Shakespeare is so smart, y’all. We say that quite a bit around ASC Education when we discover some amazing phrase or bit of staging, or a piece of rhetoric that is so deftly wielded it boggles the mind. He paints characters with words that outlive him by centuries — and he seems to have known it, as he writes in Sonnet 18 “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” where this refers to the words on the page that will outlast his love and himself. And, kind of like clockwork, every once in a while some new theory presents itself about whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. My brother posted a new one on my timeline the other day, about the possibility of a woman having written the plays. The author, a woman herself, used as a big part of her argument that the women drawn in the plays are complex–too complex, perhaps for a man to have written them. As exasperated as I get by these theories, I have to admit that I think it tender in a way, too. Our deep respect for and desire to identify with the author of such remarkable works makes us strive to bring “whomever” (hint: it was William Shakespeare) it is a little closer to ourselves in whatever way we can. As we discussed in our wonderful Teacher Seminar on Shakespeare’s Women and the #MeToo moment, one thing that the author does is leave characters unfinished; so, in essence, we are the final link — we are close to these women, and to the imagination and talent that created them. He was a man, all in all, and we see ourselves in his characters–male and female– because he knew what he was doing.
As much as the ASC Education department goes on about the importance of staging (especially the Shakespearean staging conditions with which we engage at the Blackfriars Playhouse), the words matter. Just as they matter when each of us speaks to our spouse, or children, or colleagues. And Shakespeare used them well. In ways that are instructive. If we slow down and look at how his characters represent the best (and the worst) of communication, we not only learn how to use words better ourselves — but we can also find value that may refute movements to eliminate Shakespeare or the humanities from our curriculum at all levels.
Since 2003, the ASC has been working with government leaders, military leaders, factory leaders, university leaders, lawyers, and many others in a program that closely examines Shakespeare’s characters use of persuasive techniques. Our program begins its exploration of Shakespeare’s wordcraft 1500 years before Shakespeare even began writing. We go back that far in order to ground our teachings in Cicero’s. Cicero gave us the words to describe — and therefore to see — how Shakespeare did what he did with persuasion.
Mapping techniques of communication is a useful exercise both for developing analytical skills and for improving our own communication. Cicero gave us a ton of ways to track, but the ASC has boiled our leadership training down to three things that we consistently find as useful ways in to the speeches in the canon: ethos, pathos, and logos.
We start with what the speaker brings to the table–that is, ethos. Ethos is what and who you are to the audience — everything from your origin story, your authority, even your clothing choice — and it establishes why someone would want to listen to you. How do you relate to the group you are speaking to? What can you offer to them as a connection or evidence of your expertise? Does it matter more, for a particular group, that you graduated top of your class, or that you are a first-generation graduate? Even if both are true, one might put distance between you and your audience while the other draws you together. Making the choice to share one or the other might mean the difference between having them on board or fighting for their attention. Acknowledging that this may seem manipulative (and that is one of the big complaints about rhetoric — people use it to manipulate), we own that not every detail can be available in a conversation, so judiciously choosing the ones that support the argument can make for a more efficient and satisfying exchange. Consider how Portia credentials herself in a scene with her husband — she wants him to share what is troubling him and says (bold indicates her expression of her ethos, bold italics indicate negative ethos):
…You have some sick offence within your mind,
Which, by the right and virtue of my place,
I ought to know of: and, upon my knees,
I charm you, by my once-commended beauty,
By all your vows of love and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one,
That you unfold to me, yourself, your half,
….Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I yourself
But, as it were, in sort or limitation,
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.
…I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato’s daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father’d and so husbanded?
Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose ’em.
Portia clearly paints why Brutus should tell him her troubles, using examples in the negative (“in sort or limitation” and “harlot, not wife”) and the positive (“a woman well-reputed”). It is interesting that she frames herself in relation to men — Brutus, Cato — and denigrates her own sex in order to persuade (“I grant I am a woman”). The actor playing the part must examine her motives there. Does she feel it will position her better to play to the audience of Brutus in that way?
Our second avenue of exploration is pathos. Pathos relates to the audience’s emotional state. Speakers have many choices when it comes to tugging at the heartstrings of their listeners — including shame and the incitement of fear, as in Richard III’s battle speech:
If we be conquer’d, let men conquer us,
And not these bastard Bretons; whom our fathers
Have in their own land beaten, bobb’d, and thump’d,
And in record, left them the heirs of shame.
Shall these enjoy our lands? lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?
Or, there is the path of inspiration — painted in detail — as in Henry V’s speech at Agincourt:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
…Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d.
Henry describes the legacy that the men will enjoy when the day is won, down to the scars, the feasts, the sons. He appeals to the imagination with a bright future in which they will have their own holiday and be forever remembered — and I know I still remember them every October 25, just as predicted.
The last marker on the journey is Logos. The word. Words, words, words. How we weave them into a tapestry that keeps a listener engaged is something everyone acknowledges Shakespeare could do. He chooses flourishes and simplicity when one or the other suits the situation, he makes lists to drive home a point, or uses the simplest possible phrase to deliver a blow. He alternately explores ideas exhaustively and then leaves chunks out for the audience to finish for themselves. The way he constructs characters with words, builds a memorable phrase, or teaches his audience new words or figures of rhetoric provides a model to use in our own communication.
When speakers apply these three tools well, the chances of their messages being compelling and dynamic increase astronomically. We see it every time we work with a group of students, leadership participants, lawyers, anyone. Once you know ethos, pathos, and logos are available, you can’t help but see them in use (good analysis of rhetorical turns is essential to an informed populace) and put them to use yourself. The giddy joy when you finally see the long word that is upside down and backwards in a word find and then all the others reveal themselves is akin to the sense of recognition in a good speech that the speaker is painting the legacy (“I have a dream…”) or drumming up fear (“crisis on the border”) through their use of pathos, strong logos (“We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace”) versus weak (“We’re going to win at space”), and how they credential themselves–thinking about what the audience needs from them not simply what they bring, but how what they bring will benefit this group. Shakespeare’s characters provide brilliant examples of both excellent speakers, and speakers who can not talk themselves out of a paper bag. By continuing to read his work, we can see ourselves–and perhaps, who we might want to be.