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Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius. No angels handed him his lines, no fairies proofread for him. Instead, he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well.
Genius, as we tend to talk about it today, is some sort of mysterious and combustible substance that burns brightly and burns out. It’s the strange gift of poets and pop stars that allows them to produce one wonderful work in their early twenties and then nothing. It is mysterious. It is there. It is gone.
This is, if you think about it, a rather odd idea. Nobody would talk about a doctor or an accountant or a taxi driver who burnt out too fast. Too brilliant to live long. Pretty much everyone in every profession outside of professional athletics gets better as they go along, for the rather obvious reason that they learn and they practise. Why should writers be different?
Shakespeare wasn’t different. Shakespeare got better and better and better, which was easy because he started badly, like most people starting a new job.
Nobody is quite sure which is Shakespeare’s first play, but the contenders are Love’s Labours Lost, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI Part 1. Do not, dear reader, worry if you have not read those plays. Almost nobody has, because, to be utterly frank, they’re not very good. To be precise about it, there isn’t a single memorable line in any of them.
Now, for Shakespeare, that may seem rather astonishing. He was, after all, the master of the memorable line. But the first line of Shakespeare that almost anybody knows is in Henry VI Part 2, when one revolting peasant says to another: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” In Part 3 there’s a couple more—“I can smile, and murder while I smile.” And each successive play has more and more and more great lines until you work up through Much Ado and Julius Caesar (1590s) to Hamlet and King Lear (1600s).
Shakespeare got better because he learnt. Now some people will tell you that great writing cannot be learnt. Such people should be hit repeatedly on the nose until they promise not to talk nonsense any more. Shakespeare was taught how to write. He was taught it at school. Composition (in Latin) was the main part of an Elizabethan education. And, importantly, you had to learn the figures of rhetoric.
Professionally, Shakespeare wrote in English. And for that he learnt and used the figures of rhetoric in English. This was easy, as Elizabethan London was crazy for rhetorical figures. A chap called George Puttenham had a bestseller in 1589 with his book on them (that’s about the year of Shakespeare’s first play). And that was just following on from Henry Peacham’s The Garden of Eloquence, which had come out a decade earlier. Book after book was published, all about the figures of rhetoric. So I should probably explain what the figures of rhetoric are.
Rhetoric is a big subject. It consists of the whole art of persuasion. The lot. It includes logic (or the kind of sloppy logic most people understand, called enthymemes), it includes speaking loudly and clearly, and it includes working out what topics to talk about. Anything to do with persuasion is rhetoric, right down to the argumentum ad baculum, which means threatening somebody with a stick until they agree with you. One minuscule part of this massive subject is the figures of rhetoric, which are the techniques for making a single phrase striking and memorable just by altering the wording. Not by saying something different, but by saying something in a different way. They are the formulas for producing great lines.
These formulas were thought up by the Ancient Greeks and then added to by the Romans. As Shakespeare set to work England was busy having the Renaissance (everybody else had had the Renaissance a century or so before, and we were running late). So the classical works on rhetoric were dug out, translated and adapted for use in English. But it wasn’t the enthymemes or the topics or even the baculums that the English liked. We loved the figures. The “flowers of rhetoric” as they were called (hence The Garden of Eloquence), because, as a nation, we were at the time rather obsessed with poetry.
So Shakespeare learnt and learnt and got better and better, and his lines became more and more striking and more and more memorable. But most of his great and famous lines are simply examples of the ancient formulas. “I can smile, and murder while I smile” was not handed to Shakespeare by God. It’s just an example of diacope.
So why, you may be asking, were you not taught the figures of rhetoric at school? If they make a chap write as well as Shakespeare, shouldn’t we be learning them instead of home economics and woodwork? There are three answers to that. First, we need woodworkers.
Second, people have always been suspicious of rhetoric in general and the figures in particular. If somebody learns how to phrase things beautifully, they might be able to persuade you of something that isn’t true. Stern people dislike rhetoric, and unfortunately it’s usually stern people who are in charge: solemn fools who believe that truth is more important than beauty.
Third, the Romantic Movement came along at the end of the eighteenth century. The Romantics liked to believe that you could learn everything worth learning by gazing at a babbling mountain brook, or running barefoot through the fields, or contemplating a Grecian urn. They wanted to be natural, and the figures of rhetoric are not natural. They are formulas, formulas that you can learn from a book.
