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Blackfriars Conference 2013 — Colloquy Session #7: Rhetoric

Good afternoon, everyone — Cass Morris here with one of today’s four colloquy sessions: Rhetoric. The participants in this session are: James Beaver, Scott Crider, Fiona Harris-Ramsby, Jane Jongeward, and Kyle Vitale, moderated by Chelsea Phillips. I will be liveblogging this session from 3:30-4:45pm.

Phillips begins by suggesting that the participants introduce each others’ papers, move onto the papers themselves and discussion of the role of rhetoric in  each participant’s larger work, then move on to the responses to each paper. Phillips also encourages the auditors to participate throughout.

We begin with Beaver and Jongeward introducing themselves and each other.  Jongeward’s paper concerns statistical analysis of unfinished lines in King Lear – using mathematics to judge verse irregularities, specifically unfinished lines. Lear has the highest ratio of unfinished lines (11%). Jongeward finds this high proportion significant, as it is “a play full of people who will not listen to each other.” Beaver’s paper argues that the rhetoric used for describing the wood in Titus Andronicus shapes the social relationships on-stage. He notes both the discrepancy between the court and the woods, with the latter perfect for enacting violence, as well as Tamora’s use of rhetoric to effectively build a set. Beaver relates to Latour’s concepts of objects (in this case, the woods) as both social and physical.

Second, Vitale and Harris-Ramsby introduce each other. Vitale’s paper argues that scholarship neglects to account for Elizabethan notions of reverence. He examines how Shakespeare’s attitude towards reverence is complex and uses to satirize and appropriate religious conformity fostered by the Tudor state and reinforced throughout time. Concerned with relationship dynamics of reference, Vitale questions how Shakespeare enacts the bodied act of reverence in royal figures. Vitale argues that Shakespeare collapses the concepts of “crown” and “crowd” through an examination of Richard II. Vitale notes that he is also working with Beaver on “books as gatherings.” Harris-Ramsby’s paper looks at Troilus and Cressida, challenging the notion of Cressida as subjugated female body by arguing that Cressida’s rhetoric fights against that idea and against the external construction of Cressida’s self by others. She looks particularly at Cressida’s use of aposiopesis, arguing that she literally “becomes” that figure of speech. Harris-Ramsby’s larger work looks backwards towards the origins of rhetoric in the construction of character in Greek drama, and how that informs modern theories of performativity.

The third pair is Phillips and Crider. Crider argues that the Macbeths use periphrasis, among other rhetorical devices, for unethical purposes, and that their use of it initially brings them together but ultimately erodes their relationship. He believes that the rhetorical constructions in Macbeth help to illustrate the slippery slope between words and action. Crider comments that he is looking more closely at Ciceronian concepts of rhetoric. He is interested in working with others who are interested in figuration as integrated with the larger world of rhetoric. Phillips is examining instances of repetition in Othello (see the Wordle she created to illustrate). Her focus is centered on the psychological effect of repetition — that the truth of a statement is assumed with its repetition. Phillips looks particularly at Iago’s use of repetition to manipulate Othello, and that his ability to do so decreases after Emilia takes it over. She focuses on three forms: general repetition (from audience or reader perception), intentional repetition (character perspective), and compulsive repetition (spontaneous from character perspective). Phillips argues that Emilia’s imitation of her husband’s rhetorical forms reveals his villainy.

Phillips then opens up to questions. Vitale asks Crider if he’s thought at all about how the play Macbeth itself acts as figuration, presenting an idea for the audience/reader. Crider responds, “My answer at first is, ‘I don’t know.’ But that doesn’t mean I won’t respond.” Crider says he finds that acts of persuasion within a play often act upon the audience in a similar manner. He questions the idea of if a rhetorical figure can, in itself, have an ethical configuration — and concludes that, no, probably not, they have to be examined in context — particularly since the figures generally appear tangled with each other in use. He says he does believe that the figures in the play and the play on the whole do have the potential to move the audience ethically. Vitale further questions if Crider thinks it relates to the early modern/Puritan idea of theatre’s ability to affect the audience. Crider responds that he thinks the play itself negates the probability that the audience would rest at complicity with the Macbeths, since we see the outcome.

Phillips notes that this idea of morality in rhetoric appeared in several of the papers, particularly turning the attention to Harris-Ramsby’s ideas on Cressida as intentionally performing certain figures or as speaking them spontaneously. Harris-Ramsby discusses that, with aposiopesis particularly, it draws attention to the compulsive power of silence. “It depends on how the actress embodies the figure, because there’s a decision to be made as to the duplicity of the figure itself.” Is it that Cressida is overcome by bashfulness, or does she break off her speech in order to reflect? Is she reclaiming some of her own power, working against the constitution of her as duplicitous? Phillips connects this to the silences in Jongeward’s paper — what do we do with these silences? Jongeward notes that her discovery led her to question that, if we see a rhetorical device heavily in use in one play that we don’t see in others, “can we change how we normally see it?” Phillips relates this to how we think a lot about “not seeing” in Lear, but that Jongeward’s paper made her think about other sensory deprivations, particularly “not-hearing”. Crider interjects that “rhetorical figures have a very broad effect.”

