Thursday, October 21, 2010

Adventures in Cacozelia

My work at the ASC continues, and I have moved on in my research to rhetoric – a term at once so broad and yet so focused that figuring out how to approach it has been a daunting task. This little word comes with a legion of ludicrously technical terms, all Greek or Latin in origin, with names like “synathroesmus” (a conglomeration of many words and expressions either with similar meaning or not) or “prozeugma” (a series of clauses in which the verb employed in the first is implied in the others). Some of these tongue-twisting terms (alliteration!) are familiar to us – words like sarcasm, intimation, and irony – but some seem like alien words sent from another planet (simile!). Plus, there are about a million of them, all, clearly, impossible to memorize (hyperbole!). But, after all, nothing ventured, nothing gained (apothegm!); I knew that I’d have to start somewhere. This was a tiny word of epic proportions (oxymoron!).

Still, rather than slog my way through this swamp of advanced concepts (metaphor!), I decided that I preferred the more loose definition of rhetoric simply as the effective and elegant use of language. While Shakespeare’s writing is indeed full of anthimerias (the substitution of one part of speech for another) and onomatopoeias (the use of words to imitate natural sounds), it is his skill in crafting masterful phrases with the English language which sticks most with modern audiences (emphasis!). That is to say (exepegisis!), many of the rhetorical devices which he employs are intuitive. An audience member does not need to be aware of the word “malapropism” to understand that Dogberry, the bumbling constable in Much Ado about Nothing, is a master of them. They simply see the humor in his confusion of “salvation” and “damnation” (III.iii.2), or laugh when he takes it as a compliment to be called “tedious” by the venerable Leonato, and to proclaim, “But truly, for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a king, I could find in my heart to bestow it all of your worship” (III.v.16-17).

By the same token, a person certainly needn’t be familiar with “asteismus” to enjoy Beatrice and Benedick’s competition utilizing this concept in the following exchange, each twisting the other’s words and throwing them back at them (Much Ado about Nothing, I..i..126-137):

BEATRICE I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

BENEDICK God keep your ladyship still in that mind, so some gentleman or other shall scape a predestinate scratched face.

BEATRICE Scratching could not make it worse, and ‘twere such a face as yours were.

BENEDICK Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.

BEATRICE A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.

BENEDICK I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer.

Without knowing precisely what name to give the rhetorical content, one may still marvel (thaumasmus!) at Shakespeare’s wit in constructing such passages. In my opinion, it is possible to loathe the very idea of English grammar and its study (apodioxis!) and still to get great enjoyment from the way in which Shakespeare plays with words. Thus, while exploring the more intricate points of rhetoric may be fun and interesting, as I’ve discovered, there’s no need to worry about confusing one’s brachylogia and bdelygmia, or prodiorthosis and prosapodosis, to truly love Shakespeare.

Natalie A.

PS. If anyone wishes to become an expert on Classical or Renaissance rhetoric (or just memorize one or two especially crazy terms to impress people with at parties – parenthesis!), I recommend this extensive dictionary of rhetorical terms, the Silva Rhetoricae:

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