Bravo New Jersey!!! They’ve accomplished something which, to our shame, we can only dream of in California: a return to arts education in EVERY SCHOOL IN THE STATE!

Several years ago my colleagues and I in the LAUSD Arts Branch were involved in a national effort to develop an evaluation (e.g. “test”) to provide hard data to support our arts education efforts. The national conversation at the time was obsessed with data, data, data, and every growth effort was put on hold until we had it. It was the time of “Data-Based Decision Making,” which, roughly translated, means, “No Data=No Decisions.” The mantra was, “If you don’t test it, they won’t teach it” (which in many states has turned out to be catastrophically true), so we naively dived in and did our best to come up with something authentic. At the time, we were working with a partner in the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Last June I wrote a post about our efforts in which I explained the irony of standardized testing in the context of arts education and described all of our obstacles. Basically: all we could come up with was an elegant and sophisticated single-answer vocabulary test. True evaluation in arts education involves embedded rubrics that serve the creative process but cannot provide hard “data” without astronomical expense.

I’m so sorry that, in my calcified old brain, that I cannot call up the name of the gentleman we partnered with in New Jersey!!  Since then he and/or his colleagues, have been busy. Apparently they didn’t wait for the elusive data. They understood the role of the arts in social and emotional health and in cognition—learning skills! They went ahead with their determination to get the arts back into the role they have held historically, at the core of eduction. (Now, finally, I suspect we will watch their test scores rise!)

If you go to their website, you will see many of the same standards-based elements and tools that we developed, but there’s something else. They did what I knew we had to do but never could. They got imperatives from the top: from the state level. They held school leadership at the district level and at the site level to account. Every superintendent and every principal in New Jersey must account for her/his stewardship of the arts offerings in their schools.

That’s the way to get it done!


This past weekend I had a chance to present some of the findings of my book, Good Behavior and Audacity to an audience of friends and arts educators. My ever-generous friend from the Music Center Education Division, Susan Cambique Tracey (featured in an earlier post), and her husband Paul sponsor about four salons each year devoted to the arts and arts education, and they invited me to do one. It was wonderful fun. Susan says the salons are their way of giving back, showing gratitude for their life in arts education, and I felt that gratitude glowing around me all afternoon. The session was documented in film so I’m excited that I will be able to share bits of it in upcoming posts.

I started the program with a visual exploration of these four woodcuts picturing Elizabethan classrooms. The first two are dated 1573, the very year that William Shakespeare turned nine, so looking at them you may imagine him as one of the boys pictured.

One result of the Humanist movement in early 16th century England was a robust interest in pedagogy, with many books written on the subject. One of the most famous of those teacher/authors was Richard Mulcaster, who just happened to train Thomas Jenkins and John Cotham, two of Shakespeare’s teachers at Stratford’s Latin grammar school. Reading his two books, Positions and Elementarie, was one of the igniting revelations that got me going on my own book, because of Mulcaster’s use of the arts in his daily instruction. The title of my book is actually taken from a quote by a 17th century jurist who had been a student at the Merchant Taylors’ School while Mulcaster was the headmaster. He credited Mulcaster with offering daily instruction in both vocal and instrumental music, accompanied by dance, and with using theatre to teach “good behavior and audacity.” Mulcaster also included drawing as one of the essential teachings for young children, so all of the arts were present in his school.

So now, my readers, I would like to engage you in the same visual exploration and see if we can draw some conclusions about Elizabethan classrooms.

Examine the four woodcuts closely and look for similarities and differences.

These images are all from the internet, and there isn’t much accompanying information about any of them, so I am in the same position as you are looking at them. What we see we see, and, using visual thinking strategies, what we conclude is what we conclude. I cannot verify our conclusions, but I do have the advantage of several years of research to draw upon and so I will add information where I can.

First of all, yes, indeed, that is a dog in two of the pictures. I have no explanation for the dog. (It does bring to mind the comic presence of a dog in both Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but those were not classroom dogs!) Is the presence of a dog an indication that those two classrooms were rural? Perhaps.

