Shake 38

The Regulars

The Rhetoric of Exoneration
Article by Cass Morris

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.

This realization came to me through a rhetoric workshop that some of the actors from the American Shakespeare Center’s Method in Madness tour are preparing to take out onto the road. After a general overview of some broad patterns of rhetoric, they walked us through a few examples from Hamlet. One of these was a section of text I was passingly familiar with, but had never done any real work on before. What we found was a perfect example of how Shakespeare uses rhetorical devices not only to create beautiful language, but to convey information about his characters, their hearts and minds, and the situations in which they find themselves.

Gertrude, after informing Laertes that Ophelia is dead, describes her drowning thusly:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Rhetorically, there’s a lot to unpack here – the florid description of the natural setting, the similes, the interjections and disordered syntax that bespeak Gertrude’s distraction or distress. What interests me most, though, is the prosopopoeia: the personification of non-human entities, whom Gertrude endows with action and emotion. At every opportunity, Gertrude assigns agency to inanimate objects: the brook becomes a “him”, the sliver of a tree branch is endowed with the human quality of envy, her clothes have the independent action to bear her up and then pull her down.

The question of whether or not Ophelia meant to kill herself is one scholars and artists have wrestled with for centuries, and the gravediggers have no compunction about discussing it themselves in the following scene. But the only witness we have is Gertrude – and she goes out of her way to make it anyone’s fault but Ophelia’s. This might tell us more about Gertrude than it does about Ophelia, but it is a remarkable example of how a single significant rhetorical device can produce insight into a character.

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