Shakespeare and Rhetorical Culture

Peter G. Platt

The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies. For just as different drugs dispel different secretions front the body, and some bring an end to the disease and others to life, so also in the case of speeches, some distress, others delight, some cause fears, others make the hearers bold, and some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.

(Plato, Gorgias 1972: 53)

1. Introduction

Shakespeare wrote in a culture almost as rhetorical as our own. While American and English elementary schools no longer feature formal rhetorical training as a central part of their educational programs, our modern culture - suffused with seductive advertising and political "spin-doctors" - is deeply conversant with the art of persuasion. And persuasion was at the heart of definitions of rhetoric in the manuals that taught Shakespeare and his contemporaries the art. Rhetoric, according to Aristotle in his Rhetoric, was "the faculty of observing on any given case the available means of persuasion" (1355b), while Cicero's De oratore tells students that "the duty of an orator is to speak in a style fitted to convince" (I. 31,. 138). But persuasion is never simple or wholly innocent, as Gorgias - one of the earliest commentators on rhetoric - suggests. There can never be a guarantee that rhetoric's tremendous power will be used or received in a constructive or healing fashion. Indeed, rhetoric's effect can be destructive, false, and harmful; the individual listening to the words - whatever their intent - can be bewitched by an "evil persuasion."

This potential to harm haunts the writings of Plato on oratory, and his attacks on rhetoric continued to reverberate in Shakespeare's day as they continue to in our own. In his Gorgias, Plato includes a discussion between Gorgias the Sophist and Socrates. The latter asserts that rhetoric has no need to discover the truth about things but merely to discover a technique of persuasion, so as to appear among the ignorant to have more knowledge than the expert" (459b-c). Similarly, the Socratically influenced Phaedrus says, in the dialogue that bears his name, that "the intending orator is under no necessity of understanding what is truly just, but only what is likely to be thought just by the body of men who are to give judgment; nor need he know what is truly good or noble, but what will be thought so, since it is on the latter, not the former, that persuasion depends" (Phaedrus, 259e--260a). Under the sway of the orator, there is nothing either good or noble but thinking makes it so. Plato sets up in these two dialogues what would become the key tenets of the anti-rhetorical prejudice: the philosopher is concerned with the true and the just, while the rhetorician strives only to appear just; persuasion is portrayed as inherently duplicitous and divorced from truth.

Aristotle's Rhetoric responds to this critique by admitting the doubleness of rhetoric and its essential strategy of arguing both sides of a question. Yet the goal of this approach, Aristotle argues, is to know the truth more fully: "we must be able to employ persuasion ... on opposite sides of a question, not in order that we may employ it in both ways (for we must not make people believe what is wrong), but in order that we may see clearly what the facts are, and that, if another man argues unfairly, we on our part may better be able to confute him" (1355a). Cicero goes a step further and claims that the rhetorical approach to language has a corresponding approach to knowledge: arguing on both sides of the question (disputatio in utramque partem) helps one acknowledge the difficulty of arriving at a single truth (see Academica, ii. 3. 7-9).

George Kennedy has suggested what is at stake in this debate between philosophy and rhetoric, truth and persuasion:

'I'he disagreement between Plato and the sophists over rhetoric was not simply an historical contingency, but reflects a fundamental cleavage between two irreconcilable ways of viewing the world. There have always been those, especially among philosophers and religious thinkers, who have emphasized goals and absolute standards and have talked much about truth, while there have been as many others to whom these concepts seem shadowy or imaginary and who find the only certain reality in the process of life and the present moment. In general, rhetoricians and orators, with certain distinguished exceptions, have held the latter view, which is the logical, if unconscious, basis of their common view of art as a response to a rhetorical challenge unconstrained by external principles. The difference is not only that between Plato and Gorgias, but between Demosthenes and Isocrates, Virgil and Ovid, Dante and Petrarch, and perhaps Milton and Shakespeare. (Kennedy 1963: 15)

This division, as Kennedy suggests, has implications that reach beyond speech and into the realms of knowledge and selfhood - into "ways of viewing the world."