Also, this last one is much busier than the others, and much more crowded (and there is no dog), so perhaps this one depicts a school in London?

Here are a few more observations:

1. In each one the headmaster appears to be holding a rather exalted position, in a throne-like chair. And he has a switch close by in case he needs it to maintain control. In fact, in this last one another adult (likely an usher, or assistant teacher), is flogging the naked bottom of a boy.

I’ve read that flogging was not uncommon. In fact there were plenty of euphemisms for it, like “marrying the schoolmaster’s daughter,” or “learning a new song today.” But most of the books on pedagogy from the time, including those by Mulcaster, explicitly state that kindness and reason were preferable to corporal punishment. I suspect that the mere presence of the switch may have been enough to keep order in most cases.

2. In the last picture we see that there is musical notation on the back wall and there appears to be a child playing a keyboard instrument like a virginal and other children singing. Most statutes from the time list regular music instruction, and at least at Merchant Taylors’ School it was included every day.

3. In each picture there is a child standing in front of the headmaster, and in the last one there are several in line waiting their turn. They are reciting their memorized lessons from the classics, and from what I’ve learned about physical rhetoric, or “rhetorical dance,” they were required to do so with appropriate gesture, expression, and emotion.

4. The other children in the room are engaged in their own activities—reading, writing, or talking to or perhaps collaborating with the students next to them. They are paying no heed to the child in front of the headmaster, an indication that there was nothing out of the ordinary about a student declaiming his lessons; it went on all day long and attracted no attention.

5. There are no desks. The children are reading from and writing in notebooks, or tables. Remember that Hamlet, in his frenzy after his encounter with his father’s ghost, says, “My tables! Meet it is I set it down, / That one may smile and smile and be a villain!” He is talking about exactly what these children are holding: their own tables, which accompanied them to and from school every day. In those tables they wrote down the lines they were required to memorize. They also wrote down rhetorical figures they found in their classical readings and kept them organized in columns. At some point, they also wrote down their own invented examples of figures, often developed in collaboration with their peers.

6.  In the absence of desks, there is an open space in the center of the classroom. That open space was called a place to be heard: an auditorium. A stage!

So….setting aside the corporal punishment and the dog: focus on this thought: what does it mean for a child to go to a school where the core goal is to be seen and heard.

So far there are only a few of you that I know of who have delved into our largely unexplored history. Ultimately that history is what this site is all about. I love that people are reading my posts and I love the comments and the feedback. It feels like a community is building. But I’m greedy and I want more. I want others to join me in the research! Those of us who are advocates for more quality instruction in the arts for every student, every day, at every age NEED this history. Advocacy can take us only so far. We need to step back and take the long look, back to the ancients, when education began with the arts.

Just to clarify: theatre incorporates all of the arts. When Shakespeare was in school, during the heyday of the humanist education designed by Erasmus, theatre was not considered an arts discipline distinct from its components: artful language, dramatic acting, dance, music, and visual spectacle. Theatre then was like film is today. It embraced all of the arts. Just look at today’s categories for the Oscars: best score, best song, best costumes, best special effects, best script, and dance numbers highlighting everything. Only a small minority of the awards are for acting or directing. Theatre, historically was the same. When we are looking at the history of theatre education, we are looking at the history of all of arts education.

This is still a new site with a small but growing number of followers, and so far it hasn’t gained much traction in its main purpose, but I am ever hopeful. The field so far is barren, especially for dance and theatre. Music in education has

Drama Class

ancient roots, all the way back to the Quadrivium, where it shared equal status with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. As for visual arts: there are entire Arts History Departments in every university that document the history of conservatory training. Dance was usually taught in partnership with music. But nothing like that exists for the long history of theatre in education. Unless I am mistaken (and I’ve searched and searched) this rich story remains largely undocumented.

My upcoming book, Good Behavior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius, is a small step taken to help fill the void. It looks at one moment at the turn of the 17th century where there is substantial evidence of a lively presence in schools of music and dance, physical rhetoric or “actio” applied to memorization of the classics, boys’ theatre companies at court, school performances to entertain villagers, and the use of dramatic colloquies in the teaching of conversational Latin. It is obviously a part of a profound tradition, but perhaps because it was always taken for granted and not part of the formal curriculum, historians haven’t woven together the threads.

