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New in Paperback: Rome and Rhetoric

By (January 13, 2013) No Comment

Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesarrome and rhetoric

by Garry Wills

Yale University Press, 2013 (paperback)

There’s the slightest whiff of an ideology running underneath the wonderful thinking and appreciating going on in Garry Wills’ slim volume Rome and Rhetoric (four chapters originally given as Anthony Hecht Lectures in the Humanities and now out in paperback from the author’s alma mater, Yale University). These four chapters – one on the character of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, one on Brutus, one on Antony, and one on Cassius – concentrate Wills’ look at the play on explicitly rhetorical grounds: they take the brilliant language of one of Shakespeare’s greatest (and most paradoxical) plays and overlay upon it the formal schema of ancient Roman rhetoric.

There’s much else besides, of course – Wills is one of our most talented and far-ranging public intellectuals and a damn fine writer. He’s incapable of writing boring prose, and even when his particular manias go astray, they’re always fascinating. It must have been great fun, listening to him give these lectures that manage to throw such light over so many different aspects of this play, as when he challenges modern portrayals of the man at the center of the action:

Caesar is a commanding figure in the Renaissance imagination. He should be played that way in Shakespeare’s drama. Otherwise the power of his specter to haunt all the later action of the play makes no sense. Burbage had to make Caesar a figure to reckon with. To present him, as so often happens now, as a tinpot dictator or a dithering old fool is to reduce the scale of the tragedy.

This most likely isn’t true; the post-assassination ‘power’ of great Caesar’s ghost to haunt Brutus later in the play (not ‘all the later action of the play’ – just poor Brutus) is all about ‘haunt’ and not at all about ‘power’ – the crippling psychology involved has almost nothing to do with how ‘commanding’ Caesar is at the beginning of the play (and pace Wills, Shakespeare goes out of his way to make his Caesar anything but commanding). But the challenge gets the reader thinking, and who knows? Wills might be right.

Likewise his repeated assertion that “there are no villains in this play”:

Though each character has his own self-interest, and a readiness to use or do away with other characters, all think they are doing so for the honor or glory or persistence of Rome. This play is the only one that gives us all Rome all the time.

This could very well be also wrong – certainly Cassius seems to fill the bill for a villain, at least in terms of being a lying manipulator who grandly admits his own sins. But Wills is certainly right that the main characters in Julius Caesar are given such amazing three-dimensional volition that none of them struts or preens like a typical Renaissance villain, or even most typical Shakespeare villains.

As good as Wills is at tightening his focus to the talk in this one play, some of the most memorable highlights of these lectures occur when he allows his focus to broaden just briefly. When he talks about the London theater world so dominated by actor Richard Burbage, for instance, he’s fascinating – or when he makes some provocative comparisons between the biggest names in the English canon:

What Byron was to Keats, Jonson was to Shakespeare – one man saying the other cannot do what in fact he has done. But Shakespeare’s achievement is greater than Keats’s. The latter saw the ideality and adventurousness of the Greek spirit, but Shakespeare saw all around the Roman ethos, its bellicose and cold-blooded side, as well as its aspirations after honor and nobility. He gives us the Roman mobs as well as the Roman snobs. He has called up, for all time, a world whose time was over.

Not sure what that business is about Shakespeare ‘calling up’ ancient Rome – the Rome in Julius Caesar is first, last, and only Elizabethan England – but parallelisms between Shakespeare and Keats are always interesting, and Wills is one of those writers whose ruminations on other writers tend to be fruitful. That’s the draw of this book in the first place: Wills on Shakespeare could pack any auditorium in Christendom.

But on any subject he chooses to address, we get his weaknesses as well as his strengths, and one of his most persistent (albeit still interesting) weaknesses is a tendency to project his own mental world onto his subjects. This was almost comically unavoidable in his short book on St. Augustine, and it’s very much present in this volume as well. The book’s very focus guarantees it: Wills is Jesuit-taught to his eyeballs – for him, the structures and glories of formal rhetoric are cool water in which to swim. When he unlimbers the terminology – dissoi logoi (paired pleadings), syngkrisis (joint judgement), and all the rest, we are duly impressed. When he begins to anatomize the various set-piece speeches in Julius Caesar along the axes of their ironia, praeteritio, interrogatio, anaphora, aposiopesis, polyptoton, khiasmos, ploke, homoioteleuton, and isokola, the exercise can’t help but be instructive.

But the more of it he piles on, the more even the most well-disposed reader might be tempted to draw back and say, “Well, OK, but gosh – aren’t you imputing a great deal of formal rhetorical training to Shakespeare?” Then that reader might pause and look up just what we know about Shakespeare’s formal education.

It hasn’t changed since the last time somebody looked it up: Stratford-on-Avon was near enough to the King’s New School (staffed by Oxford graduates) for us to theorize that boy Shakespeare might have attended, but we have no records that say he did, no budgets, and no reminiscences by schoolmates or teachers, even later in the days of his fame. When it came time for him to write Julius Caesar, we know he probably used Thomas North’s great version of Jacques Amyot’s French edition of Plutarch, and there can be little doubt that Plutarch was as well-trained in classical rhetoric as anybody could be. But the closest Wills ever comes to addressing the question of Shakespeare’s own rhetorical training – the question he himself inadvertently but overwhelmingly raises by all that talk of syngkrisis and aposiopesis – is the one moment when he mentions “the Canterbury school attended by Christopher Marlowe.”

That “Canterbury school” was the King’s School, a far older and more formidable institution altogether than the modern spin-off near Stratford. “The Latin training in Shakespeare’s time was highly rhetorical,” Wills tells us, and so it was – but, unlike in Marlowe’s case (or Ben Jonson’s), we don’t know that Shakespeare had such training. Wills is perfectly entitled to assume he did, to assume that little school near Stratford polished its country boys’ polyptotons and plokes until they glowed i’ th’ sun, to assume that busy, child-fathering, deer-poaching, theater-apprenticing Shakespeare remembered it all and produced flawless examples ten years later during the busiest theater season of his professional life.

The problem is, Wills does assume it – to such a deep-seated ideological extent that he doesn’t feel it necessary even to address the doubts his own extensive rhetorical analyses might be raising. This won’t be an issue for those readers who have no trouble believing Shakespeare absorbed the perfectly-balanced skills of a master rhetorician when he was ten. The rest of us might want to put our money on Plutarch. In either case, the innate power of the drama involved tends to get overlooked.



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