Invisible Shakespeare

By Matthew RitgerApril 17, 2016

Invisible Shakespeare
PROBABILITY, INVENTION, CIRCUMSTANCE, EVIDENCE, even “rhetoric” itself: Over the centuries, so many technical rhetorical terms have become their own false cognates — partly in the transference from classical to vernacular languages, though mostly in the transvaluation of the Enlightenment — that while these terms continue to circulate, our general awareness of the ars rhetorica can seem to be lost. Yet rhetoric remains, in Roland Barthes’s words, “a veritable empire, greater and more tenacious than any political empire in its dimensions and its duration.” But how does rhetoric irradiate thinking while seeming invisible? Perhaps it isn’t only about translation, history, dimensions, or duration. Perhaps rhetoric is more akin to the self itself, in that it “occludes its own origin,” as Joel Altman suggests in his masterful The Improbability of Othello: Rhetorical Anthropology and Shakespearean Selfhood (Chicago University Press, 2010). Altman uses the term apodeictic to describe one way the self is rhetorical: both identity and rhetoric present as self-evident “what is in fact the result of an antecedent transaction between world and psyche.” The implication of this “double act of translation,” Altman writes, “is that the self is a self by virtue of its not being present to itself — a condition clearly announced by Iago when he confides to Roderigo: ‘I am not what I am’ (1.1.64).”

Like the false cognates of rhetoric, the names of Othello have always seemed to conceal apposite meanings, even in plain sight. Under her husband’s suspicion, virtuous Desdemona becomes “Desdemon” (4.2.23). The flawed hero is vilified for his dark skin while the courtesan’s name, Bianca, means white. Dastardly Iago, meanwhile, is named for a saint: Santiago, St. Iago, or St. James — the patron saint of Spain (England’s enemy, at the time) and the “slayer of the Moors” (Othello’s nemesis, in other words). Reading Altman’s book, I’m even tempted to perceive a gap between I and ago — that is not so much to suggest the space between the self (I) and its past (ago) as the proximity in self-consciousness of ego (εγώ) and ágō (άγω) — to lead, or carry off. Rhetoric, as defined by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus, is a psychagogic art: an art for leading the soul, or in the case of Iago’s victory over Othello, leading it astray; even dragging it off. Shakespeare’s suggestion, in Altman’s evocative phrasing, is that “humanity […] occurs as the result of the impact of Iago on Othello,” at the moment “when the man who so urgently desires epistemological and ontological repose becomes aware of the historical, improvisatory nature of identity, suffers its uncertainty, and then — in tragic refusal — denies and ends his anguish.”

Of the three terms in Altman’s own title, “rhetorical anthropology” seems the least familiar to me, even if both words appear straightforward enough. We’re used to thinking of Othello as improbable; in 1693, Thomas Rymer famously railed against the play for just that reason: “Nothing is more odious in Nature than an improbable lie, and certainly never was any Play fraught like this of Othello with improbabilities.” What made Othello improbable for Rymer wasn’t merely the jagged plot twists (the much maligned handkerchief, or the confusions of the time-schemes, for example) but the notion that any European city would choose a Moor for its general, or that any white daughter of the elites would choose that man for her husband. What might make the play improbable to us today is rather the opposite: that Othello would be so easily duped, so quick to anger. As for “selfhood,” perhaps nothing has been more studied or theorized in Shakespeare: changing historical conditions gave rise to new possibilities inside hard realities for subjectivity and self-fashioning in the period, and we’ve long looked to Shakespeare’s characters for signs of these changes. So what does “rhetorical anthropology” mean for Altman, and for Shakespeare?

