Most childhood development books, blogs, and experts will tell you that around age three or four is when most children begin to ask questions, often incessantly: Why is the sky blue? What is hair? Why even are cats? How to hands? When is never? Where is Hogwarts? Who even am I? What does it all mean? What is even the point?? (#pysma) OK, so your average 3-year-old probably – hopefully? – isn’t plagued by Hamlet-esque, existential ennui yet (that comes later, in what my generation called a “goth” phase). Kids start asking questions early and often, and once they start they basically never stop, and they are usually questions for which literally no one has ever provided a satisfying answer (“I don’t know why cats are like that, kiddo.”). You might as well hop on the futile, frustrating Question Train with them and ride it out, because if you don’t they will definitely use it to destroy your sanity and self-respect. 

On a more optimistic note, if you’re an educator you hopefully recognize that cultivating a student’s ability to refine their questions, to ask relevant questions, to self-reflect through questions, outweighs the momentary exasperation of dealing with the never-ending barrage of questions students tend to hurl at us. We should want students to interrogate themselves (Why am I doing this and how can I do it better?), their peers (Are we all working toward the same goal? What obstacles do we face and how are we encountering them?), and the status quo (Why is this system the way it is? Is it serving everyone equitably? If not, why not?) on a regular basis. Questions indicate curiosity and critical thinking. If the goal is to educate tomorrow’s leaders and foster civic engagement, we should encourage our students to interrogate the world around them by arming them with as many tools as possible, rhetorical or prosaic. 

Guiding students to use their questions to generate civil dialogue is far more nuanced than you might think. That’s where Shakespeare can be marvelously helpful in your classroom: his language is layered thick with rhetorical figures that, once identified and examined, can be emulated to great effect in our own communication. And, frankly, there is no better introduction to that linguistic investigation than the rhetorical question. In the ASC’s R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric system for grouping figures, the “S” stands for “substitutions,” which is generally what a rhetorical question is: the substitution of a question for a declarative statement. Did you know that, according to Silva Rhetoricae, there are at least nine different forms of rhetorical question? (#erotema) I didn’t either (#anthypophora), until I began studying rhetoric and revisiting some of Shakespeare’s notoriously interrogatory characters (I’m looking at you, Hamlet). Check out some of the ways Shakespeare employs these different rhetorical questions below:

  • Erotema, or raising a point by posing it as a question (as opposed to a declarative statement), is what most people are referring to when they say “rhetorical question.” Silva Rhetoricae goes further, defining the general rhetorical question as “any question asked for a purpose other than to obtain the information the question asks.” When Pandarus asks “Have you any eyes?” of Cressida in Troilus and Cressida (Act 1, scene 2), he knows she literally has eyes and can see; he asks because they’re both comparing Troilus to other Trojan soldiers and Cressida refuses to admit how attractive he is. Pandarus’s question requires no spoken reply, though; he already knows the answer and trusts the hearers to internally supply their own.
  • Anacoenosis, defined as “asking the opinion or judgment of the judges or audience” (Silva Rhetoricae). We see this rather literally in Act 4, scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock solicits judgment from the Duke of Venice during Antonio’s trial. “Answer – shall I have it? […] Ay, his breast, so says the bond, doth it not, noble judge?” Shylock asks, genuinely needing a judicial opinion. Taken literally in a theatrical context, this term could be applied to any question put to an audience member by an actor that genuinely solicits their opinion (but I’ll let my colleague Lia Wallace tell you more about that). 
  • Sometimes, the characters on stage do not need a listener’s input at all. When King Richard in Richard II says, “What must the King do now? Must he submit? The King shall do it. Must he be depos’d? The King shall be contented. Must he lose the name of King? In God’s name, let it go” (Act 3, scene 3) he is using anthypophora, asking and immediately answering his own questions. Richard has other characters and the audience as a sounding board in this moment, but he doesn’t need us. His mind is already made up. Ask and answer yourself in a rather more “animated” manner – like Falstaff’s musings on honor in Henry IV, part 1 – and you have dianoea
  • In Act 3, scene 3 of Hamlet (well – let’s be real – all of Hamlet), we have a textbook case of aporia or “deliberating with oneself as though in doubt over some matter” (Silva Rhetoricae). Upon encountering his uncle alone and vulnerable, Hamlet muses “Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying; and now I’ll do’t – and so a’ goes to heaven, and so am I reveng’d. That would be scann’d: […] And am I then revenged, to take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and season’d for his passage?” Nearly all of Hamlet’s soliloquies employ this tactic – it’s practically his defining feature as a character along with its close cousin, ratiocinatio, “reasoning [with oneself] by asking questions.” If Hamlet didn’t ask so many questions, would he even be Hamlet anymore? (#aporia)
  • Epiplexis, though it sounds like a medical condition, is defined as “asking questions in order to chide, to express grief, or to inveigh” (Silva Rhetoricae). In Much Ado About Nothing, Leonato delivers a perfect example when (mistakenly) grieving for Hero’s lost virtue: “Why had I one? Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes? Why had I not with charitable hand took up a beggar’s issue at my gates, who smirched thus and mir’d with infamy, I might have said, ‘No part of it is mine; this shame derives itself from unknown loins’?” (Act 4, scene 1) This is also an example of pysma, “the asking of multiple questions successively (which would together require a complex reply)”, which is also on display earlier in the play when Beatrice, after overhearing of Benedick’s love for her, asks her audience “What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true? Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?” (Act 3, scene 1) Leonato and Beatrice, in obvious moments of doubt, have the ability to put this question to the listener (another character or the audience itself) and expect an answer; however, to answer all questions in succession requires far more than the simple “yes” or “no” anyone would be able to give in that moment, and on some level, the speaker knows that. 
  • Perhaps one other character in Shakespeare’s canon rivals Hamlet in his unabating use of the nearly-infinite variety of rhetorical questions: Shylock. In his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech in Act 3, scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock deftly employs exuscitatio, the “stirring others by one’s own vehement feeling (sometimes by means of a rhetorical question).” The “others” named in the definition are less the other characters in this particular case and more the audience. Indeed, the listeners on stage with Shylock in the moment seem entirely unmoved by his argument; it is we observers – already complicit in Shylock’s oppression because we do nothing to interrupt the play’s earlier and continuous anti-semitism – who should be “stirred” by his questions. 

Add these figures into our existing rhetoric lesson (click here to get it, and our incredibly useful deck of flashcards), and ask yourself: What function does each type of question serve in the conversation? How might it be more useful than a declarative statement in this moment? (#ratiocinatio) For many of the above figures, the manner and tone with which it is asked matters as much if not more than the question itself. Invite your students to read these characters’ questions aloud more than once, changing body language and vocal tone each time. Have them practice on each other, and discuss the effect each reading has on the listener. By exploring deeply the nuances and intricacies of rhetorical questions, you are helping your students hone their arsenal of dialectical inquiry that will serve them throughout their lives. What could be better than that? (#anacoenosis)