Richard Lanham, sharing Kennedy's sense that rhetoric can shape the way a person comes to know the world and to conduct his or her life, has portrayed the tension as that between homo seriosus (serious man) and homo rhetoricus (rhetorical man). The former "possesses a central self, an irreducible identity. These selves combine into a single, homogeneously real society which constitutes a referent reality for the men living in it" (Lanham 1976:1). The latter, though,

is an actor; his reality public, dramatic.... The lowest common denominator of his life is a social situation.... He is thus committed to no single construction of the world; much rather, to prevailing in the game at hand.... Rhetorical man is trained not to discover reality but to manipulate it. Reality is what is accepted as reality, what is useful. (Ibid., 4)

There is something fictitious, constructed, and potentially false, then, about the rhetorical view of the world. Shakespeare's King Claudius certainly knows this, and in a rare moment of self-laceration, links his own general duplicity to the deception of rhetoric:

The harlot's cheek, beautified with plas'tring art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word

(Hamlet, III. I. 50-2)

Gilding deed with word, Claudius shows us that Shakespeare understood what historians of rhetoric articulated centuries later: the gap between speaking and being. Shakespeare, trained in the fundamentals of the rhetorical tradition, both used rhetoric and examined the problems that rhetoric raised for his culture. Furthermore, because the bulk of his professional life was spent working in and writing for the theater, he had a knowledge of - and a perfect forum for exploring - the rhetorical, theatrical nature of being human.

What I hope to do in this essay is provide a sense of "the range of rhetoric" in Shakespeare's Europe. First, I will briefly survey the classical tradition that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have been taught in school; the emphasis here will be on rhetoric as a process of speaking and writing. Next, I will turn to an expanded notion of the rhetorical, flexible self in the Renaissance, suggesting how rhetoric becomes connected to knowing and being. I will finish the essay by examining one scene from The Merchant of Venice, explicating the way in which Shakespeare not only employed but also interrogated the rhetorical system that he inherited.

