These days it’s difficult not to drown amid relentlessly crashing tidal waves of grief: grief for the millions of lives lost and bodies irrevocably damaged by COVID-19; grief and longing for the freedoms of movement, of closeness, of gathering that we took for granted and are forever altered by the pandemic; grief, anger, and heartache for the continued loss of Black lives to police brutality; grief, shock, dismay, and rage at the senseless lack of compassion from our fellow humans toward one another as we all grapple with and challenge this reality. Grief fills up the room, as it were, and it seems one woe doth tread upon another’s heel, so fast they follow.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays deal with grief – its many causes, its aftermath – but few feature a true eulogy for a deceased character. Traditionally, a eulogy’s purpose is to praise and memorialize the deceased: it literally means “high praise” or “good words.” Sure, the victor of a battle utters a few pithy lines over a dead combatant’s body – I see you, Richmond, Octavius, and Bolingbroke – but I don’t count those as a real eulogy. Not even Hamlet gets a tribute worthy of his own facility with words at the end; neither does Ophelia, for that matter. Hero gets one – actually an elegy, if you want to be technical about it – sung at her fake tomb in Much Ado, as does Fidele (aka Imogen) in Cymbeline; the first part of Henry VI opens with a eulogy for Henry V, and in Richard III, Henry VI gets his own in turn; and of course Julius Caesar famously gets not one but two eulogies back to back. Shakespeare rarely has time to spare for a lengthy, heartrending eulogy in the typical two hour’s traffic of the stage, but when he does the eulogy itself often serves a subversive, second purpose of rousing the hearers out of mourning and into action.
On June 4, 2020, Reverend Al Sharpton delivered a powerful eulogy for George Floyd in Minneapolis. Rev. Sharpton, a Baptist minister, has been an incendiary figure and civil rights activist and leader for decades, and this was sadly not the first time he has had to eulogize a Black person killed unjustly and brutally by white police officers. In the same way that Antony uses rhetorical repetitions, omissions, and re-directions to steer the crowd’s emotions at Caesar’s funeral, Rev. Sharpton uses particularly the repetitions of beginnings of sentences (anaphora), endings of sentences (epistrophe), of whole phrases and structures (isocolon), to build to an emotional crescendo. He, like Antony, also manages to draw critical attention to an adjacent issue (Caesar’s will for Antony, President Trump for Sharpton) without actually speaking directly about it (a clever form of omission called paralipsis). Both eulogizers also draw heavily on antithetical contrasts and other re-directions of thought, intended, presumably, to take the hearers on an emotional ride that culminates in sustained civic action. Where the very real Rev. Sharpton deviates from Shakespeare’s fictional character, however, is the sheer number of times each rhetorical device is deployed. Sharpton’s hammering repetitions make clear the urgency of the moment and its effect is visceral.
If we can’t take lessons from Shakespeare’s language and apply them to the beating heart of the world around us, then what is this even for? Why are we even here? I encourage you to dive into Rev. Sharpton’s full eulogy. Our students deserve to know that the skills we want to impart to them are relevant here and now. Reverend Sharpton’s eulogy for George Floyd shows clearly that repetition is the rhetoric of the bereaved. Repetition is the rhetoric of the distraught. Repetition is the rhetoric of the confounded, the frustrated, the unheard. Go through it line by line with care and grace, but don’t look away.