Hello! Jude Van de Voorde (Live Blogger) here, with a live transcripted summary of the 2019 Blackfriars Conference Colloquy Session: “Them’s Fightin’ Words”: The Language of Violence in Shakespeare’s Works. This session is chaired by Danielle Rosvally (Professor of Theater at the University of Buffalo), a fight director who is also interested in the audience understanding the rhetoric of Shakespeare. The presenters are:

Amalia Oswald: Graduate Student at Virginia Commonwealth. Was an actor combatant. Very interested in suicide

Marisa Cull: Professor of English at Randolph Macon College. Primary working with History plays and reports of violence.

Amanda Rogus: Works with the ASC, Graduate student at MBU and currently pursuing a Masters in Psychology

Virginia Vaughan: Research Professor at Clark University, interested in the use of mythological allusions to create an atmosphere of violence

Annette Drew-Bear: Professor at Washington & Jefferson College

Danielle: Everyone submitted a core reading, and also had read them, thus producing questions. These questions will be the core of the discussion.

Digging into “Fighting Words and Rhetoric”: Amanda had the most questions on this topic.

Amanda: She is particularly interested in status in relation to these attacks, as well as the mythological allusions and how those interact with rhetorical strategies.

Virginia: By status does Amanda mean social status, among nobles and gentry? Virginia is also very interested in dueling and how only gentlemen are supposed to duel.

Marisa: Jack Cage is very interesting because people reactions to him are that, “we don’t do that here” and Cage’s response is that, “I got the job done.”

Amalia: Tamora, Demetrius, and Chiron is an interesting trio. Tamora speaks about how the violence of her sons supports the status of her family within the community. It differs from at the beginning of the play when Tamora is of lower status and is the victim of violence.

Virginia: That also ties in with family honor; violence is a response to transgressions against family honor.

Amalia: “Revenge it as you love your mother’s life.” It is interesting that this is missing honor as a rhetorical argument here. This contrasts so much with the beginning of the play and the honor with the spoils of war.

Danielle: This ties in with Annette’s question about

Annette: He goes out of his way in Henry V to create Pistol, and Pistol is a parody of Henry’s inflated rhetoric. Shakespeare is parodying the speech of Henry and questions the violence. Shakespeare is weighing and balancing and never lets it off of that dramatic tension. He echoes Marlowe from Tamburlaine, but Shakespeare gives a variety of voices in Henry and Pistol. It is a medley and not just one. She doesn’t think you can ultimately find an answer and that there are multiple perspectives. Performance makes so many of these decisions in the moment but does not close the discussion. It is in flux and depends upon each performance.

Marisa: It’s interesting to call this a medley which is a very pleasing word. But in performance what do these exchanges look like when it’s a quarrel.

Annette: It depends upon how critical the actor and director wants to make it. She doesn’t think that the play answers the question. It’s a little unique to Shakespeare that we have this multiplicity of voices.

Virginia: Status in Henry V is important in the tennis ball scene. His response is a verbal barrage of fighting words. It’s a self-fashioning as a heroic and violent figure who will take no prisoners.

Danielle: Virginia posed an interesting question with single combat posed against large mass battles.

Virginia: Some of it is certainly a question of convenient staging. But is it also an intentional decision by Shakespeare? He uses both mass battles and single combat.

Marisa: This dialogues with the paper from the last session about infinite number. It adds to the chaos of these scenes.

Amalia: She thinks this dialogues with the noise that this violence creates on the stage. A lot of the noise from the battle comes from off stage. And when it’s one on one it becomes quiet and the focus triangulates on the single combat. It shows nobility and status under the microscope.

Danielle: Those who know stage combat, rhythm is a huge consideration in the choreography of it. Varied rhythm is far more interesting and by using the sound of the fight one can draw the audience in. And in terms of heartbeats in Shakespeare this dialogues well with the rhythm in the verse.

Danielle: Marlowe’s Tamburlaine with the driving force of iambic lines.

Virginia: Pistol picks up on Marlowe’s braggadocio.

Rhetoric as approaching violence

Marisa: Titus and trauma is a very difficult play to teach, especially when someone in the class is a survivor of violence. It can be very upsetting. Do rhetorical figures guide the study of these plays and help these students approach these plays?

Virginia: With Titus the audience doesn’t see the rape but Marcus describes the rape vividly. How would you deal with that in teaching it?

Marisa: She is often very reluctant in teaching it because sometimes it seems that it is unsafe to teach. Perhaps the stylization helps deal with the horror of it?

Annette: Giving the students the intellectual tools to help them see how the language works shows them the reason for the words. Often even football plays or business majors really enjoy knowing the techniques and seeing them. That could help as an approach to help distancing them from the content of these violent speech and how Shakespeare uses language here.