2. The Classical Tradition of Rhetoric: A Sketch

An examination of classical rhetoric in an essay about Shakespeare is necessary because training in rhetoric was a central part of Shakespeare's and his contemporaries' educational program. Thanks largely to Erasmus and John Colet, who refounded St Paul's School, English humanists had a scheme for education - laid out in Erasmus's De ratione studii (1511) - which facilitated the teaching of the classical texts that they had helped recover and disseminate. Many of the rhetorical manuals had been available only in parts until the fifteenth century; Quintilian's Institutio oratoria, for example, was not known in full until 1416, when it was discovered at St Gall, a monastery in present-day Switzerland. Valuing classical texts and having more complete ones at their disposal, humanist educators placed rhetoric at the heart of their curriculum, believing that eloquence in speech was linked to virtue in action.
While some rhetoric books published in England in the sixteenth century were undoubtedly developed for students and stemmed from the influence of continental humanism, the interest in them had other, more complex roots, as Frank Whigham has proposed. Outlining a superior sort of human being - the rhetorician - these texts also afforded anyone who could read "access to power and its assorted privileges"; mastering the art of rhetoric gave one "a power open to many applications" (Whigham, 1984: 2). Whatever the complex, various sources of their appeal, rhetoric books began to emerge in England by the mid-sixteenth century, notably Leonard Coxes's The Arte or Crafte of Rethorique (1530), Richard Sherry's A Treatise on Schemes and Tropes (1550), Thomas Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique (1553), Gabriel Harvey's Rhetor (1575) and Ciceronianus (1576), Henry Peacham's The Garden of Eloquence (1577), Dudley Fenner's The Artes of Logicke and Retorike (1584), Abraham Fraunce's A Lawier's Logike and The Arcadian Retorike (1588), and George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie (1589).
The classical writers who provided the sources for these English handbooks tell us that rhetoric had its origins in fifth-century BC Athens and Syracuse, as attempts were made to put into writing the various practices of law courts, political assemblies, and ceremonial occasions. Surely, though, Richard Lanham is right to say that rhetoric did not begin in either Athens or Syracuse but in Eden, where "its basic techniques [were] first tried out against Eve - as Milton dramatizes" (Lanham 1991: 131). As soon as there was speech, a motive, and an audience, there was rhetoric.
Formal training in rhetoric certainly existed by the fourth century BC, when Isocrates came to prominence. It was Aristotle in this same century who most clearly articulated the three divisions of rhetoric, the three types of speeches, so important to Cicero and to the Renaissance humanists who were his apostles:
Rhetoric falls into three divisions, determined by the three classes of listeners to speeches. For of the three elements in speech-making - speaker, subject, and person addressed -- it is the last one, the hearer, that determines the speech's end and object. The hearer must be either a judge, with a decision to make about things past or future, or an observer. A member of the assembly decides about future events, a juryman about past events, while those who merely decide on the orator's skill are observers. From this list follows that there are three divisions of oratory - deliberative [political], forensic [judicial], and epideictic [demonstrative]. Deliberative speaking urges us either to do or not to do something.... Forensic speaking either attacks or defends somebody.... Epideictic oratory either praises or censures somebody. (Rhetoric, 1358a-b)
Besides emphasizing the power of the audience in any rhetorical performance, this passage links the type of speech to a particular mode of time: deliberative speeches, made in political assemblies, sought to shape future action; forensic speeches, made in law courts, commented on past actions (usually crimes); and epideictic speeches, made at public festivals or funerals, attempted to shape opinion in the present (which could, of course, lead to actions in the future),
For Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers, who lived under political and legal systems quite different from those of ancient Greece and Rome, epideictic was certainly the chief division of rhetoric. Indeed, Brian Vickers has claimed that "all literature became subsumed under epideictic, and all writing was perceived as occupying the related spheres of praise and blame" (1988: 54). For our purposes, Shakespeare's sonnets provide classic examples of epideictic oratory; the poet praises or blames the Young Man, the Dark Lady, and the Rival Poet throughout the sequence; analogues can be found throughout the Renaissance lyric tradition.
But what happened to an audience at a Shakespeare play? Surely, they experienced more than praise or blame (though they were certainly treated to epideixis in Marc Antony's funeral oration in Act III of Julius Caesar). The view of epideictic proposed by Vickers has been challenged by, among others, Victoria Kahn, who sees a blending of deliberative (political) and epideictic oratory in Renaissance rhetoric because, for the humanists so important to Shakespeare's education, "the deliberation involved in reading is itself understood as a form of the deliberation that leads to action" (Kahn 1985: 39). Because Kahn is primarily interested in reading - "the written text now takes on the functions of deliberative and judicial rhetoric" (p. 38. 38) - she focuses on the power of the Renaissance dialogue as a site for this sort of rhetorical work. Building on her arguments, I would propose the theaters as another location of Renaissance deliberative rhetoric: a place where audiences could hear and deliberate on dialogues and debates staged almost daily, and where they heard speeches in a form and forum very close to those of their ancient forebears.