So what with the dislike of beauty and books, the figures of rhetoric were largely forgotten. But that doesn’t mean that they ceased to be used. You see, when the Ancient Greeks were going around collecting their formulas, they weren’t plucking them out of thin air or growing them in a test tube. All that the Greeks were doing was noting down the best and most memorable phrases they heard, and working out what the structures were, in much the same way that when you or I eat a particularly delicious meal, we might ask for the recipe.
The figures are, to some extent, alive and well. We still use them. It’s just that we use them haphazardly. What Shakespeare had beaten into him at school, we might, occasionally, use by accident and without realising it. We just happen to say something beautiful, and don’t know how we did it. We are like blindfolded cooks throwing anything into the pot and occasionally, just occasionally, producing a delicious meal.
Shakespeare had a big recipe book and his eyes wide open.
The figures are alive and thriving. The one line from that song or film that you remember and don’t know why you remember is almost certainly down to one of the figures, one of the flowers of rhetoric growing wild. They account for the songs you sing and the poems you love, although that is hidden from you at school.
English teaching at school is, unfortunately, obsessed with what a poet thought, as though that were of any interest to anyone. Rather than being taught about how a poem is phrased, schoolchildren are asked to write essays on what William Blake thought about the Tiger; despite the fact that William Blake was a nutjob whose opinions, in a civilised society, would be of no interest to anybody apart from his parole officer. A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher. A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitely. That is the one and only difference between the poet and everybody else.
So my aim in this book is to explain the figures of rhetoric, devoting one chapter to each. There are a couple of caveats that I should make clear before we begin. First of all, the study of rhetoric did not entirely disappear with the Romantics. There are still scholarly articles written. Unfortunately, almost all of these get tied in knots trying to define their terms. Rhetorical terminology, like anything kicked around for a couple of millennia, is a mess. So an article on syllepsis will start by defining the term, attacking other scholars for defining it differently, appealing to the authority of Quintilian or Susenbrotus, and then conclude without actually having said anything about syllepsis or what it is. I’ve written more on this subject in the Epilogue, but as I have no particular interest in such lexical squabbles I have simply adopted the rule of Humpty-Dumpty: When I use a rhetorical term, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.
Second, some of you may think that I am trying to attack Shakespeare or whichever poet I’m quoting. You may consider this a cruel work of debunking, like the spoilsports who uncurtained the Wizard of Oz. Shakespeare is a god and it is sacrilege to unseal his star-y pointing pyramid. Little could be further from the truth. It doesn’t insult the Wright Brothers to explain the principles of aerodynamics, nor Neil Armstrong the spacesuit. Shakespeare was a craftsman, and if you told him that now people studied his attitudes to feminism more than his rhetorical figures he would chuckle.
Shakespeare did not consider himself sacred. He would often just steal content from other people. However, whatever he stole he improved, and he improved it using the formulas, flowers and figures of rhetoric.
Let us begin with something we know Shakespeare stole, simply so that we can see what a wonderful thief he was. When Shakespeare decided to write The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra he of course needed a history book from which to work. The standard work on the subject was Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, but Plutarch wrote in Greek, and, as Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson later pointed out, “thou hadst small Latin and less Greek.”
Despite years at Stratford Grammar School learning pretty much nothing but the classics, Shakespeare could never be bothered with foreign languages. He always used translations.
So he got hold of the standard English translation of Plutarch, which had been written by a chap called Thomas North and published in 1579. We know that this is the version Shakespeare used because you can sometimes see him using the same word that North used, and sometimes pairs of words. But when Shakespeare got to the big speech of the whole play, when he really needed some poetry, when he wanted true greatness, when he wanted to describe the moment that Antony saw Cleopatra on the barge and fell in love with her—he just found the relevant paragraph in North and copied it out almost word for word. Almost word for word.
. . . she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, cithernes, viols, and such other instruments as they played up in the barge.
And here’s Shakespeare:
The barge she sat in like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.
The thing about this is that it’s definitely half stolen. There is no possible way that Shakespeare didn’t have North open on his desk when he was writing. But also, Shakespeare made little changes. That means that we can actually watch Shakespeare working. We can peep back 400 years and see the greatest genius who ever lived scribbling away. We can see how he did it, and it’s really pretty bloody simple. All he did was add some alliteration.
