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Rhetorical Questions

Review: Quentin Skinner’s ‘Forensic Shakespeare’

Gary Locke
• January 31, 2015 5:00 am

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The last 100 or so years of academic literary criticism have been spectacularly heterogeneous. A century that began with dons arguing about Chaucer’s verbs as if their lives were at stake and showering one another with Festschriften ended with Jonathan Goldberg’s famous essay ‘The Anus in Coriolanus.’ The same poem by, say, Marvell might, depending upon whom one reads, be a dry, delicious repository of philological knowledge or a helpful data point for those interested in the history of bourgeois exploitation. It might be "about" almost anything: the bliss of prelapsarian man, trees, nothing.

The temptation to leave the asylum to the lunatics is strong, especially in the case of Shakespeare. The sanest course would be to agree with Dr. Johnson, who starkly declared him "above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life," his reputation "safe, till human nature shall be changed," and leave it at that.

Yet we seem to need Shakespeare criticism. More than 140,000 entries appear in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s most recent bibliography—which only goes back as far as 1960. Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World were bestsellers. Books and television programs pushing the idea that the author of The Tempest was actually a cipher for a queen who died eight years before that play could possibly have been composed, or an earl whose awful poems under his own name we in fact have, or a committee whose existence is alluded to in not a single document are perennially popular.

Why might this be? I opt for the simplest explanation—that the extraordinary richness of the plays and poems demands, if not a thorough accounting, the pursuit of which tends to lead one down the road to anti-Stratford, at least piecemeal explanation. Any scrap is welcome.

Forensic Shakespeare reminds me of the sort of work I often wish I were reading when forced to dip into bad contemporary criticism. (I was only slightly disappointed when I realized that I had not signed up to review a historical crime novel about Shakespeare doing amateur detective work.) Quentin Skinner’s new book is decently written, formidably researched, and free of any cloying social or political agenda. Like the best of the old historical critics, Skinner, a professor of humanities at the University of London, can be almost charmingly dull at times. There is much here that is old fashioned, even quaint—not least his revival of the somewhat antiquated idea of the so-called "problem plays" as a distinct genre.

Skinner has set out to demonstrate that the Latin rhetorical tradition of Cicero, Quintilian, and various Renaissance textbooks with which Shakespeare became acquainted in grammar school influenced him indelibly, and that their influence, traceable throughout his work, is especially apparent in three of the four problem plays—Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well—and Othello.

Skinner begins with an overview of the art of rhetoric as it was practiced in early modern England. This summary is short but masterful. Taken on its own, it could easily serve as a primer for a subject with which most of us could stand to be better acquainted. (He also, in passing, corrects the vulgar error that Shakespeare was a bad Latinist.) The classical rhetoricians understood their discipline to comprise five elements: inventio, dispositio, elocutio memoria, pronunciato. Of these, inventio, "the process of trying to find out (invenire) what needs to be said," was considered the most important; elocutio, "rhetorical style, including the ornamentation of our utterances by the figures and tropes of our speech" was a second-order concern. The idea that for Shakespeare metaphor might have been an afterthought is sobering.

At times, as in Henry VI, Part 2, Richard II, and The Merchant of Venice, in which verdicts are after all formally handed down, Shakespeare’s interest in judicial rhetoric is explicit, indeed obvious. But Skinner believes that Shakespeare consulted rhetorical textbooks while composing nearly all of his works. That he might have owned at least one such book is not groundless speculation: Richard Field, a friend and former schoolmate of Shakespeare who was also his first publisher, bought out a London publisher’s stock of Cicero’s De Inventione and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium.

Skinner’s handling of the ghost in Hamlet is representative of his exhaustive approach. After introducing himself ("I am thy father’s spirit"), the specter recounts his murder at the hands of his brother. "O my prophetic soul! My uncle!" the prince says, already half-convinced of Claudius’ treachery.

[The ghost] begins to speak of Claudius as his principal adversary. However, he is far from denouncing him in the gibbering manner common among ghosts on the Elizabethan stage. He knows how to comport himself with classical decorum and steadiness, although he makes it clear that his specific aim is indeed to bring Claudius into hatred, unpopularity, and contempt.…

To bring our adversaries into hatred, the Ad Herennium had proposed, we must first describe them as spurcus, a word usually translated in the Latin-English dictionaries of the time as unclean and filthy, but with connotations of impurity, adulteration, and defilement. The ghost duly begins by reviling Claudius as "that incestuous, that adulterate beast." We must also describe our adversaries as perfidious, a word generally rendered as treacherous or traitorous. The ghost next denounces Claudius’ "trayterous gifts," which he attributes to his devilish power of witchcraft. Finally, we are told to protest that the conduct of our adversaries has been malitiousus and flagitiosus.…

He continues in this vein for several pages, purporting to show us a line-by-line, indeed almost word-for-word correspondence between the ghost’s lines and various prescriptions from rhetorical authorities. In small doses, this sort of thing is compelling, but after nearly 300 pages, the reader begins to wonder whether Skinner is overselling an otherwise compelling thesis.

Is it really the case that the dead king’s account of his murder is just barely believable because his spectral rhetoric is only borderline Ciceronian? Does this exhaust the reasons the prince might have for being dubious at first? What if Hamlet is ambivalent because his father’s ghost is—a ghost? The same goes for Polonius, whose windiness Skinner analyzes at length. Playgoers and readers have recognized for four centuries now that he is a dull fellow. Did Shakespeare really need to harken back to his school days in order to give us a picture of tedium, like a middle-aged accountant straining to recall his multiplication tables? Skinner’s occasional disclaimers about the Bard’s equal reliance upon his "dramatic instincts" are welcome, but they also strike one as having been put in at the insistence of an anxious editor.

From Skinner’s preface one learns that this book grew out of the venerable Clarendon Lectures, which he gave at Oxford in 2011. In such a venue, I cannot help but think, his argument might have taken on a rather different character, perhaps that of a frightfully erudite put-on, like Stephen Dedalus’s "idea of Hamlet" from the National Library episode in Ulysses.

Still, I’m not protesting too much. Skinner has read the plays with care, attention—even love. If some readers accuse him of failing to see the woods for the trees, the inevitable rejoinder, surely, is that at least it’s the Forest of Arden he’s lost in.

Published under: Book reviews