The importance of rhetoric in shaping an audience's moral actions was recognized by Renaissance humanists, who had learned practical applications for classical texts "lessons applicable to warfare and administration as well as oratory and epic poetry" (Grafton 1991: 4). Using the claims made to defend rhetoric as a means of defending the poet, Sir Philip Sidney expresses a belief in the fashioning power of language in his Apology for Poet (a. 1581/1595): "[poetry] worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency as Nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him" (Sidney 1965: 101). Alluding to Xenophon's Cyropaedia, Sidney defends the poet because he has the ability, through his rhetorical creation (Cyrus), to persuade his reading audience to emulate his fictive character and thereby help generate many actual, ethical citizens (the "many Cyruses"). This was the humanist ideal: rhetorical models could produce authentic moral individuals.
Sidney's defense of poetry, focusing as it does on the need for the practical application of rhetorical and poetic performances, has its roots in the work of the two great Roman defenders of rhetoric: Cicero and Quintilian. Influenced by Isocrates' emphasis on the link between virtuous action and eloquence, Cicero in turn influenced Quintilian, and both Romans shaped the humanist educational program. justifying the social function of the rhetor, Cicero's Crassus says in De oratore:
the wise control of the complete orator is that which chiefly upholds not only his own dignity, but the safety of countless individuals and of the entire State. Go forward therefore, my young friends, in your present course, and bend your energies to that study which engages you, that so it may be in your power to become a glory to yourselves, a source of service to your friends, and profitable members of the Republic. (1.8.34)
Like Sidney's poet, Cicero's ideal orator studies in order to translate that knowledge into action, and for the orator this action is speech and persuasion; the contemplative life ultimately must give way to the active life.
Cicero most fully articulates these ideas in De officiis (On Duties):
The very men, then, who have given their lives to the pursuit of teaching and wisdom, provide above all good sense and understanding for the benefit of mankind. Therefore it is better to speak at length, provided one does so wisely, than to think, however penetratingly, without eloquence. For speculation turns in on itself, but eloquence embraces those to whom we are joined by social life. (1, 156)
Eloquence - or rhetoric - is proposed as the means by which speculation - or thought - leads to action. Further, rhetoric allows the orator both to embrace "those to whom we are joined by social life" and to instill in them a desire to perform socially significant deeds. Quintilian's entire Institutio oratoria, is set up as a search for this sort of Ciceronian rhetor - "the orator of our quest." Refusing to cede the moral high ground to philosophy, Quintilian puts forth the orator as "the man who can guide a state by his counsels, give it a firm basis by his legislation, and purge its vices by his decisions as a judge" (I. Pr. 10).
Thus far we have seen that a central way of defending rhetoric was by emphasizing the rhetorician's ability to teach his audience how to be better citizens. But it is important to remember that delighting and moving were seen to be equally important goals of the effective rhetorical performance. Crassus tells us in De oratore that "for purposes of persuasion, the art of speaking relies wholly upon three things: the proof of our allegations, the winning of our hearers' favour, and the rousing of their feelings to whatever impulse our case may require" (2. 27. 115). Or, as Thomas Sloane succinctly puts it, "One told people something that they didn't know and convinced them of it; one put them in a good mood; and one got them emotionally involved in one's subject" (Sloane 1985: 94).
Rhetoric was defended, then, because it could be shown to have positive goals that benefited a larger community; the motive - the end - of the persuasive act was crucial. What I would like to turn to now is how, the rhetorician was supposed to achieve these positive ends. Both Isocrates and Aristotle divided up the rhetorical method into five divisions or stages. But Cicero in De oratore again provides the most influential (and concise) explanation of the stages:
he must first hit on what to say [inventio]; then manage and marshal his discoveries, not merely in orderly fashion, but with a discriminating eye as it were of each argument [dispositio]; next go on to array them in the adornments of style [elocutio]; after that keep them guarded in memory [memoria]; and in the end deliver them with effect and charm [actio]. (1. 31. 142)
The most important and most analyzed stages - in both classical and Renaissance rhetorical manuals - were the first three, and I will briefly suggest what was at stake in them for the rhetor and author.
As Cicero has told its, invention consisted of discovering a topic, of figuring out what to say. Aristotle listed twenty-eight "valid topics," or topoi (as well as ten invalid topics), in his Rhetoric. Invention also meant drawing on a storehouse of commonplaces. The court versus country debate that Shakespeare stages between Touchstone and Corin in Act III of As You Like It provides an example of such a commonplace in action. However, sometimes a trip to the storehouse could yield little - or perhaps too much - rhetorical sustenance, and we see a poet lost in the process of inventio at the beginning of Sidney's Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence:
But words came halting forth, wanting invention's stay;
Invention, nature's child, fled step-dame study's blows;
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way