Nobody knows why we love to hear words that begin with the same letter, but we do and Shakespeare knew it. So he picked the word barge and worked from there. Barge begins with a B, so Shakespeare sat back and said to himself: “The barge she sat in was like a . . .” And then (though I can’t prove this) he said: “Ba . . . ba . . . ba . . . burnished throne.” He jotted that down and then he decided to do another. “The barge she sat in like a burnished throne . . . ba . . . ba . . . burned? It burned on the water.” And the poop was gold? Not any more: the poop was beaten gold. That’s four Bs in two lines. Enough to be getting on with. Shakespeare could have got carried away and written something like:
The barge she basked in, like a burnished boat
Burned by the banks, the back was beaten brass.
But that would just be silly. Of course, Shakespeare did write like that sometimes. There’s a bit in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that goes:
Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast;
But there he was taking the mickey out of poets who use alliteration but don’t know where to stop. No, Shakespeare wasn’t going to put any more Bs in, he was working on the Ps. North’s original had “the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple.” That’s two Ps already, so Shakespeare decided that the sails would be pa . . . pa . . . perfumed. Maybe he stopped to wonder how you would perfume a whole sail, or how you might be able to smell them from the river bank (the Cydnus is quite wide). Or maybe he didn’t. Accuracy is much less important than alliteration.
From there on in, Shakespeare was coasting. North had “After the sound” so Shakespeare had “to the tune.” North had a whole orchestra of instruments—“flutes, howboys, cithernes, viols”—Shakespeare cut that down to just flutes, because he liked the F. So flutes made the “Water Which they beat to Follow Faster, As Amorous of their strokes.”
So Shakespeare stole; but he did wonderful things with his plunder. He’s like somebody who nicks your old socks and then darns them. Shakespeare simply knew that people are suckers for alliteration and that it’s pretty damned easy to make something alliterate (or that it’s surprisingly simple to add alliteration).
You can spend all day trying to think of some universal truth to set down on paper, and some poets try that. Shakespeare knew that it’s much easier to string together some words beginning with the same letter. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It can be the exact depth in the sea to which a chap’s corpse has sunk; hardly a matter of universal interest, but if you say, “Full fathom five thy father lies,” you will be considered the greatest poet who ever lived. Express precisely the same thought any other way—e.g. “your father’s corpse is 9.144 metres below sea level”—and you’re just a coastguard with some bad news.
Any phrase, so long as it alliterates, is memorable and will be believed even if it’s a bunch of nonsense. Curiosity, for example, did not kill the cat. There are no widely reported cases of felines dying from being too inquisitive. In fact, the original proverb was not “curiosity killed the cat” (which is recorded only from 1921), it was “care killed the cat.” And even that one was changed. When the proverb was first recorded (in Shakespeare, actually, although he seems to be just referring to a well known bit of folk wisdom), care meant sorrow or unhappiness. But by the twentieth century it was care in the sense of too much kindness—something along the lines of a pet that is overfed and pampered. In a hundred years’ time it may be something else that does the pussy-killing, although you can be certain that whatever it is—kindness, consternation or corruption—will begin with a C or K.
Similarly, there was once an old proverb, “An ynche in a misse is as good as an ell,” an ell being an old unit of measurement of 1.1 miles. So the ell was changed to a mile, and then the inch was dropped because it doesn’t begin with an M, and we were left with “A miss is as good as a mile,” which, if you think about it, doesn’t really make sense any more. But who needs sense when you have alliteration?
Nobody has ever thrown a baby out with the bathwater, nor is there anything particularly right about rain. Even when something does make a bit of sense, it’s usually obvious why the comparison was picked. It takes two to tango, but it takes two to waltz as well. There are whole hogs, but why not pigs? Bright as a button. Cool as a cucumber. Dead as a doornail. In fact, Dickens made this point rather better than I at the opening of A Christmas Carol.
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Except that Dickens knew full well why it is doornails that are dead. Dickens was a writer, and as a writer, he knew that alliteration is the simplest way to turn a memorable phrase. This was, after all, the guy who had written Nicholas Nickleby, The Pickwick Papers (full title: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club) and, indeed, A Christmas Carol. He knew which side his bread was buttered, as had those who came before him, like Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice), and those who came after him (Where’s Wally?).