Right now I’m focusing my own exploration on the 20th century and will be posting soon about arts education in Settlement Houses and the Federal Theatre Project. Some other areas I’m hoping to pursue myself or welcome others to explore:

The Greeks: Epicurus (the Garden), Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes

The Romans: Lucretius, Cicero, Quintilian

The Humanists: Dante, Vittorino da Fletre (La Giocosa – “The Pleasure House”), Guarino da Verona, Aeneas Sylvius, Sturmius, Bembo, Erasmus, Guido Camillo (Theatre/Memory), Ascham, Vives, Mulcaster, Elyot, Montaigne, Comenius

19th Century: Sloyd, the Kindergarten (“child garden”) Movement, Horace Mann

20th Century: John Dewey  (note guest post by Dain Olsen), Settlement Houses, Federal Theatre Project

If you have any information about any of the above or have other topics to explore, pitch in! This is the place!

This week’s post will be the first devoted to a thread of history in the twentieth century: that of federal funding for teaching artists in schools. It’s a slim thread, to be sure, and in today’s political landscape it’s almost impossible to imagine, but there have been times of crisis when our government has actually turned to the arts and to arts educators to help us through. My dad, for instance, got his start in the Federal Theatre Project, during the Great Depression. I am currently reading Hallie Flanagan’s book Arena, which is about those years, and it is full of stories of children experiencing theatre arts in some of the most impoverished parts of our country.

Susan CT

Susan Cambique Tracey relating her experience in the NEA’s Arts in the Classroom program

But there was another period of funding for arts instruction in schools—one which is much more recent. Susan Cambique Tracey, of the Music Center’s Arts Education Division, recently gave a keynote address at the Actors’ Fund in which she relates some of her extraordinary experiences in the 70s, as one of the teachers in the dance component of a National Endowment for the Arts program designed to put teaching artists into high-need classrooms. The program lasted one brief decade but had a huge and lasting impact. (A link to a video of her address is below.)

Lyndon Johnson followed up on foundational work started during John Kennedy’s brief tenure when he established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. It was folded into his “War on Poverty” and linked to the civil rights movement. The NEA then created Arts Councils in every state, and this network remains robust and vibrant to this day. It has led to a national framework and then national standards for education in all arts disciplines.

For one decade, during the seventies, the NEA also funded a program called Artists in the Classroom, and Susan was one of 25 teaching artists sent out to teach dance. She worked in several states and in Puerto Rico, and describes that time as “like living in Camelot.” The program had three goals: 1. to teach dance as an art form, 2. to teach dance for self-expression, and 3. to use dance as a tool for learning. Susan found that she had a gift for the third goal—for making connections in to the instructional goals in the classroom. You can view here her remarkable story. She faced challenges and delights. Here, for instance, she tells of working in an agricultural community where the students’ two main concerns were the appropriate time for planting alfalfa and how to prepare the best fertilizer bag. She had to address these through dance, and she made it work! She’s an ARTIST! (If you’ve ever studied African dance, you may have some idea how it could be done.)

Happily, Susan made a meticulous record of her life-long career in dance education, so she is a treasure trove of information. She couldn’t be more generous with it, so you will be hearing more from her. “Nobody has been interested!,” she told me. I hope that is not true, since this entire site is dedicated to the history of the performing arts in education in this century and beyond. It’s a history to which arts education advocates desperately need access.

Susan’s story begins 8 1/2 minutes into the video, is less than 30 minutes long, and is well worth the listen.







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!


Arts colorBring back the arts!

(The following is a draft introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity. I’m sure it will change before the book is published, but I’d love feedback on what I’ve written so far.)