(Sidney 1973: 1. 9-11; p. 117).
Sidney's poet here is paralyzed by topoi, commonplaces, the "feet" or meter of earlier poets. And although Astrophil (or Sidney) may be presenting the difficulty as a way of enticing both the beloved and the reading audience into the sequence, this sonnet suggests that writer's block is not just a modern phenomenon; inventio has always been the most difficult part of composition.
Dispositio consisted of arranging the material decided on in the inventio stage and fashioning it into an effective structure. It is in the dispositio that the well-known six (or seven) parts of art oration came into play (see [Cicero], Rhetorica ad Herennium, 1. 3. 4). Again, Sidney provides us with the most accessible example, as his Apology for Poetry was written according to this formula - one familiar from the rhetorical manuals, including Cicero's De inventione and Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique (1553) (see Sidney 1965: 11-17; Cicero, De inventione, book 1; Wilson 1962: book 1). The orator began with an introduction, an entrance into his topic (exordium), what we might now call a "hook." After laying out the facts in the narratio - and in some schemes taking a brief detour (digressio) - the rhetor would bring the terms of the dispute to the foreground in the divisio, informing the audience of the points of agreement and disagreement between him and his opponent. From there, be put forth the arguments that supported his case (confirmatio) and refuted the opponent's claims (confutatio). Finally, the orator rehearsed his arguments and sought to excite the audience into a lasting acceptance of his claims (conclusio or peroratio). In order to win over this audience, though, rhetors needed more than just an important topic and a carefully structured speech: they needed, as Cicero said, "to array them [the arguments] in the adornments of style." I will address briefly three elements of style, or elocutio, here: the three styles, the figures of speech, and the notion of copia. Cicero's Orator provided the lasting divisions of style - low or plain, middle, and grand - and connected each to one of the goals of rhetoric discussed above: "To prove [probare] is the first necessity, to please [delectare] is charm, to sway [flectere] is victory ... For these three functions of the orator there are three styles, the plain style for proof, the middle style for pleasure, the vigorous style for persuasion; and in this last is summed up the entire virtue of the orator" (20. 69). The notion of style became much more complex and varied in the work of Hermogenes (On Types of Style, second century AD), but the central lesson for students of classical style is that different rhetorical goals were seen to require different linguistic presentations and modes (Shuger 1988; Biester 1997).
Another crucial weapon in the orator's arsenal was the figures of speech. This element of rhetoric is still very much with its, and few reading this essay will have had difficulty spotting the martial metaphors in the first sentence of this paragraph. Modern critics and students, also have not only noted but also employed metonymy, synecdoche, paradox, oxymoron, and personification. But these are just a few of the literally hundreds of figures available to those trained in the rhetorical tradition ([Cicero], Rhetorica ad Herennium, Book 4; Quintilian, Institutio oratorio, Butler trans., vol. 4, book 9; Sonnino 1968; Lanham 1991). Most figures - often called tropes (from the Greek tropos, "turn") - involve a movement away from the standard meaning of a word, and it is this element of rhetoric and poetry that can inspire tremendous excitement at reality transformed or terror at reality disfigured. I will argue in the third section of this essay that the process of figuration - the transformation of literal meaning into figurative - is writ large in Shakespeare, as he constantly explores what is lost and gained in the translation from literal to figurative, true self to disguised self, being to seeming.
First, though, we need to examine one more area of elocutio: the concept of copia. Nearly all the classical manuals stress variety of expression: Cicero claimed in his De partitions oratoria that "eloquence is nothing else but wisdom delivering copious utterance" (23. 7), while Quintilian asserted that the orator "must accumulate a certain store of resources, to be employed whenever they are required. The resources of which I speak consist in a copious supply of words and matter" (copia rerum ac verborum) (Quintilian, Institutio oratorio, 10. 1. 5). These words of Quintilian inspired Erasmus to write one of the most influential rhetoric books of the Renaissance, De duplici copia verborum ac rerum commentarii duo (hereafter De copia (1512)). Following his classical teachers, Erasmus set out "to teach boys abundant Latin style in two ways, through copiousness of expression [verborum] and through copiousness of thought [rerum]" (Sloane 1985: 82). It was this love of verbal fecundity that engendered Rabelais' copious lists and catalogues, as well as the following exchange between Falstaff and Hal in 1 Henry IV (II. iv, 244-51):
FALSTAFF 'Sblood, you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor's yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck -PRINCE Well, breathe awhile, and then to it again, and when thou hast tir'd thyself in base comparisons, hear me speak in this.
Falstaff's verbal variations on (mostly) phallic insults seem to have endless potential; both men suggest that only a shortness of breath or fatigue will silence him.
