Academic journal article Style

Shakespeare's "Still-Vexed" Tempest

Academic journal article Style

Shakespeare's "Still-Vexed" Tempest

Article excerpt

In recent decades, commentators on Shakespearean drama have shown how early modern rhetorical figures, as described for example by George Puttenham in The Arte of English Poesie (1589), provide the paradigm for better understanding the essence of both the dramatic methods and values of Titus Andronicus and Hamlet (synecdoche), King John (antimetabole), and Coriolanus (a kinetic combination of metonymy and synecdoche) (Kendall; Baldo; Hunt, "Antimetabolic King John"; Danson 142-62). Few commentators have shown, however, how a single phrase in a Shakespeare play encapsulates a rhetorical trope that describes a signature experience of that play. This is what I do in the following paragraphs for the late romance The Tempest. The phrase in question is "still-vexed," appearing in Ariel's early utterance "where once / Thou called'st me up at midnight to fetch dew / From the still-vexed Bermudas" (1.2.229-31). (1) This two-word phrase, once recognized and construed as an oxymoron, represents a primary dramatic effect of The Tempest, for both characters and playgoers alike. Analysis conducted in terms of the oxymoronic paradigm "still-vexed" describes in a new way the persistence of a dynamic in The Tempest that plays into and indirectly makes possible the drama's emphasis upon release from bondage or confinement. (2) In this respect, I claim for the trope oxymoron the paradigmatic power in The Tempest that G. I. Duthie did concerning Macbeth when he described this tragedy as partly consisting of "'expanded oxymor[a],' in which two contraries are seen as coexisting within a single experience." (3) Such rhetorical analysis also demonstrates, once again, the "musical" genius of Shakespeare, in which a rich dramatic score appears to be concentrated in a complementary microcosm.

The basic meaning of the phrase "still-vexed" in Ariel's dialogue with Prospero is hardly oxymoronic. Heard in its context, the utterance simply means that the Bermuda islands are "ever [always] stormy" (Bevington 1533). Sometimes an editor of the play understands "still" in the phrase to mean "continually" rather than "always." (Righter 147). But the difference here is inconsequential for the fundamental meaning of the phrase in context; David Bevington formulates, in the just-quoted gloss, what has become the modern reading of this utterance in the second scene of The Tempest. (4) Peggy Munoz Symonds understands the phrase in this sense when she states that "Ariel is experienced in fetching such potent 'dew' for Prospero from the distant Bermouthes or Bermuda, the site of numerous tempests or boilings" (550). (5) A handbook definition of the rhetorical trope oxymoron describes it as "a self-contradictory combination of words or smaller verbal units," such as "pianoforte," "chiaroscuro," and "[t]he Latin maxim Festina lente ("Hurry slowly")" (Holman and Harmon 353). (6) Clearly the meaning "ever stormy Bermudas" lacks the self-contradictory essence of oxymoron. Shakespeare toward the end of his career became especially drawn to compound--hyphenated--phrases, such as the "ever-angry bears" in Prospero's utterance "Thy groans / Did make wolves howl, and penetrate the breasts / Of ever-angry bears" (1.2.289-91). Yet if Shakespeare had written "ever-vexed" rather than the phrase he did, he would have missed the opportunity to condense into a resonant phrase several preoccupations of The Tempest.

Shakespeare salted the text of The Tempest with oxymoronic phrases, for example, "full poor cell" (1.2.20), "baked with frost" (1.2.257), "new-dyed" (2.1.66). Interestingly, these poetic oxymora cluster in the early part of the play. Shakespeare and other Jacobeans most likely did not call these phrases oxymora. The OED records no date before 1657 for usage of the English word oxymoron for the kind of trope we call by this name in Shakespeare's plays. Puttenham in The Arte of English Poesie never classifies a trope as an oxymoron. What we call an oxymoron, Puttenham, Shakespeare, and their more literate contemporaries likely considered a paradox, perhaps a distant cousin of Syneciosis. …

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