Marisa: Distancing might not be the right word, but it certainly helps them to feel in control of what they are confronting.

Annette: Having that understanding gives them enjoyment in everyday life: it gives them a way to dialogue with their own culture.

Amanda: Laying the groundwork for rhetoric early, gives students the ability to use it, but also it makes it so that everyone is speaking the same language. These things help build confidence and community in the cohort of students.

Annette: These rhetorical devices are useful everywhere.

Amalia: Knowledge of rhetoric in performance and acting teaches these students how to approach these ideas and terms as the speakers of these violent speeches.

Amanda: Making it technical too helps to make it healthier for those who are speaking it and analyzing it.

Danielle: She wonders if using rhetoric as a method for teaching these darker and deeper speeches as a way to access rhetoric’s use in these “fighting words.” Do these figures help in teaching violence in Shakespeare?

Annette: She often teaches with these terms and has her students find them within the plays. The students then perform the figures to embody what they are used for. Modern uses of these figures is also very helpful in teaching these terms and making the students excited about it.

Amalia: She has also found it difficult to do but has found it interesting in cutting most of that speech and performing the rape on stage. She doesn’t think it is a good choice but it is interesting to see how the speech informs what happened. Lavinia needs to know what happened. Marcus wasn’t there but how is his rhetoric approached in light of that?

Marisa: It is interesting that in a way Shakespeare teaches the reader to not trust the accounts of violence, either because there is a different account or because the person isn’t dead after all. The language surrounding violence is often untrustworthy language and it’s interesting that Shakespeare highlights that especially in the history plays.

Amanda: The way that the actor decides to color the violence, as passive or as aggressive, and how do erotema and ecphonesis translate onto the stage? It could be staged in many ways.

Annette: It depends on the context. The Second Maiden’s Tragedy is a great example of female empowerment and that’s due to the use of questions in that scene. Iago is very skilled too however in his use of a variety of rhetorical figures.

Marisa: Responding to an attack through questions is very interesting. What happens when the audience responds or reacts to those questions?

Danielle: Moving into audiences and violence, Marisa had the most questions in this section.

Marisa: In Titus the audience is put into the middle of a lot of these violent scenarios. She tried to find moments in the plays where the plays guided the audience’s response to the violence. Does anyone have ideas about moments where Shakespeare is anticipating the audience’s responses?

Virginia: Often times the chorus in Henry VI and Henry V comment on violence.

Amanda: Its interesting what Shakespeare decides to put on stage and what he decides to have occur off stage. Why do some people die on stage in Titus and other times off stage? Sometimes words can depict it better than if the audience saw it.

Danielle: This is clear even in the movie Jaws. The sharks didn’t work very well so the director hardly showed the shark at all, making it all the more terrifying. Marisa, the figures of rhetoric that Annette pointed out, are these connected to the facial expressions you wrote about?

Amanda: She thinks this ties in too with where the audience learns how to respond to violence through the rhetoric of the characters on stage who responds to it.

Marisa: It’s fascinating when an actor on stage remarks about another actor’s facial expression. What happens when an actor can’t go pale on command? It is telling to the audience that a physical expression is elicited by the rhetoric of these violent speeches.

Amalia: Who are these rhetorical questions to? Lavinia is looking for answers but where does she put the questions and how does that change the audience’s response to those questions?

Marisa: When extreme violence is being performed onstage at a place like the Black Friars, the audience sometimes looks away but sees other faces reacting to the violence. Something interesting is happening when even looking away isn’t even an escape.

Amalia: It is interesting that the touring troupe next year is performing Titus; it will be interesting to see what their experience of teaching this play to high schoolers.

Marisa: The audience is so unpredictable too in responding to these plays.

Amalia: It is interesting to see the campers from the ASC performing this play and how they deal with it, as teenagers.

Danielle: Moving on to gendered violence.

Amalia: The Second Maiden’s Tragedy was her core reading. It’s her favorite thing. Annette brings up how the man trips and falls and fails in killing her.

Annette: It is comical! He is the picture of ineptitude. It is a gender reversal.

Danielle: The staging underlines the comic quality of the scene. Its not the point but the audience is going to laugh.

Amalia: This scene is so weird. He doesn’t do anything and he continues to not do anything. It is an interesting scene in regards to female activity and violence.

Annette: She provokes him. There is a lot of gender activity here.

Amalia: These two scenes juxtaposed are interesting because Lavinia and the lady are both silenced. The agency through death and silence speaks more than when they could speak.

Danielle: It is interesting how both Tamora and the lady drove the violence.