So popular is alliteration that in the 1960s it actually made a grab for political power. In the 1960s a vast radical youth movement began campaigning to do things for the sole reason that they began with the same letter. Ban the bomb. Burn your bra. Power to the people. For a moment there it seemed as though alliteration would change the world. But then the spirit of idealism faded and those who had manned the barricades went off and got jobs in marketing. They stopped telling people to ban the bomb and started telling them to put a tiger in your tank, chuck out the chintz and use Access—Your Flexible Friend, or perhaps PayPal. And all because the lady loves Milk Tray.
It’s enough to get your goat.1
Alliteration can be brief and obvious—a short, sharp, shock. Or it can be long and subtle. John Keats once wrote fourteen lines of Fs and Ss, and it was beautiful:
Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deadened more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade: the Naiad ’mid her reeds
Press’d her cold finger closer to her lips.
Whereas, at almost the same time, Thomas De Quincey, famous junkie and prose stylist, got himself all muddled up over this sentence:
At present, after exchanging a few parting words, and a few final or farewell farewells with my faithful female agent . . .
So muddled was he that he decided to add a footnote apologising for his paroemion (that’s the technical name for excessive alliteration). The footnote went:
Some people are irritated, or even fancy themselves insulted, by overt acts of alliteration, as many people are by puns. On their account, let me say, that, although there are here eight separate f’s in less than half a sentence, this is to be held as pure accident. In fact, at one time there were nine f’s in the original cast of the sentence, until I, in pity of the affronted people, substituted female agent for female friend.
“Agent” seems a strange substitution for “friend.” But he probably had to do it as he couldn’t change “farewell farewells.” It’s much too clever to use a word as an adjective and then a noun. In fact, the trick has a name. It’s called polyptoton.
Poor polyptoton is one of the lesser-known rhetorical tricks. It has no glamour. It isn’t taught to schoolchildren. It has a silly name which sounds a bit like polyp, a word for a nasal growth. In fact, it comes from the Greek for “many cases,” but that hardly makes up for it. Even once you’ve explained that that’s because it involves the repeated use of one word as different parts of speech or in different grammatical forms, polyptoton remains incorrigibly unsexy. This is a trifle unfair, especially as one of the best known examples of polyptoton is a song that is sometimes said to be about oral sex.
“Please Please Me”2 is a classic case of polyptoton. The first please is please the interjection, as in “Please mind the gap.” The second please is a verb meaning to give pleasure, as in “This pleases me.” Same word: two different parts of speech. It’s easy, once you ponder it, to see how people could feel that the polyptoton was a little perverse.3
Whether the song is actually about matters carnal or emotional is beyond the scope of a book like this. All that we know about John Lennon’s motivations for writing it is that he had a specific interest in polyptoton (even if he may not have known the name). When Lennon was a child, his mother used to sing him a Bing Crosby song called “Please.” The lyrics went like this:
Lend your little ear to my pleas
Lend a ray of cheer to my pleas
And Lennon’s explanation of his own lyrics4 was that in that song “I was always intrigued by the double use of the word ‘Please.’” Of course, in those lyrics the second please is spelled pleas, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still polyptoton if the words have a close etymological connection, or are just different parts of the same verb, which means that “All You Need is Love”5 is pretty much polyptoton beginning to end:
Nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Et cetera et cetera. Of course, John Lennon didn’t invent polyptoton. Shakespeare used it all the time. Some of his most famous lines go:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Alters the verb, alteration the noun. Remover the noun, remove the verb. (“Love is not love” is merely a paradox, and we’ll come to that later.) He used it again in Macbeth with:
Is this a dagger that I see before me,
The handle towards my hand?
In fact, Shakespeare was so fond of polyptoton that he just repeated himself wholesale. He had a trick and he liked it and he used it again and again. So in Richard II Bolingbroke, busy revolting, says “My gracious uncle,” but his uncle, the Duke of York replies:
Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle:
I am no traitor’s uncle; and that word “grace”
In an ungracious mouth is but profane.
Which is three counts of polyptoton and jolly clever. In fact, Shakespeare was so pleased with himself that when he got round to writing Romeo and Juliet he (hoping nobody would notice that he’s just reusing his old lines) has Juliet’s dad tell her:
Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds.
It was just a trick that Shakespeare had in his bag, and a device like that can be devised anywhere you like. In fact, the most famous use of Shakespeare’s little trick wasn’t by Shakespeare. This makes sense really. Anybody can write “Hello me no hellos” or “How are you old chap me no how are you old chaps.” It is a trick available to everyone and the best example was by a lady called Susanna Centlivre.