Alman invokes “anthropology” in the general sense it had in the 1590s: a science of man, or of mankind, in the broadest terms. Classical rhetoric was just such a science for Renaissance humanists, in that it provided a structure for individual thinking that was simultaneously a system for persuading others; rhetoric’s subjects are inherently social. Altman’s phrase also evokes “Christian anthropology” and rightly so, since Augustine’s turn, in adapting classical rhetoric to Christian purposes, was also a turn toward the psychology of persuasion. By pushing our awareness of the anthropological possibilities of rhetoric back to their own self-occluding historical origins, Altman illuminates, in many directions and yet also more precisely, what it might have meant for Shakespeare to be “an acculturated subject of his society” while still using the rhetorical means that named that acculturation to make “theatrically persuasive plays” — plays that nevertheless “perform an internal critique” of their own persuasiveness, their society, and its multiply sedimented antecedents.

Take “probability,” for example, which was — long before it had anything to do with statistics — the rhetorical condition that both subtends and obsesses Othello, and through which the play can still seem eerily deficient. In the Aristotelian and Ciceronian tradition, probability had two coordinates: on the one hand, it could be something that usually happens — with a ship manned by experienced sailors and given normal weather, you could probably expect to reach your destination safely. In this sense probability was inductive. At the other end of the spectrum, probability was something akin to a social construction, a verisimilitude that the general public or the majority of philosophers hold to be true, or that has the force of truth: “Youth is prone to self-indulgence,” for example. In this sense, probability is an argument, if not from the social, then from a syllogism that compacts the generally accepted; it’s a deduction (but one that could be shown to be based on induction, if investigated). Like the self, and like rhetoric, probability is present as an accretion that nevertheless erases the process through which it came into being. And probability is what makes persuasion possible. Remember Iago, whose deadly arguments are aimed not at truth at all, but at the likeness or likelihood of it: “I am not that I am.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Altman’s remarkable book is the experience of returning to reading Othello closely, incredibly closely, and witnessing new meanings unfold after each extended excursus into matters classical, philosophical, historical, methodological, rhetorical. Altman writes that Iago’s two kinds of “I” can be distinguished as self and subject, and that, in Shakespeare’s drama, the subject-self “is the home to which a prodigal subject may return, adding its newly acquired experience to the repertory of the self as yet another subject is called into play.” The same might be said of Altman’s heuristic investigations and their returns to the text of Othello. His scholarship is a pleasure to witness, and difficult to paraphrase. One simplified aspect of what emerges from the book’s intellectual process is a convincing portrait of Othello’s suicide as occasioned by existential vertigo — a vertigo which stems not only from having been tricked into committing a murder, but also from a dis-identification with human life itself, as that life is revealed by Iago’s nihilist master-class in rhetorical manipulation. I am not that I am: So might the terms of rhetoric say to us, even today.

What about some of those surprisingly un-self-identical terms we began with — invention, circumstances, evidence? To return to invention, as several scholars recently have: There were five elements to classical rhetoric as it was practiced by a Roman orator such as Cicero — inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronuntiatio. Today, when we think of rhetoric, we tend to think of only one of these five branches: elocutio. Eloquence and its figures and tropes, or what we more commonly call style, has become a synecdoche for the entire ars rhetorica, so much so that it might be surprising to find that a skill like memorization was ever involved at all, or that a process like invention might’ve come first. Not so in Cicero’s Rome, or in Aristotle’s Lyceum, or in Shakespeare’s England. In fact, for Cicero and Quintilian and the anonymous author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, and for the renaissance humanists who took up their methods, it was inventio — the invention of subject matter, or the finding of plausible arguments — that took priority. Rhetoric meant discovering what to say, not only how to say it.