Virginia: Women who commit violence are sort of masculinized: Lady Macbeth, Margaret. These are the women who are really into violence. With Lady Macbeth and the sleepwalking scene the audience gets the impression of it all being bravado on her part, truly being unable to handle committing the violence. No so with Queen Margaret.

Amanda: With the Macbeth example, its interesting how in the thane of fife song she picks the woman. It’s a complete transformation from the Lady Macbeth seen at the beginning of the play.

Amalia: It is so interesting that terror and fear are Venus’ children. Tamora births Demetrius and Chiron, pushing terror and fear into the court.

Danielle: All of these examples lead me to the question of do women know how to do violence better than men in these plays? Beatrice has to move Benedick to challenge Claudio. Do women just do violence better in this world?

Amanda: She thinks this ties back to rhetoric. They aren’t doing the violence better but perhaps are better at the manipulation through rhetoric. The inflicting of the violence is perhaps the same for men and women but the wordplay may be what starts the action.

Annette: The Beatrice moment is also all about chivalry. The scene is a changing of allegiance from Don Pedro to his courtly love.

Amanda: It’s interesting in the post-wedding speech how much Beatrice silences Benedick in that scene.

Amalia: Benedick knows how to fight. He’s just come back from war. But he seems unable to handle the berating of Beatrice. Men with actual experience in war seem to be unable to handle being berated: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It seems that women are better at enacting this violence of berating. Men are used to having an equal footing when it comes to violence.

Danielle: Does it go back to Mars and Athena?

Virginia: Mars doesn’t understand when to go to war. Athena does. Are there characters in Shakespeare who are unable to deal with peace time?

Amalia: Could you go on about the mythological allusions in Coriolanus?

Virginia: The allusions to Mars are big in the history plays as well. In the Iliad, Athena is beating up on Mars because Mars wants to make battle all the time. Athena is the goddess of wisdom and Mars lacks that. Zeus is more on the side of Athena. War defines who Coriolanus is by definition. The Greek gods are created by men and even Athena has male characteristics.

Danielle: What then does it mean that Henry assumes the port of Mars?

Virginia: He self-fashions himself into the role he has to play. Rhetoric wins the day. Whether Henry will do what he threatens is left up to question because the French surrender before he has to.

Marisa: In the Henry 4 plays there is so much talk of violence. That play begins with a stunning report of very gendered violence (the welsh man). It is that reported violence.

Annette: Holinshed is the source he is drawing on for that.


Audience: Is there a difference between the pantheons of the Greek and the romans?

Virginia: Mars becomes the patron god of Rome and so some of the complexity between Ares and Athena disappears but the Romans do put the temple to Mars outside of the city.

Audience: It is interesting how Shakespeare makes the women skilled in the rhetoric of violence rather than making them skilled in the violence itself. Lady Macbeth has these very graphic images of violence, but is conspicuously presented as being unable to do what her husband did. Even the welsh women in Henry 4 part 1 perform violence on corpses. Shakespeare seems to be gendering violence in that way. Thoughts?

Danielle: The hunting of the deer in Love’s Labours Lost may be one of the few examples where Shakespeare stages a woman killing something on stage.

Amalia: She would say that the type of violence they are better at (not just women but disenfranchised people in the canon) is more the distinction. Men are good at war, but the women are better at this kind of violence. How does one choreograph violence for women?

Danielle: It is largely dependent on the production. It is dependent on the actors at hand. Nothing about the job of fight choreography is hypothetical; it is all practical.

Audience: Henry’s speech before the city negates the necessity of doing violence. There is a comic parody of this in Twelfth Night with the duel. Thinking on that theme is rhetoric a preferable surrogate for getting the effect of violence to violence itself? In the digital age verbal threats have become a toxic surrogate for violence.

Amalia: The pedagogic thing of students living in the digital age. Do they see how dangerous rhetoric can be?

Marisa: When she teaches that speech in Henry V, students ask whether or not they hate Henry now that he has said these things, particularly if they liked him before. Reports of violence are often unreliable. Are we numb now to these violent speeches online because it is seen so often? She thinks that Shakespeare means for these speeches to be shocking.

Amanda: She thinks this wraps back into the difficulty of teaching Titus. It is serious and it is happening. It is still necessary to be telling these stories because of that.

Marisa: On a college campus especially it can be very potent.

Virginia: The opening scene of Romeo and Juliet as an example of rhetorical violence leading to physical violence. It may be easier to teach than Titus.

Audience: The example is fascinating because you see the transition.

Danielle: This is a great scene because everyone is so shocked by this violence.

There you have it! Another excellent colloquy session at the 2019 Blackfriars Conference. Thanks for tuning in! Finis.