Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Backbiter and the Rhetoric of Detraction

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Backbiter and the Rhetoric of Detraction

Article excerpt

This essay will look at the development of one proto-Vice figure, Back-biter, as he appears in two East Anglian playtexts from the fifteenth century,(1) The Castle of Perseverance and the N-Town "Trial of Joseph and Mary" share this character, and although his roles in the two plays are not the same, his functions derive from the same potentialities--potentialities enlivened by rhetoric. This examination will begin by discussing the earlier Castle of Perseverance and follow with a discussion of the N-Town "Trial" play in an effort to show the impact of the dissident quality of Backbiter's rhetoric--indeed, Backbiter as rhetoric--upon the operations of the plays.

Although his role in The Castle of Perseverance (circa 1425) has not seemed significant to many previous students of the morality tradition, Backbiter (also referred to as Detractio in the speech-headings and as Flibbertigibbet at lines 775, 1724, and 1733) occupies a complex position in this early English play.(2) Backbiter is not simply a "bad" figure in the play who leads Mankind away from the path of righteousness and into sin in the same way that the Bad Angel and Covetousness do; on the contrary, this messenger of the World, the relative brevity of his appearances notwithstanding, manages to "serve" Mankind by bringing him to Covetousness--and hence sin--and to subvert the authority of his evil superiors by pitting them against each other, pulling it all off without suffering punishment. Backbiter crosses--transgresses--boundaries between what is ostensibly good and evil in the play and renders those boundaries susceptible to ambivalence in the process. More is at stake here than comic appeal. The medium Backbiter uses and, indeed, embodies allegorically and dramatically, to transgress these boundaries is language. An examination of Backbiter's language in The Castle of Perseverance demonstrates the extent to which he represents the coalescence of rhetorical views on detraction and the uses of rhetoric in general in order to present the audience with a conception of evil that is at once highly rhetoricized and markedly ambivalent and, further, the extent to which this rhetorical ambivalence is an index of Backbiter's moral positioning as a representative of evil in the play who suffers no retribution for his wrongdoing.(3) A discussion of some of the rhetorical background behind Backbiter will be followed by a consideration of his allegorical and rhetorical representation in the play as evidenced by his relationship with the audience, with Mankind, and with the "bad" figures.(4)

The first thing that needs to be established by way of background is a sense of the parts of rhetoric as they would have been understood by an educated medieval English audience. Two classical texts, the Rhetorica ad Herennium and Cicero's De inventione, are especially good sources to draw upon for this summary because they were widely known in England during the medieval period.(5) An excerpt from De inventione, for example, provides such an encapsulation of rhetoric:

   partes autem eae quas plerique dixerunt, inventio, dispositio, elocutio,
   memoria, pronuntiatio. Inventio est excogitatio rerum verarum aut veri
   similium quae causam probabilem reddant; dispositio est rerum inventarum in
   ordinem distributio; elocutio est idoneorum verborum ad inventionem
   accomodatio; memoria est firma animi rerum ac verborum perceptio;
   pronuntiatio est ex rerum et verborum dignitate vocis et corporis
   moderatio.

   [The parts of it, as most authorities have stated, are Invention,
   Arrangement, Expression, Memory, Delivery. Invention is the discovery of
   valid or seemingly valid arguments to render one's cause plausible.
   Arrangement is the distribution of arguments thus discovered in the proper
   order. Expression is the fitting of the proper language to the invented
   matter. Memory is the firm mental grasp of matter and words. Delivery is
   the control of voice and body in a manner suitable to the dignity of the
   subject matter and the style. … 
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