What is the “Sweet Smoke of Rhetoric”?

a-grand-taxonomy-of-shakespearean-insults crop
In Winter 2016 Dr. Michael MacDonald, recipient of UWaterloo’s Distinguished Teaching Award, will be teaching a special topics course titled “Sweet Smoke of Rhetoric!”: Shakespearean Persuasion in Theory and Practice. The course description is below, it looks fabulous, and if you are still seeking a 400 level course there are spaces available.

“Sweet Smoke of Rhetoric!”: Shakespearean Persuasion in Theory and Practice
English 492 (Special Topics)
Professor Michael MacDonald
Winter 2016

Although humanism was closely associated with the rediscovery of key manuscripts of ancient rhetoric, Renaissance theorists did not merely exhume the corpse of classical rhetoric: they also reshaped and transformed ancient rhetorical theory for their own purposes. The plays of William Shakespeare offer us a striking example of this transfiguration of ancient rhetoric at work. Analyzing the plays alongside seminal works of Renaissance rhetorical theory, this class will examine how Shakespeare “figured and disfigured” the models of classical rhetoric drubbed into him at the King’s New School.

At the level of practice, we will explore how Shakespeare retools the formal elements of classical rhetoric in the “quick forge” (Henry V 2) of his imagination, fashioning a new kind of vernacular English eloquence that differs starkly from the Latinate sophistry of gasbags like Polonius.

At the level of theory, we will examine how Shakespeare dramatizes the ethical, political, and philosophical problems that rhetoric raised for his culture. Transmuting rhetorical theory into theatrical practice, the plays interrogate the myths and mystifications of Tudor rhetorical culture, especially the humanist ideal of the civilizing power of eloquent wisdom—in Shakespeare, rhetoric is “perilous stuff.”

Over the course of the semester we shall see that Shakespeare’s critique of sophistry and rhetorical illusion serves a persuasive purpose of its own: it conceals the status of the play-world itself as a sophistic artifice. After all, a play is not a “mirror held up to nature” (as Hamlet suggests) but a phantasm that conjures a virtual world on the stage by means of words.

Texts: Love’s Labours Lost; Hamlet; King Richard III; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Henry IV 1; Othello; Macbeth; King Lear; The Tempest; A Winter’s Tale; Renaissance Debates in Rhetoric, ed. Wayne Rebhorn.

To see “A Grand Taxonomy of Shakespearean Insults” in full, click here.



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