Structural Secrets: Shakespeare's Complex Chiasmus

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

In 1753, Robert Lowth, D.D., Bishop of London and the former Professor of Poetry at New College, Oxford, published a series of lectures on biblical Hebrew texts that permanently altered the fundamental approach to modern biblical interpretation. (1) Noting a frequently recurring pattern of related phrases set into adjoining positions in the text, he "coined the phrase parallelismus membrorum ('the parallelism of the clauses')" (Kuge 112) to describe these forms and subsequently triggered a major paradigm shift in Hebrew translation and the understanding of biblical structure. Yet, even though he identified these structures, and even recognized complex arrangements of interrelated parallelisms in the text, he never fully realized the elaborate systems these fundamental parallelisms could build. Not until 1942, when Nils Lund published his groundbreaking book Chiasmus in the New Testament, did researchers begin to comprehend the full scope of parallelisms, particularly the way in which they formed the fundamental units of complex biblical chiasmus--a large-scale form of chiasmus, more intricate than the structures previously thought to exist in the Western classical rhetorical tradition (Welch, "Chiasmus in Ancient Greek" 259)--and a new field in biblical research emerged to form a crucial branch of interpretive analysis.

Despite the modern biblical community's apparent discovery of these ancient and highly complex forms, they had in fact merely rediscovered a compositional style and tradition that had been recognized among Western writers in earlier centuries. This was, at the very least, true among British writers who had utilized these complex systems "from the time of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest and beyond" (Howlett 1). Nevertheless, even though these patterns were commonly used in earlier centuries, an awareness of the large-scale biblical patterns appears to have begun fading into the background with the passage of time, and English Renaissance books on rhetoric and poetry remain silent on the subject. (2) However, notwithstanding this apparent decline, nearly three hundred fifty years before Lund and a century and a half before Lowth, a young writer in Britain began incorporating these complex structural patterns into his texts. Combining his classical rhetorical training with biblical structural traditions, he adopted this unique system into his work and it not only enhanced his compositional techniques but would also reveal the development of his structural style and provide an additional tool for future textual exegesis and research. His works consisted of poetry and plays, and the young man's name was William Shakespeare.

2. Fundamentals of Biblical Chiasmus

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, chiasmus is "a grammatical figure by which the order of words in one of two parallel clauses is inverted in the other" (103). Simple chiasms are common in many languages, and even though the layperson may not be familiar with the term chiasmus, the wordplay is easily recognized: "Ajax, who wears his wit in his belly and his guts in his head" (Tro 2.1.73-4). (3) This basic definition of chiasmus, however, is the result of a modern classical rhetorical viewpoint, and today nearly all standard dictionary definitions do not include the large-scale structures found in ancient literature. Therefore, to fully understand what these larger structures are and how they operate in Shakespeare's text requires a closer look at the fundamental structural units that work together to compose chiasmus.

The primary component of complex chiasmus, which is also one of the basic structural units in the Bible, is parallelism (Kugel 1; Breck 93). Bishop Lowth defines this structure simply as "the correspondence of one verse or line with another" (Lowth, Isaiah viii), while a modern definition describes it as "a component of literary style in both prose and poetry, in which coordinate ideas are arranged in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that balance one element with another of equal importance and similar wording. …