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Forensic Shakespeare by Quentin Skinner.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 384.

Reviewer: Dr. Scott F. Crider, University of Dallas

(December 2015 Issue / PDF)

By now, rhetorical studies of Shakespeare are so numerous one wonders if there’s anything else to say.  There is.  Because Quentin Skinner is so learned and so sharp, he both summarizes the work that has been done in these Clarendon lectures, and corrects or supplements that work with historicist breadth and precision.  He has read it all, but he has more to say, in great part because he believes that Shakespeareans have had rather too much to say about Shakespeare’s rhetorical style, especially figures of speech, and not enough to say about his rhetorical thought.  The classical rhetorical tradition prized invention and disposition (or what we would call organization) as highly as it did style, so an emphasis on figures of speech can distort our perception of the rhetorical Shakespeare.  Skinner corrects this distortion by emphasizing invention and disposition in his examination of the classical rhetorical tradition Shakespeare inherited, and by concentrating on the genre of forensic rhetoric in a group of plays he names the “forensic plays”—All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Othello (though he has much to say about Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, as well).  For a moment in Shakespeare’s career, his dramatic art is informed by the art of legal rhetoric.

Chapters 1-2 make up a prologue.  Chapter 1 re-travels the terrain of his earlier Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes, the first part of which offers one of the very best treatments of early modern rhetoric available, but Skinner refocuses and abbreviates the material to explain the Roman, especially Ciceronian, forensic tradition, how it was taught in Tudor schools, and how it was transmitted in English rhetorics of the period.  Chapter 2 defends the discovery of Shakespeare’s “forensic plays,” arguing that earlier in his career and later, he was interested only generally in legal rhetoric, but that in his Jacobean plays Shakespeare “became intensely absorbed by the possibilities of using the principles of judicial rhetoric as a dramaturgical technique” (60).  The rest of the book is organized by means of the parts of the classical, forensic oration—the prohoemium (Chapters 3-5), the narrative (Chapter 6), the confirmation (Chapters 7-8), the refutation (Chapter 9), and the peroration (Chapter 10).  His thesis is clear:  Shakespeare’s speeches and scenes in our plays are “basically constructed according to the classical rules governing the inventio and the dispositio of judicial arguments” (66).

Chapters 3-5 concern forensic introductions.  The advice from the classical rhetoricians and their Tudor imitators is that an introduction should help one’s audience be attentive, docile and, above all, well-disposed to the speaker.  The next three chapters deal with the two traditional ways to start one’s speech—with an “open” beginning for an honest cause or an “insinuating” one for an apparently or actually foul one—and with failures of both.  Chapter 3 takes up the “open” introduction, and Skinner shows, through patiently empirical means, how various characters—The Ghost and Horatio in Hamlet, Isabella in Measure, and Rynaldo and Diana in All’s Well—use the open introduction.  These rhetorically informed readings are revelatory.  For example, having worked through the Ghost’s speech to Hamlet in 1.5 and pointed out how closely Shakespeare is following ancient advice, Skinner indicates that a rhetorically informed audience would have anticipated the speaker esteeming the judgment of his audience, but that such is exactly what the Ghost does not do.  The technical observation discloses an astute interpretation of the play:  “The Ghost is making it clear to Hamlet, and Shakespeare is making it clear to us, that there may be serious grounds for doubting whether Hamlet can be expected to act manfully or wisely or gently or nobly, even in matters of the highest public as well as personal significance” (85).  Hamlet’s father has his doubts about his son.

Chapter 4 takes up the “insinuation” for instances where, for a variety of reasons, one’s audience is hostile to one’s case because the audience believes that case foul, perhaps because it has already been persuaded against one’s case:  Romans listening to Antony after Brutus in 3.2 of Julius Caesar; the Venetian Senate listening to Othello after Brabantio in 1.2 of Othello; Collatine listening to Lucrece in The Rape of Lucrece; Angelo listening to Isabella in 2.2 of Measure; Othello listening to Iago in 3.3 of Othello.  While all of these analyses are strong, the reading of Isabella’s insinuating introduction is brilliant.  Skinner points out both that the rhetorical tradition Shakespeare inherited is divided what to do when the rhetor is as sure as the audience that the case is foul—some recommend giving up and asking for leniency; some, shifting away from the offense to the offender—and that Isabella does just this, beginning with the latter but veering around to the former.  As Skinner notes, Shakespeare has her succeed rather too well, her audience’s violent infatuation structuring much of the rest of the play.

Chapter 5 takes up the failed beginning:  Introductions which defy the rules, as Shylock’s does in 4.1 of Merchant’s trial scene; those that mishandle them, as Polonius’ does in 2.2 of Hamlet’s counsel scene; and those that simply reach the limits of the rules, as Alcibiades’ does in 3.5 of Timon of Athen’s Senate.  Again, Skinner’s detailed knowledge of the tradition allows him to notice new aspects of worked-over scenes.  For example, Cicero warns against pursuing a strange cause since one will be thought of by one’s audience as culturally alien, and the fact that Shylock does so alienates the Venetian court.  Shylock’s religious otherness is matched by rhetorical otherness.