While the notion that language is abundant, multiple, and various may cause us anxiety in the late twentieth century, for Erasmus, Shakespeare, and the inheritors of the rhetorical tradition, this copia was usually a cause for celebration (Cave 1979: esp. 3-34). As Thomas Sloane nicely puts it, "The instability of language was to be revelled in, not fretted over. That language was plastic was shown in pluns and in verbal. ironies. But this plasticity ... was [to more cause for despair than the contrarieties of living in a fluid and changeable world" (Sloane 1985: 83) - in short, a rhetorical world. Or, as Erasmus says in De copia, the goal of his book, is "to turn one idea into more shapes than Proteus himself is supposed to have turned into" (Erasmus 1978: 302).
Before turning to the connections between protean rhetoric and the protean self, I would like to comment briefly on the fourth and fifth divisions of rhetoric: memoria and actio. Because these two areas were necessarily limited to oral performance, they did not receive the same attention in the Renaissance as the first three divisions. Yet, as some pioneering work on memoria has shown, understanding the art of memory both using mnemonic devices in delivering speeches and instilling these techniques in one's audience - allows crucial insights into conceptions of the imagination and psychology in the medieval and early modern periods ([Cicero] Rhetorica ad Herennium, 3. 1.6. 28-3. 24. 40; Yates 1966; Carruthers 1990). And although the classical manuals' historically contingent discussions of a speech's delivery and its accompanying gestures obviously have limited use for us, the notion of the body as an instrument of rhetoric is central to current discussions in gender and performance theory (Butler 1990; Turner 1988; Bulman 1996).
I would like to expand on one final element of rhetorical training, mentioned earlier in this essay, and use it as a bridge from rhetorical speaking and writing to rhetorical knowing and being: the strategy of disputatio in utramque partem - arguing on both sides of the question (Altman 1978; Trimpi 1983: esp. 287-95; Eden 1997). Cicero claims an essential link between speaking and knowledge - rhetoric and philosophy - when he tells us in his Orator that "whatever ability I possess as an orator comes, not from the workshops of the rhetoricians, but from the spacious grounds of the Academy. There indeed is the field for manifold and varied debate, which was first trodden by the feet of Plato" (3. 1 2). Cicero goes on to note his departure from - as well as his debt to Plato, by whom "the orator has been severely criticized but also [from whom he] has received assistance" (ibid. p. 31 5). Taking seriously the skepticism of Plato's teacher, Socrates, Cicero acknowledges that a search for the probable was the necessary office of both the rhetor and the philosopher. As Wesley Trimpi has observed,
Recognizing the fallibility of sensory perception, these schools [the Academic schools of philosophy, to which Cicero belonged] claimed by means of such debate [in ultramque partem] to be able to arrive at a degree of probability (verisimile) sufficiently great to permit choice and action. Their conclusions, though never certain, could be verified by experience to some extent and become grounds for deliberation about the future. (Trimpi 1983: 287)
For Cicero, this commitment to the probable was not an abandoning of knowledge altogether, just a recognition that truth could be known only contingently, as he claims in De nature deorum: "Our position is not that we hold that nothing is true, but that we assert that all true sensations are associated with false ones so closely resembling them that they contain no infallible mark to guide our judgement and assent." (1. 5. 12).
Elaborating on this point in the Academica, Cicero claims that "the sole object of our discussions is by arguing on both sides to draw out and give shape to some result that may be either true or the nearest possible approximation to the truth" (Cicero 1933: ii. 3. 7, p. 475). Because knowing the world is so difficult - "true sensations are associated with false ones so closely resembling them" - it is through the skills of debating in utramque partem that the rhetorical philosopher can glimpse - and ultimately communicate - some partial truth.
I hope that this sense of the contingency of knowledge and truth already - without rhetorical prompting from me - sounds "Shakespearian." For there can be little doubt that the training in rhetoric that Shakespeare and his contemporaries received led to a "moral cultivation of ambivalence," as Joel Altman has called it, that found its ideal home in the drama (1978: 31). For in the theater the problematic issues could be staged if not ultimately resolved: "these plays did not merely raise questions, in the general sense, but literally were questions - or rather fictional realizations of questions" (p. 3). Before turning to an examination of this staging of questions in Shakespeare, I would like to explore the implications of this Ciceronian [commitment to the probable] for the Renaissance self. For if one accepts that, like language, selfhood can be shaped and manipulated, one has entered a world of tremendous possibility - for both exuberant self-fashioning and devious deception. This is the world that Malcolm doing his best Cicero imitation - describes to Macduff in Act IV of Macbeth:
That which you are, my thoughts cannot transpose:
Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace,
Yet grace must still look so.