Quentin Skinner’s Forensic Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, 2014), which began as a series of lectures about rhetorical invention, makes the clear and convincing case that rhetorical manuals, and especially those portions concerned with courtroom speeches, deserve to be considered alongside Holinshed’s Chronicles and Ovid’s Metamorphoses as one of Shakespeare’s most common sources for both language and dramaturgy. It’s doubly impressive to imagine the book’s own oratorical origins, since its later chapters now work so well as something so textual as an index — or perhaps even an encyclopedia, given the more than 1400 footnotes — of Shakespeare’s uses of the five parts of a judicial speech (the narratio, confirmatio, or refutatio, for example). There, Skinner uncovers Shakespeare’s intriguing habit of relying on the rhetorical rules for the parts of speech, yet distributing elements between characters, so that the salience of a handbook-style argument is itself more subtly disposed, suffused, between voices and perspectives. In a vivid set of introductory chapters, Skinner usefully synthesizes the historical argument that has underpinned much of this kind of scholarship, at least since T. W. Balwdin’s famous tome, William Shakspere’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke: In Tudor England, in free grammar schools such as the one attended by Shakespeare, every schoolboy would’ve learned Latin grammar from the earliest age and proceeded to the ars rhetorica from there, studying classical handbooks like Cicero’s De inventione and directing his attention, as Skinner emphasizes, to the topics of invention and the forms of courtroom speeches, first and foremost.

In fact, when we consider Skinner’s overwhelming evidence, it seems more than a little bit ironic that nowadays Shakespeare himself has become not only our definition of eloquence (and therefore of “rhetoric”) but also our instrument for teaching the elements thereof, and perhaps to some extent furthering a misconception: We train students to classify figures of speech by listening to Brutus and Antony’s dueling orations in Julius Caesar, or to understand metaphors and similes by reading the sonnets. But in 1593, when Shakespeare published his very first work, the narrative poem Venus and Adonis, he called it “the first heir of my invention,” as Skinner points out — not the first heir of his eloquence. That is to say, Shakespeare himself thought of his poem as the beneficiary of an epistemological method — one that also produced logical arguments and convictions in the courtroom — more than a feat of style.

Those particularly interested in how rhetoric works as a relay between literary and legal methods might want to begin with Lorna Hutson’s 2008 book, The Invention of Suspicion: Law and Mimesis in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama (Oxford University Press). There, Hutson shows how the “new liveliness and power” which we perceive in the dramatic fictions of the Elizabethan stage, specifically in the 1590s, might be due to the extensive use of rhetorical techniques developed mainly for the courtroom. As Hutson argues, the evolution of participatory justice in England in the 16th century — which includes the rising use of the lay jury and an increasing emphasis on witness testimony as court evidence — changed the way people, including audiences and playwrights, thought about truth and plausibility, and thus “lifelikeness,” in this period. We might picture Othello again, who spends his entire tragedy assessing Desdemona’s guilt or innocence, clutching the handkerchief — that shifting scrap of evidence.

So while a surprising range of Shakespeare’s plays (for example Titus Andronicus, as Hutson points out) explicitly follow the structure of a participatory trial of evidence, something new is happening, even on the level of Shakespearean character. The “depth” or “roundness” or “naturalism” or “realism” or even “psychology” that we attribute to Shakespeare’s characters might become possible because those characters look and act at once like forensic rhetoricians, like lawyers, jurists, and jurors, inventing arguments and evaluating the evidence; considering each other’s actions and testimonies; assessing the plausibility of each other’s narrations. Shakespeare thus involves his audience in the argument as well: we too are encouraged to interpret the evidence of a given character and form inferences about their psychology, such that the “depth” or “lifelikeness” we attribute to say, Hamlet, is really due to a inferential process we have equally participated in. (The modern rhetorical dictate “show, don’t tell,” might be presenting as self-evident a rule which this process was still giving force to.) Perhaps then it should come as no surprise to remember that Shakespeare’s first audiences often were lawyers and judges: many of his plays, such as The Comedy of Errors, were written for and performed in the Inns of Court — a peculiarly important set of circumstances.

Hutson’s newest book, Circumstantial Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, 2015), based on a series of lectures given at Oxford in 2012, continues to refine her impressive insights about theatrical and legal culture in early modern England: here Hutson is focused not only on rhetorical “invention” (“how to find arguments”) but also on one of its subsets, the “circumstances” — or, how to turn the basic facts of “who, what, where, when, how” into an argument (and how to know when to do so). This is a bold idea, in part because the circumstances of Shakespeare’s plays have never seemed like their strength. The plots often seem odd, overly complicated; even confused. Think of Two Gentlemen of Verona, whose scattershot contradictions about events and settings have led another critic, Adrian Kiernander, to suggest that the play would be more accurately titled Nonconsensual Sex Somewhere in the Vicinity of Milan.

