Style: Essays on Renaissance and Restoration Language and Culture in Memory of Harriet Hawkins

By Allen Michie; Eric Buckley | Go to book overview

Shakespeare’s Eloquence

Maurice Charney

THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY DEFINES “ELOQUENCE” IN ITS FIRST meaning as “The action, practice, or art of expressing thought with fluency, force, and appropriateness, so as to appeal to the reason or move the feelings.”1 They see it as a word primarily relating to oral utterance, with emphasis on impassioned discourse in its modern usage. Shakespeare’s eloquence is intimately connected with dramatic speech, which is quite different from the eloquence of lyric poetry that we read printed on the page. Of course, we do read Shakespeare primarily on the printed page, but we are always trying to reproduce in our reading the words as they may or should be spoken in performance. We are all inherently actors, or, in the popular phrase, “hams.” Shakespeare’s eloquence can’t just apply to the words themselves, sui generis, but to the words spoken in their dramatic context. The words in a play can’t float free of their place in the text, or their context. I would like to explore some eloquent places in Shakespeare’s plays—or at least places that seem eloquent to me, in the sense that the words are endowed with special passion, force, and aptness in the theatrical situation in which they occur.

Let us begin with some relatively simple examples from Julius Caesar, a play in which the imaginative resources of language are extremely limited. Written just a few years before Hamlet, which has one of the most extensive vocabularies in Shakespeare, Julius Caesar has one of the smallest. Shakespeare seems to be trying to create a Roman style for this play that would be appropriate for its Roman theme. The language is relatively simple and so is the syntax, with a very limited use of metaphors, similes, and other figurative devices. The Roman style is sober, direct, and unimpassioned, yet there are occasions of powerful expression. I am thinking particularly of the exciting moment in act 2, scene 5 when Brutus agrees to tell his wife Portia his secrets, especially his decision to join the conspiracy against Caesar. Portia is an early feminist in her

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