(Macbeth, IV. iii. 21-4)


3. Changing Shapes with Proteus for Advantages: The Flexible Renaissance Self

The importance of the rhetorical, mutable self to Renaissance literature has been helpfully laid out by some important articles and books in the last thirty years (Greene 1968; Giamatti 1968; Greenblatt 1973, 1980; Lanham 1976; Javitch 1978; Rebhorn 1978, 1995; Barish 1981; Whigham 1984; Bates 1992). What I would like to do here is provide a few key texts from the European and English Renaissance to suggest how the rules of the rhetoric books could be applied to the way individuals presented themselves to the world. These texts range from the exhilarating potential of Giovanni Pico delta Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) to the dark, potentially disturbing implications of Machiavelli's The Prince (1514). All suggest that the fluidity of speech and truth stressed in the Ciceronian vision have serious ramifications for the Renaissance self.

"Human beings are not born but fashioned," Erasmus said, and this is a statement that could serve as an epigraph for both humanism and homo rhetoricus (Greene 1968: 249). This idea presupposes - at least on the surface - a great deal of human freedom in molding the self. An important touchstone for this sense of human flexibility is Pico's Oration, in which Pico imagines God announcing to Adam - "a creature of indeterminate nature" - that he will give human beings "neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thyself" (Pico 1948: 224). Because Adam has no pre-defined essence, God says, he has the power to shape himself:

according to thy longing and according to thy judgment thou mayest have and possess what abode, what form, and what functions thou thyself shalt desire. The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world's center that then mayest from thence more easily observe whatever is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom or choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.

(Pico 1948: 225)

The "as though" constrains the Piconian individual somewhat, but the emphasis on personal self-fashioning is clear.

Pico concludes this part of the Oration by invoking the language and mythology of shape-shifting:

Who would not admire this our chameleon? ... It is man who Asclepius of Athens, arguing from his mutability of character and from his self-transforming nature, on just grounds says was symbolized by Proteus in the mysteries.


A chameleon, the Piconian self is also a Proteus - the Greek sea god noted for his ability to change shapes to avoid danger. Proteus was also invoked, as we have seen, by Erasmus in De copia in order to describe the rhetorical possibilites of copious language. According to Pico, there is a copia of selves available to human beings is well, and A. B. Giamatti (1968) has reminded us that the Proteus figure need not be a negative one for the Renaissance. Indeed, Erasmus - celebrator of the fashioning potential of rhetoric and selfhood - compared Christ to Proteus in his Plan of True Theology because of the "variety of his life and knowledge" (varietate vitae atque doctrinae) (see Sloane 1985: 84, 298, n. 19).

The notion that one individual could have an abundance of selves and roles was not, however, always portrayed as unequivocally positive or Christ-like. Although he clearly focuses on the potential good in treating, to use Burckhardt's phrase, "the self as a work of art," Baldessare Castiglione raises major questions about the ethical issues surrounding the protean, theatrical self in his The Book of the Courtier, a virtual handbook of self-fashioning. Limited space dictates that I focus on only the most famous example, the concept of sprezzatura, or effortlessness. As presented to the internal audience by Count Ludovico da Canossa in book 1, sprezzatura is the technique that allows the courtier

to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it. And I believe much grace comes of this: because everyone knows the difficulty of things that are rare and well done; wherefore facility in such things causes the greatest wonder; whereas, on the other hand, to labor and, as we say, drag forth by the hair of the head, shows an extreme want of grace, and causes everything, no matter how great it may be, to be held in little account. Therefore we may call that art true art which does not seem to be art... And I remember having read of certain most excellent orators in ancient times who. . . tried to make everyone believe that they had no knowledge whatever of letters; and, dissembling their knowledge, they made their orations appear to be composed in the simplest manner and according to the dictates of nature and truth rather than of effort and art.

(Castiglione 1959: I. 26, pp. 43-4)

The count clearly links the art "which does not seem to be art" with oratory and reminds us why Plato feared rhetoric: it attempts to make the artful and constructed appear natural and effortless for a more persuasive effect.