In the hippie sixties, before I became a teacher, I was one of hundreds of free spirits spending as much time as I could in San Francisco. I was there in the summer of 1968, “the summer of love.” One evening I was in a café, and at the adjoining table were three policemen who had put their caps on the hat rack above us. I couldn’t help seeing that on the inside of each of the rims was a John Birch Society pin, and when they left, along with the tip, they left a pamphlet. I didn’t know much about the Birch Society, and I was curious, so I grabbed it and read it. The first sentence, the first page, in fact the entire pamphlet was about the need to abolish public education. The salient point was that, historically and until fairly recently, parents, not taxpayers, had paid for the education of their own offspring.

Why, it asked, should people with no children pay to educate those of others?

Perhaps to some this was, on its face, a reasonable question; but I scoffed in disbelief. What about the bedrock of a democracy? What about the foundation of a civil society? They can’t be serious! I wrote it off as pure far-right-of-right-wing malarkey and tossed it in the garbage.

I wish I had kept it! Within a year I had started a long career in public education, and over the decades I have viewed every new innovation and “reform” effort with wary suspicion, examining it through the lens of my memory of that pamphlet. I’ve followed the editorializing in the media, including my own LA Times, through the same lens. I’ve watched the erosion of the popular perception of public education go from a dribble to a river to a tsunami. It was with indescribably relief ten years ago that I devoured in one sitting Diane Ravitch’s book The Death and the Life of the Great American School System and discovered that someone with a voice of authority was finally documenting the lies.


But so far, Diane Ravitch’s voice alone has not been enough. The entirely deluded assumption that “private” is good and “public” is bad hardly existed in 1968, and yet only very recently a commentator on MSNBC made the cavalier statement, “Of course we all agree that public education is broken.” I had to scream at the screen, “NO, WE DO NOT ALL AGREE!!! WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, SAYING THAT?!!! Of course she didn’t hear me and thus took no offense. But I’ve spent my adult life as a public school educator and I have grandchildren now in public schools in three different states getting a fine education from excellent teachers, so I was shaken that nobody in the discussion challenged her.

I could go on a screed here about the Koch brothers (whose father was a Birch Society founder), the Waltons, charter school supporters, the distorted message of “school choice,” ALEC (the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council), and the slow but steady effort, by whatever malevolent forces there have been out there over the past fifty years to push formerly marginalized, negative views of public education front and center in popular discourse. But that’s not the point of this book.


The point of this book is that as a result of the growing distrust in public education, there has been a push for the rather vague concept of “accountability”; and the only relatively affordable—if highly dubious—method of measuring school accountability is the use of standardized tests. The use of, and preparation for, standardized tests have resulted in the virtual decimation of something we all used to take for granted: instruction in the arts for every child at every grade level.

I don’t think this happened intentionally. Maybe no policy maker said, “Stop putting easels and blocks in kindergarten rooms. Stop scheduling time for singing and dancing. Stop funding an orchestra program. Stop teaching speech and push your drama classes into an after school program for the ‘talented’ few.” But at the same time, something had to be sacrificed to make more room for preparation in the tested subjects: literacy and numeracy. The airy-fairy arts were seen as the most disposable candidate. Nobody stopped to take a long look at the hundreds of years of pedagogy that understood the connection between engagement in the arts and the healthy development of cognition.


Let me grant first that the perceived need for accountability has resulted in some beneficial policies and has perhaps shaken a few useless old customs loose. The creation of instructional standards have had great value used as guidelines and benchmarks. But the marriage of these standards to tests used to bludgeon struggling schools and turn innocent children into data points has been catastrophic. Because of the cloud of accountability, classroom time devoted to test preparation has reached feverish heights, and the 20% of time each day devoted to the arts, recommended in most state statutes since the founding of our nation, is by now a thing of the past. And yet, test scores have scarcely budged. In fact, if you factor in other measures of schools success—school culture and morale, attendance, graduation rates, teacher retention, student engagement, happiness—the picture gets gloomier and gloomier.

This book tackles the largely unexplored history of arts education: unexplored probably because it was always just a given. If we look back to Plato and then to the sixteenth century humanists, we see a thread throughout the centuries that notes the power of the arts to engage and entertain as they educate. It has been painful to watch the past few generations turn their backs on this wisdom. Universal instruction in the visual and performing arts is now history; and sure enough, as the ancients could have predicted, those revered test scores have languished. It’s time for educators to wake up.

