by Amanda Rogus
This fall during the 2019 biennial Blackfriars Conference at the American Shakespeare Center, I had the great privilege to take part in a riveting colloquy discussion on the rhetoric of violence in Shakespeare’s plays. This topic is of particular interest to me as an MS Educational Psychology candidate researching domestic violence and sexual assault. My community service project for my degree actually involves staging Measure for Measure focused on the traumatic elements, so I was excited to be part of this larger canon discussion. Our colloquy panel had an enlightening discussion covering everything from the phrasing before the horrid violent rape in Titus Andronicus to the framing of war in the Henriad. The panel aptly titled “Them’s Fighting Words” discussed what role rhetoric plays in a fight or quarrel preceding, during, or following a fight. Our core focus shifted based on our respective disciplines, covering the full gamut from pedagogy to staging considerations when blocking a fight in the theatre. Having a solid variety of voices and educators speaking together enabled a collaborative, building discussion. In this talk, the selected readings chosen by those in our mini trauma rhetoric cohort served as a springboard for even deeper more enriching discussion.
Throughout the colloquy, the discussion of status became an interesting and important point that several people highlighted in their comments. Framing the rhetoric discussion in terms of who was allowed to respond a certain way opened the door to an even deeper conversation addressing how to respectfully and meaningfully incorporate these lessons into a classroom without triggering a student. Ultimately, our group came to the realization that it is important to be teaching the plays that are harder to discuss as it welcomes in not only room to instruct students on the rhetoric, but it brings these real-life quarrels and issues into a relatable place within the classroom. This then led to a solid discussion on the responsibility and accountability of the educator. Topics like war and domestic violence can naturally cause issues for students and we as a unit agreed that it is important nevertheless to have the difficult discussions while providing a safe space and flexibility in the case of problems. A key take-away from the pedagogical part of the discussion was that rhetoric is complex. By getting the students to identify and acknowledge these terms, especially in plays dealing with traumatic content, is a huge win in the world of collegiate education, because it involves deeper close reading and engagement.
Perhaps the most important lesson gleaned from the session, though, involved rhetoric in terms of the violence, framing device. In most all scenes in discussion, the rhetorical strategy served as either a lead up to a significant attack or the respondent to a quarrel of sorts. This brought insight as to the emotional catalyst the words can trigger that can ultimately cause a fight or conflict to ensue or evolve. With these ideas in mind, we were able to further isolate that the rhetoric surrounding violent acts tends to be creative uses to toy with the ordering because repetition occurs less than other rhetorical strategies when employed in this traumatic context. This deeper specificity allowed for us to unpack and unearth elements that had not been analyzed to such an extent in previous articles and commentaries on the subject. Overall, the colloquy was a huge success and led to a solid question and answer section regarding several of the points addressed. The colloquy nicely served to scrutinize rhetoric in Shakespeare’s more traumatic moments in attacks to better understand the depth of the character psychology in a responsible manner that is grounded in rhetorical examples.