (Lear)


Never, never, never, never, never   (Lear)


O wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and yet again wonderful  (Celia)

Catachresis:   I will speak daggers to her  (Hamlet)

Anadiplosis:    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)

Hyperbaton:   Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall  (Escalus)

Hendiadys:  to have the due and forfeit of my bond  (Shylock)

* * *

When Brutus or Macbeth meditates on the murderous crime he is anticipating, he is exhibiting examples of aporia: doubting or questioning one’s motives.

When Antony repeats again and again “Brutus is an honorable man,” or Othello keeps interrupting Desdemona with his demand for “the handkerchief,” or Hotspur repeatedly squawks “Mortimer” like a parrot, they are all using the figure epimone: the repetition of the same point in the same words.

Whereas when Othello is about to suffocate Desdemona with a pillow and says, “Put out the light, and then put out the light,” he is using diacope: using the same phrase twice, but with two different meanings.

When Brutus asks the Roman mob, “Whom have I offended?” he is using anacoenosis: calling upon the counsel of an audience.

When the grave digger in Hamlet argues that if a man goes to water and drowns it is suicide, but if the water comes to him and drowns him he is “not guilty of his own death,” he is using cacosistation: an argument that serves both sides.

When Cesario asks Feste if he lives by his tabor (e.g. is he a drummer?) and Feste responds, “No, sir, I live by the church,” we call that antanaclasis: two contrasting meanings for the same word, causing ambiguity.

When Macbeth contemplates the assassination of Duncan and considers that it will “catch/With his surcease, success,” he is using paronomasia: the intentional use of two words with similar sounds but different meanings, to exploit confusion.

When Mercutio has been fatally stabbed and he responds to his friends’ questions about his wound, “Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch,” the figure he is using is meiosis: a deliberate understatement.

When Prince Hal distracts the sheriff from his attempt to arrest Falstaff, he his using apoplanesis: evasion by digression to a different matter. Then again, when Falstaff pretends to be deaf when the Justice of the Peace wants to question him about a robbery, and babbles on, consoling the Justice about his own maladies, he is using concessio: where a speaker grants a point which hurts the adversary to whom it is granted. When he debates with himself about the virtues of honor and concludes that it is a “mere scutcheon, therefore I’ll have none of it,” he is using hypophora: reasoning with one’s self by asking questions and answering them.

The examples are endless. All the folded language, all the layering and amplifying of extended metaphors, all the colorful and unexpected uses of words, all can be traced back to rhetorical figures. Once you start to learn them you see them everywhere, and as you get better at it, reading a passage in one of the plays can be enormous fun, like deciphering an intricately clever puzzle. But, oh, there are so many!

* * *

We’ve had some great orators, and some of the figures they’ve used have become cultural memes—think of Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” (chiasmus)—but those examples stand out as exceptional. In Shakespeare’s day, every educated person had that power. Anyone who could not “hold court” on cue, could not stand in front of an audience and hold them spellbound, was pretty much irrelevant.

Just try to imagine, dear reader, the mental flexibility required of a child of ten or eleven, every day having to invent phrases based on the models above. No wonder they were so smart!


Shakespeare is often noted for the witty and insightful dialogue of his luminous women. Desiderius Erasmus not so much. But fifty years before Shakespeare was de Pizan1born, Erasmus was writing clever little plays in Latin, called colloquies, to be performed by schoolboys like Shakespeare to de Pizan1practice Latin conversation; and those playlets were full of whip-smart women sparring with their rather dull male counterparts. There’s Maria, who trades witty barbs with her suitor, Pamphilus, in Proci et puellae (lover and lass), a colloquy that sounds a whole lot like Beatrice and Benedict, Rosalyn and Orlando, Tatania and Oberon, or Viola and Orsino. There’s Xanthippe, the shrew in Uxor (marriage) who must absolutely have been the inspiration for Kate. There’s Lucretia in Adolescentis et scorti (the teenager and the whore) from whom Falstaff gets some of his best lines. There’s the sassy, ugly cook, Margaret, in Convivium poeticum (the poetic feast), who mouths off at all her pretentious poetical guests when they question her choice of lettuce in their salad and predates any one of a number of Shakespeare’s opinionated servants, female and male. There’s the brilliantly educated Magdalia in Abbatis et eruditae (the abbot and the learned woman), modeled on Sir Thomas More’s daughter Meg, who can’t keep from laughing at her foil, an ignorant and venal abbot. Finally there is Fabulla, in Puerpera (the new mother) who argues the artist Eutrapelus to the wall when he infers that she is lucky to have a baby son rather than a daughter. de Pizan2He finally says of her, “I see that you are bent on single combat. For that reason, I think I’d better yield for the present … for where wars are fought with words, not even seven men are a match for one woman.” It’s a quote I’ve thought of often several times watching the recent democratic candidates in their debates!

I love Erasmus’ appreciation and admiration for the wit and wisdom of women, partly because I’m sure he was not alone, but also because I don’t know de Pizan3much about the history of medieval and early Renaissance feminism. Erasmus and Shakespeare surely were not the only ones who celebrated smart women, but there are not many representative models of such women in the available literature of the time. My sister-in-law turned me on to Christine de Pizan, who, one hundred years before Erasmus, earned her living as a poet, biographer of a king, and writer of The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies.

De Pizan was widowed with three children to raise at the age of twenty-five, and although she had friends at court, she had no income of her own. She did not wish to remarry or become a nun, so she turned to writing. At first she wrote rather conventional love poetry, which apparently sold well enough to keep her out of poverty. Then she was commissioned by the Duke of Burgundy to write the biography of his deceased brother, King Charles V. As she became more sure of her strengths as a writer, she celebrated creative and innovative women by writing the two books shown here. Both of these books and their illustrations give us a glimpse of the vibrant intellectual contributions of women to the culture and climate of the time.

She also wrote political theory from a feminist perspective. As Charles VI’s, oldest son came of age she wrote works to his mother, Queen Isabeau, that promoted wise and effective government. In The Book of the Body Politic, dedicated to the dauphin, she analyzed and described the customs and governments of societies of the time.

She lived to record some extraordinary history. Late in her life she  published the poem, The Tale of Joan of Arc, after the French victory over the English at Orleans. Published just a few days after the coronation of Charles VII, she expressed renewed optimism for her adopted country. She cast Joan of Arc as the fulfilment of prophecies and a symbol for a bright future. Sadly, she died only months before that symbol was tried by an English court and burned at the stake.