After the prohoemium comes the narration, to which Skinner devotes Chapter 5.  The ancient advice is that narrations should be chronological, concise and probable, and that one should tilt them toward one’s cause, including exhibiting and arousing an audience’s emotional response to that cause.  Skinner examines narratives of accusation—for example, the Ghost’s in 1.5 of Hamlet—narratives of justification—for example, Antony’s in 3.2 of Julius Caesar—and failed narratives—for example, here comes Polonius again!

Confirmations come in three forms—legal, juridical or conjectural—all of which are “artistic”; that is, the rhetor must invent them.  Skinner handles the first two in Chapter 7, the last in Chapter 8.  Let me focus on the conjectural confirmation.  There are four:  failed—Polonius yet again—ambiguous, successful, and fabricated.  Under the ambiguous confirmation, Skinner examines Hamlet’s Mousetrap (234-246), employing a forensic rather than a metadramatic method:

[A]s a student of rhetoric, Hamlet knows that the sort of circumstantial evidence he has marshalled [from the play-within-a-play] cannot amount to what a Renaissance logician would call a demonstration—which may also be why Horatio refuses to accept that Hamlet’s experiment has yielded an unambiguous result.  (246)

Not that Hamlet then treats his confirmation as ambiguous.  Skinner’s example of the fabricated confirmation is Iago’s sophistry in 3.3 of Othello (250-268), the rhetorical tradition providing Shakespeare with a number of techniques to give Iago as he deceives Othello, the detailed explication of which by Skinner is thrilling.

Chapter 9 addresses refutation (the flip-side of confirmation) and non-artistic confirmations, those the rhetor need not invent, especially documents and witnesses, both of which are on display in All’s Well’s last scene (281-290).  Noting that the rings and testimonies involved in the revelation of the bed-trick are non-artistic proofs allows Skinner to provide a rhetorical reading so detailed that the forensic activities of the King, Helen, Bertram, and Diana become ultra-lucid.  The context of forensic rhetoric is so rich that it should renew some of the by-now tired memes about Shakespearean bed-tricks.

Skinner rounds off his study with Chapter 10’s discussion of the peroration and the commonplaces.  The conclusion, according to the rhetoricians, is the space for amplification, and amplification is assisted by common topics of invention or commonplaces.  The best way to conclude, they say, is “to call on a series of resonant loci communes, deploying them in the grand style with the aim of exciting the emotions of the hearers to the highest pitch” (302).  Shakespeare tends to vary this advice by domesticating and toning down conclusions and often distributing them to different characters, according to Skinner, and one of his observations here and throughout is that, when Shakespeare moves from rhetoric to drama, he moves from single-voiced speeches to multi-voiced dialogue.  As well, Skinner contributes to an understanding of Shakespearean ending by pointing out that he sometimes has an observer or judge of forensic debate conclude both the proceedings within the represented debate and the scene, or even play, itself, as in the King’s close of All’s Well.  Skinner folds his own conclusion into this chapter, where he briefly shows that commonplace reasoning began to be disparaged as unworthy of true invention, and the classical rhetorical tradition of invention and disposition fell off and that “phase in the cultural history of the Renaissance” ended (314).

It is remarkable how often the speeches follow the rhetorical tradition’s guidelines Skinner explains and illustrates, and that when they do not, they indicate a significant revision on Shakespeare’s part—either to the tradition or to his sources—to illuminate character or action in a play.  Skinner’s own method will not allow him to extrapolate from these local moments to interpret whole plays, but he might have done so.  His scholarship is beyond par, but one wishes he were not so reluctant to be a critic.  He uses Polonius as an example of failed rhetorical techniques throughout the book, and it almost adds up to an especially interesting thesis about him as a particular kind of comic speaker.

I am not myself fully persuaded that Shakespeare limits himself to the forensic since the deliberative and the epideictic genres are evident in the plays, as well, even if Skinner is right that the forensic dominates.  And while it is true that Shakespeare is not obviously bound by the classical rhetorical tradition throughout his career, I think he remains so, the forms simply becoming part of his own distinct representations.  Russ MacDonald’s work in Shakespearean rhetorical poetics is exemplary in this, watching how recognizable forms (sometimes rather too wooden and formulaic) become habits of composition taking on a unique cast.  All of which is to say that Skinner’s fully informed and precisely brilliant study will encourage new work in Shakespeare’s rhetorical art, a sign of the best work.  This original study is indispensable for anyone hoping to know what has been, what is being, and might still be done with Shakespeare’s rhetoric, and it should interest not only Shakespeare scholars and critics, but also directors and actors, especially those interested in “original practices,” who would like to enact the forensic energies of these plays.