Phillips tells the auditors that the group has had a lot of comments on how “rhetoric creates reality” or space, and directs the conversation to that theme. She draws attention particularly to Beaver, to the issue of language “literally creating space” on the early modern stage. Beaver says he wants to “get away from thinking of language as referential,” noting that no stage tree is going to be able to do all the things that Tamora says or implies. And, he doesn’t think the audience expects that. “They want the image of the words conjuring something.” He also notes how Aaron sort of forces her to shift her approach, since she starts out “in the wrong genre.” Beaver notes that Tamora’s speech draws us off into different temporalities, particularly with her use of seasonal vocabulary and her ventriloquizing of other voices.

Vitale has an interesting reading of the first scene of Richard II, noting it as one of the only representations of a “divine king already troubled”. He relates the conversation in this scene to passages from the Book of Common Prayer. He considers that the language, in a way, transposes the audience to the space of a church, importing the desires and meanings of prayer, and the “potential failures of all that that prayer is wrapped up in”, essentially “placing the audience before the Eucharist”. Vitale notes that “reverence is an incredibly invisible term” — oft relied upon, rarely enumerated. Reverence, he claims, was used as both strategy and tactic in the early modern church. Relating to the idea of the forceful use of reverence, Harris-Ramsby says that she thinks that, when we discuss rhetoric constructing reality, we tend to think too restrictively. Troilus and Cressida, she notes, is very much about reconfiguring — and notes that the typical construction of Cressida as a whore is problematic in lights of that subversion. Crider discusses how it relates to the idea of praise and dispraise, and to rhetorical underpinnings of “the sublime”.

Phillips then turns the group’s attention to the performance possibilities of these rhetorical understandings — how does the actor embody them, and what affect does that have on the audience? “Can it be genuine flustration,” Phillips asks (wondering if she can use that as a word) “in one instance” and somewhat intentional and crafty in another? Harris-Ramsby notes that, even if it is intentional, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly seen as a strategy of self-preservation.

Harris-Ramsby then asks to interrogate the notion of persuasive rhetoric as seen in a negative light, especially in Othello, and if that changes when Emilia subverts the expectation, turning it more cathartic and “gets the bad guy”. Phillips replies that Emilia’s repetitive rhetoric starts off with her caught in a cycle, repeating “My husband”, but that she eventually becomes able to use that in order to damn Iago. Phillips notes that these repetitions cue Iago to speak, but also prevent him from speaking — and that she finds something quite powerful about how the character who has had 1100 lines is thus not only silent, but frustratingly silent. The group spends a moment discussing the rhetorical struggle between Iago and Emilia in that last scene, and Harris-Ramsby notes that Emilia’s triumph moves the audience from being passively complicit with Iago to feeling themselves represented and vindicated by Emilia. Phillips states that, “What is really insidious about Iago is that he doesn’t have to repeat things very frequently to make people lose their minds over it.”

Beaver brings up the fact that everyone wrote about rhetoric in tragedies, and particularly the idea of repetition leading into violence, as well as the focus on repetition, either within a trope or of a trope. Phillips thinks it relates specifically to Crider’s points about the relationship between language and action. “Maybe we run out of rhetoric at some point and then have to stab somebody.” Auditor Peter Kanelos notes that, in comedies, “They use rhetoric and then, instead of stabbing somebody, they kiss somebody.” Crider points out that you may have to do either; Kanelos notes that, “if it’s Jacobean, you do both at the same time.”

Crider states that he started look at the Macbeths because he wanted to look at a marriage, not a courtship. He’s interested in how the use of rhetoric to deliberate does eventually force an action on the stage. “If we think of human deliberation as a category, we can then see why speech yields to action.” Vitale relates that to the early modern period’s ideas on theology — and thus, its logic — in a way that the 21st century doesn’t necessarily track. Crider thinks that relates to the romances, with their strong themes of redemption and transformation. Phillips asks Crider if Macbeth’s deliberation seems to grow less frequent; he confirms and says that he thinks it moves from periphrastic to hyperbole to a plain style by the end of the play.

Crider seeks to shift the focus to the idea of how people respond to being treated “with a kind of verbal violence” in Troilus and Cressida and King Lear, and he inquires if Cressida acquires agency in the kissing scene through the rhetorical forms. Harris-Ramsby thinks she is “more performing the complete illogicality of what’s happening to her”. Crider then asks if she rather compels an audience to recognize how her agency has been taken from her. Engaging with an auditor, Harris-Ramsby discusses what choices Cressida has in that moment. When the auditor asks, “Could she pull a Lucretia and kill herself?”, Harris-Ramsby replies, “I think I’d rather just break off my speech.”

Noting that we are nearly out of time, Phillips poses a last question, inspired by a point in Beaver’s paper: Looking at rhetoric and performance as a cycle of reproduction, what is then produced? Beaver says his best answer is, in his text, what Aaron says, “an excellent piece of villany”. Jongeward notes that, at least in the tragic worlds of these plays, what they produce is only destruction, and therefore nothing. Vitale thinks that mere catharsis is too passive; he sees “a call that requires a response of some kind”. Crider wants to know what it is that actors get out of rhetorical consideration of the text. Harris-Ramsby agrees, stating that “rhetoric and performance always intersect at the body”. And Phillips says that that was her answer: what we get is performance possibility.

Thanks to everyone who attended this session! (We had a very full room). This was a great discussion and I think will generate a lot of further thought and study.