Take Romeo and Juliet, which is just one of Hutson’s arresting examples. The circumstantial objections are unforgettable, whether debated as textual discrepancies or improbabilities of plot: they’re too young; it happens too fast. But how do we even know they’re “too” young? Juliet’s father seems to think so, when he tells her suitor Paris that she’s not yet 14: “Let two more summers wither in their pride / Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride” (1.2.10). The appropriateness and even the fact of Juliet’s age is constantly called into question (as are all the play’s temporal details). The nurse’s bawdy narration of her own mnemonic means for determining this detail seems one of the strangest (1.3.18-53): she measures from a list of circumstances including the death of “Susan” (her own daughter, long since gone); an earthquake (an exaggeration, in keeping with the nurse’s character?); a holiday (Lammastide); and so forth, in the process parodying a forensic rhetorical manual’s instructions for adducing the circumstances, as Hutson shows.

As the play goes on, the joke about Juliet’s age becomes a tragedy about Juliet’s time. The characters are constantly reminding the audience and each other about the tensions between times, between the “two hours traffic of our stage” and the hours within the four days, from Thursday to Sunday, whose accidents seem to measure and disfigure the play’s events. What kind of time exists where these characters do? If establishing and appealing to a certain ethos was one of the orator’s first priorities, no speaker ever seemed more capable of this than Juliet, who figures her new obsession with the force of a world (3.2.1-33): “Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night.” Just as suddenly she has already imagined her lover’s death: “Take him and cut him out in little stars / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night.”

The implications of Hutson’s argument are impressive. When we notice how the most basic circumstantial details — who, what, when — have become so subjectively, psychologically, erotically charged, the characters not only seem more “lifelike,” but their entire “world” seems self-like unto them, since even the smallest off-stage detail — even the sunlight moving down the wall, or the stars forming shapes in the heavens — is made subjective, erotic, alive. As Hutson puts it, she is looking for how Shakespeare’s plays “use the topics of circumstance to establish a sense of the play’s outer ‘world’ — its spaces, distances, temporality, architecture — as already shaped by the psychology or ethics of a particular human story.” How much of what makes Shakespeare’s characters seem real, and makes Romeo and Juliet so powerful, actually happens off-stage — or happens due to the sense of a psychologically shaped and shaping ethos that is itself inferred from the characters’ speeches, to form their world? A surprising and exciting amount, when we begin to look, or when we’re able to see — rhetoric itself, we should not forget, is the ability “to see the available means of persuasion,” according to Aristotle’s famous definition. But unlike Shakespearean character, Shakespearean circumstance has been little considered as a source for this lifelikeness. “The mark of this circumstantial dramaturgy’s success,” Hutson writes, “has been its invisibility.”

Further on in Circumstantial Shakespeare, Hutson gives a powerful reading of Shakespeare’s early dramatic poem The Rape of Lucrece, and one which reminds me of Altman’s reading of Othello, since a similar kind of alienation or self-loss occurs in both. In Lucrece, the heroine explicitly contemplates the best forensic rhetorical strategies and devices for convincing her husband and her audience of the crime committed against her — mimesis, descriptio, narratio? Hutson suggests that it is not Lucrece’s failure to create a convincing case that causes her to take her own life, nor is it the (circumstantial) inevitability of the received “plot.” Instead, what Lucrece resists is her own success. When Lucrece sees how easily evidentia (language with vivid and especially visual clarity, with subjective appeal) can and will become our notion of evidence (things outside of language, thought to be objective, even empirical) — when Lucrece sees, in other words, both the power and the mutability in rhetoric, in her means of persuasion and her means of survival — she would rather renounce her life than live it. Such are the losses of rhetoric.


Matthew Ritger is a graduate student in the English department at Princeton University.

LARB Contributor

Matthew Ritger is a graduate student in the English department at Princeton University.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!