Academic journal article Style

Antimetabolic King John

Academic journal article Style

Antimetabolic King John

Article excerpt

Lawrence Danson, among others, has demonstrated that certain rhetorical tropes as Elizabethans understood them characterize and order some Shakespeare plays. The action of Coriolanus, for example, amounts to a kinetic combination of two tropes--metonymy and synecdoche (142-62). To these tropes might be added hyperbole in Cymbeline, the "Ouer reacher" (or "lowd lyar") according to the sixteenth-century English literary critic George Puttenham (191-93). Repeatedly, Posthumus Leonatus, Imogen, Iachimo, and other characters of this romantic tragicomedy apply the prefixes of "out" and "o'er" to many words to convey straining ideas of unparalleled beauty, virtue, courtesy, or betrayal and degradation. Hyperbole so created registers what might be called a dramaturgy of hysteria, occasioned by characters' attempts to live in and make sense of a fractured dramatic world made up of pagan Britain, Classical Rome, Renaissance Italy, and Jacobean court. Given these and other precedents (such as that of George Wright), I a rgue in what follows that a chiastic trope, antimetabole, represents a microcosm of the experience of watching and interpreting Shakespeare's King John. More specifically, the many antimetabolic tropes of King John condense and translate for auditors and readers the various mirrorings and impasses of this chronicle history that help create its characteristic indeterminate meaning. [1]

In an introductory section of the recent Oxford Shakespeare Life and Death of King John, editor A. R. Braunmuller remarks that an analysis of the plot of the play "'built around the question of who should be King of England' [...] produces an X-shaped, or chiastic, pattern similar to that in Richard II: like Richard, King John declines; like Bolingbroke, the Bastard 'rises'" (72). Braunmuller further asserts that "Shakespeare's factual material falls into two parts (almost 'halves'), and those two parts parallel other binary divisions: John triumphant and the Bastard detached in the first part, John indecisive and the Bastard confident in the second, for example, or domination by the older generation in the first and by the younger in the second, or female characters in the first, no female characters in the second, or lords loyal in the first part and disloyal in the second. Each division occurs or is announced or culminates in [scenes ii and iii of act IV], which might also be imagined as the 'crossing' of the chiastic structures I have already mentioned" (76). [2] Adrien Bonjour in an influential article first described and explored chiastic (intersecting) rising and falling patterns in this history play. The chiasmus of dramatic action that Bonjour, Braunmuller, and other commentators such as James Calderwood (351) attribute to King John seemingly materializes in the dialogue of Louis the Dauphin and Cardinal Pandulph. "But what shall I gain by young Arthur's fall?" Louis asks. "You, in the right of Lady Blanche your wife,/ May make all the claim that Arthur did" (III.iv.141-43). [3] Figured here in Arthur's fall and Blanche and Louis's projected rise is the X of chiasmus. What becomes important for assessing Bonjour's and Braunmuller's claims about chiastic design in Shakespeare's plotting of King John is our realization that this rise never occurs. [4] Arthur does die in the course of events, but John's son, Prince Henry, rather than Blanche or Louis becomes England's new monarch. Such schematic chiasmus is less than figurative; it is illusory. This fact suggests that any analysis of chiasmus in King John ought to involve first of all the play's language, which on occasion deceives theater audiences and literary critics as well as onstage characters as to the true nature of historical plotting.

Omitted in Bonjour's and Braunmuller's applications of chiasmus to the play is an account of the repeated chiastic rhetorical tropes of the play and their reproduction, or registering, in small of the playgoer's or reader's dramatic experience--an experience different in kind from an intersecting rising and falling pattern of action or character development. …

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