The Book of the Courtier recognizes the danger of amoral self-fashioning, and its book 4 deals with "the end to which he [the Courtier] is directed," an emphasis we will remember from defenses of rhetoric (Castiglione 1959: 4. 4, p. 288). The goal for Castiglione's courtier is to win favor with the prince, but the end is still idealistic: his courtier will "dissuade him [the prince] of every evil intent and bring him to the path of virtue" (4. 5, p. 289). But this noble end is not a given. George Puttenham, author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), recognized the potential for dissembling in the courtier. In defining "Allegoria, which is when we speake one thing and thinke another, and that our wordes and our meanings meet not" (Puttenham 1936: 3. 18, p. 186), Puttenham "Englishes" the figure as "the Courtier" (3. 25, p. 299). Highlighting the moral ambiguity of the rhetoric and action of the courtier's protean self, Puttenham also calls Allegoria both "the figure of false semblant" (3. 18, p. 186) and "the figure of faire semblant" (3. 25, p. 299); the end, again, is crucial. For Puttenham recognizes that there will be times that "our courtly Poet do dissemble not onely his countenances & coceits, but also all his ordinary actions of behauiour, or the most part of the, whereby the better to winne his purposes & good aduantages" (3. 25, pp. 299-300). Using - indeed, becoming - Allegoria can be necessary to winning one's "purposes and good aduantages" (see Burke 1950: 60-1, 285-6).

As Puttenham's quotation suggests, the entire self has become rhetorical: the courtier who wants to win or persuade uses not only language ("conceits") but also "actions of behaviour." The emphasis on "countenances" - behaviors, appearances, shows (OED, la, 2a, 2b) - suggests that Frank Whigliam is right when he notes that "public life at court was governed by a rhetorical imperative of performance ... Elite status no longer tested upon the absolute, given base of birth, the received ontology of social being; instead it has increasingly become a matter of doing, and so of showing" (1984: 32-3). This rhetoric of both speaking and showing is crucial to Machiavelli's prince, a figure who, if he follows Machiavelli's instructions, will be the master of "the rhetoricality of politics" (Rebhorn 1995: 54). Like Plato's worst nightmare, the Prince

need not necessarily have all the good qualities …, but he should certainly appear to have them. I would even go so far as to say that if he has these qualities and always believes accordingly he will find them ruinous; if he only appears to have them they will render him service. He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how. You must realize this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, of religion. And he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate.

(Machiavelli 1961: ch. 18, pp. 100-1)

Machiavelli adds moral flexibility to the "flexible disposition" of the rhetorical self, cutting off noble ends from rhetorical means. Seeming virtue and a reputation for goodness are as good - and at times better - than actual virtue.

That Shakespeare was aware of the problems of the rhetorical self - particularly the protean and Machiavellian strains - is revealed early in his career. I will finish this section, then, with a brief look at Richard of Gioucester's speech from Act III, scene ii, of 3 Henry VI:

Why, I can smile, and murther whiles I smile,
And cry "content" to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall,
I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk,
I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And like Simon, take another Troy.
I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murtherous Machevil to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.

Richard tells us he is evil, shifting, seeming. He outdoes mermaids and basilisks, comparisons that suggest, despite his physical deformity, his deadly seductiveness; his comparison to Nestor hints at his tremendous rhetorical skills, skills that get people to do things seemingly impossible (particularly, in Richard III, convincing the woman whose father-in-law and husband he has killed to marry him). He notes his capacity to deceive in his allusions to Ulysses and Simon, and he suggests how he does it with the allusions to a chameleon, Proteus, and Machiavelli. These last three figures, as we have seen, would have suggested to Shakespeare's audience the self-fashioning power of the Renaissance individual. A classic homo rhetoricus, Richard uses language and actions to persuade people and win the day. Like Machiavelli's prince, Shakespeare's evil king employs the talents of the flexible self for personal "advantages," while completely cutting himself off from the moorings of ethical ends.

Peter G. Platt, "Shakespeare and Rhetorical Culture", A Companion to Shakespeare, ed. David Scott Kastan (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).