Structural Secrets: Shakespeare's Complex Chiasmus

By Davis, William L. | Style, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Structural Secrets: Shakespeare's Complex Chiasmus


Davis, William L., Style


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Structural Secrets: Shakespeare's Complex Chiasmus
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.