Shake 38

The Regulars

The Rhetoric of Agency
Article by Cass Morris

“Take thy face hence.” — Macbeth, Macbeth, 5.3
“No foot shall stir.” — Leontes, The Winter’s Tale, 5.3
“Fie, fie, unreverend tongue, to call her so.” — Proteus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 2.6

All of the above are examples of synecdoche, a rhetorical device whereby one part stands in for the whole of a person or thing. When Macbeth tells the messenger to take his face hence, presumably he intends that the rest of the messenger depart as well. This is a specific form of metonymy, referring to something by one of its attributes (as when King Charles offers to divide his crown, meaning his power, with Joan of Arc, or when Viola calls Olivia as “fair cruelty,” referring to her by two of her perceived personality traits), and it thus falls under the greater heading of metaphor.

Shakespeare often has characters use synecdoche not just as a simple analogous statement, however, but instead as a means of dissociating themselves from their actions. By blaming their words or actions on just a piece of themselves, they lessen their own responsibility. Proteus may try to blame his tongue for slandering his girlfriend Julia, but his tongue did not do anything he did not tell it to do. This evasive reasoning fits in perfectly in a speech where Proteus spends 43 lines trying to convince himself — and the audience — that his desire to abandon Julia and steal his best friend’s girlfriend instead is really an okay thing to do.

In Julius Caesar 3.1, when explaining his actions to Antony, Brutus is careful to distinguish between what the conspirators’ hands did and what their hearts did. Through this rhetorical maneuver, Brutus dissociates murderous intent from what he, at least, deems their nobler purpose. This sort of language permeates the histories and tragedies, as characters blame their hands, not themselves, for various misdeeds: Philip the Bastard calls young Arthur’s supposed murder “the graceless action of a heavy hand” (King John, 4.3), Edmund of Langley says of Edward, Prince of Wales, that “his hands were guilty of no kindred blood” (Richard II, 2.1), and Edgar belies himself as “False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand” when naming his imagined misdeeds (King Lear, 3.4), as just a few examples. In all of these instances, characters imagine the hands themselves to have agency, which in turn confers upon them human qualities like guilt or grace.

This means of dissociation also works with other rhetorical devices. Romeo is particularly guilty of absolving himself through prosopopoeia, blaming personified Love for his actions. A character can also use enallage, the substitution of grammatically different but semantically equivalent syntactical forms, transposing a sentence from active voice to passive voice. When Romeo tells Balthasar “Thou art deceived,” he neglects to make explicit that he’s the one doing the deceiving. The most famous modern example of this is “Mistakes were made,” which President Nixon made famous, though he certainly is not the only politician to seek that rhetorical refuge. Even a king referring to himself in the “royal we” could be using rhetoric to divorce himself from his actions, cloaking himself in the protection of the office rather than admitting to the frailties of the man.

What I’m curious about is what effect this has for the audience. Do we like a character better or worse for attempting to dissociate himself from his less-becoming actions? Does it engender sympathy, or does it just make him look like a sleaze? Or, does it depend on how the actor chooses to interpret and to play this particular device?

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1 / Joe. on Oct.15.2014 / 1:27am
Although Nixon probably should have used the phrase "Mistakes were made," I don't think he did. The phrase is perhaps most closely associated with Reagan and both Bushes.
2 / The Rhetoric of Exoneration. on Oct.14.2014 / 2:32pm
[…] I’ve written before about rhetorical devices such as synechdoche and prosopopoeia, which characters in Shakespeare often use to absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions. This week, however, I was delighted and astonished to find those devices turned to a slightly different and emotionally compelling use. […]