Public education is not broken, but there are times when it seems to be on life support. It tends to be as good as the public makes it, and it could easily be revived with public commitment.


There’s a simple solution—an easy war to resuscitate the joy in universal, public education: Bring back the arts!

“To Play” vs “The Play”

Pirates Playing

Pirates Playing

In 1582, in his book Positions, Richard Mulcaster, citing Plato, listed five essential studies for the young student: reading, writing, singing, drawing, and playing. When I first read that I thought that he meant “playing” as in “player,” or “actor,” and was kind of disappointed when I realized that he was referring not to drama but to playing a musical instrument (which, with singing, doubles the number for music!) Still, I was delighted that music and visual arts were up there with the essentials, and if you include rhetoric and the artistry of writing, the arts get four of the five!

But the more I learned about Mulcaster and his daily use of drama in his classroom, the more I realized that theatre was not, at the time, considered an arts discipline in itself, but the product of music, dance, visual arts, and “actio” (physical rhetoric), all of which Mulcaster included in his daily instruction. Through rhetoric, drama is directly connected to writing. (I am personally convinced by my research that the first draft of The Taming of the Shrew was a riotous and “play”ful collaboration of schoolboys at Stratford Grammar School, but I’ll save that for another post).

Playing Around

Playing Around Photo by Mi-Pham via unsplash

Today, outside of the field of child development, “‘play” is too often perceived as a distraction from learning—something in conflict with instruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, play is the first—and the most vital—foundational step in literacy; and the more that play can be folded into instruction, the the deeper and more enduring the learning. This is true all through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age (as I am here to testify!)

The following is an excerpt from the final chapter of my book:

“When my four-year-old granddaughter walks in the door, inevitably the first thing she says to me is ‘play with me.’ That primal need for social connection and play will be dominant for at least the next twenty years and, in fact, it will never go away completely. Our minds develop in a social context. Children learn from playing with each other far more than they learn from schooling, which, for better or for worse, opens a wealth of opportunity. Is it any wonder that the most ancient and authentic form of communicating a story is called a ‘play’?”

At any age and IN any age, drama, whether as the verb “play” (e.g. improvisation) or as the noun “play” (e.g. finished performance) engages and entertains as it educates. The education one receives through drama/theatre goes way beyond literacy. It teaches empathy, social skills, time management, collaboration, cooperation, listening, thinking-on-feet, and on and on. Most important, once again, it “frames the mind for learning.” Cognition!



In response to the recent uptick in domestic violence:

Several years ago I received a call from a District Attorney, one of whose clients had been tried and convicted of a crime involving sodomy, rape, and murder. She was trying to keep him off of death row. He had been expelled from more than ten LAUSD schools, and she was trying to find a single teacher from one of those schools who could say something nice about him.

When she told me his name I vaguely remembered a small eighth grader who had briefly flitted, somewhat disruptively, through my drama class years earlier, before being expelled. At the time, I and his math teacher had voted not to expel him until he had been tested and recommended for placement in a program that could better serve his needs. The majority of the faculty just wanted to be rid of him.

“He’s not small anymore,” she said.

In preparing an argument for a life sentence instead of execution, she asked him to name a single teacher who might be able to say something good about him. He named two: me and one other. I could hardly remember him among the hundreds of kids who had passed through my classes, but he remembered me and one other teacher.

We were both theater teachers.

I am not saying theater could have changed him, could have redirected him, could even have saved him and the life of his victim; but I’m absolutely certain that was what HE was saying. And he wouldn’t be the first. You will probably never meet a theater teacher who can not claim to have “saved” a student and doesn’t have a story like mine. Most of the stories end happily. Most of mine do too. This one did not.

Students in our schools are desperate for avenues of self expression and self-definition. Experience in drama activities empowers students and gives them tools for positive and constructive communication. This has been true for hundreds of years and it will be true for hundreds more. Educators, take note.

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!

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.