Shakespeare's Wordcraft

By Scott Kaiser


“That’s an epizuexis,” I said to a young actress one day in rehearsal.

“A what?” she sputtered, taken aback.

“An epizuexis.” I reiterated quietly.

“Gesundheit,” she replied, deftly mocking me.

“No, seriously,” I insisted. “It’s an epizuexis.”

“Okay,” she said, stiffening her spine in anticipation of a boring lecture. “So, what the hell’s an epi-what-zis?”

“It’s a repetition of a word with no other words in between,” I explained. “So when Juliet says ‘Sweet, sweet, sweet nurse’—when she repeats the word ‘sweet’ three times—it’s a figure of speech—an epizuexis.”

“Oh…that’s cool,” said the actress, clearly surprised that there was a name for such a thing. “Why didn’t you just say so in the first place?”

That exchange stuck with me for quite some time. Why didn’t I just say so in the first place?

Talking about language devices in Shakespeare’s plays—which is what I do for a living—has become more and more challenging with every passing year, especially when talking with young people.

It should come as no great surprise to anyone interested in language, that, despite the increasing popularity of Shakespeare these days, it is the image, not the word, which now dominates our youth culture.

The generation that grew up huddled around the radio, listening to the speeches of FDR, the routines of Jack Benny, and the lyrics of Ira Gershwin, is slipping into twilight, and the generation now rising spends its time scrutinizing digital images displayed on X-boxes, cell-phones, game-boys, laptop computers, digital cameras, and personal DVD players.

Because of this, the ability of young people to absorb and interpret complex visual information grows stronger with every new technological innovation, while their ability to read, write, hear, and speak complex language, like Shakespeare’s, continues to atrophy.

No wonder, then, that the average teen can tell you with great ease what kind of shot a film director is using to tell a story—a close up, a wide shot, a dolly shot, a zoom, a split screen—but is struck dumb when you ask about the verbal techniques Shakespeare uses to tell his stories—like Juliet’s sweet epizuexis.

One can hardly blame young people for this utter lack of sophistication about language devices. After all, the subject simply isn’t being taught in their schools. True, students are commonly introduced to a few fundamental devices—like simile, metaphor, and antithesis. But, beyond that, the teaching of verbal techniques, including the hundreds of rhetorical figures used by Shakespeare, has become a rarity.

To make matters worse, when these devices are actually taught, as in, say, a graduate course in English, they are explained by scholars in a manner that is nearly impenetrable, using arcane Latin terms—like synathroesmus, bdelygma, and polyptoton—so difficult to remember, and so impossible to pronounce, that even experts flounder when grappling with them.

But the biggest reason that young people are “totally clueless” about these language devices has almost nothing to do with what goes on inside the classroom.

Rather, it is because—outside the classroom—young people are immersed in a culture so obsessed with the image, and so infatuated with image technology, that it no longer values these devices. In fact, it disdains them, disparages them, even despises them.

For we live in an era when a well-chosen word is met with suspicion, a well-crafted phrase is regarded with contempt, and a well-spoken individual is slandered with pretentiousness and elitism.

We live in an era when the very word rhetoric—the art of using language to persuade or influence others—has become a toxic term, signifying speech that is empty, inflated, deceitful, insincere, artificial, and extravagant. And those who use rhetoric are eternally damned as fakes, cheats, liars, swindlers, scoundrels, imposters, hypocrites, and grandstanders.

Never mind that when Patrick Henry vowed:  “Give me liberty or give me death,” he was using rhetoric.

Never mind that when Abraham Lincoln pledged:  “That government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth,” he was using rhetoric.

Never mind that when FDR warned:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was using rhetoric.

Never mind that when JFK urged:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he was using rhetoric.

Never mind that when MLK affirmed:  “I have a dream today,” he was using rhetoric.

Never mind that, for hundreds of years, the art of rhetoric has shaped the history of this country, creating from mere breath the irresistible force that moved America forward towards greater freedom and enlightenment.

Nowadays, rhetoric is bad, plain speech, good.

Compare this to what Shakespeare encountered as a young boy, sitting in a classroom in Stratford, wrestling with the figures of rhetoric.

For in Elizabethan England, every schoolboy learned by heart the ancient principles of rhetoric formulated by the Greek masters—by Plato and Aristotle—through endless repetition of the figures in Latin and English.

It was a time of great interest in the art of rhetoric—a “golden age” in which numerous books were published outlining the body of rules governing eloquent expression, including the great classic, Henry Peachum’s The Garden of Eloquence.

It was time when the printed word was exploding, the spoken word was revered, the eloquent speaker was venerated, and the theater was a vital source of entertainment.

And because of this, Shakespeare, upon arriving in London as a young man, had the superb language skills he needed to begin his career as a playwright—not to mention the extreme good fortune to arrive at a time when conditions smiled upon his particular brand of genius. 

The result: the creation of 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 narrative poems so imaginative, so innovative, so brilliantly crafted, that even now, nearly four hundred years after the Bard laid down his quill, no one has been able to match his achievement.

That’s why Shakespeare, like no other writer in the English language, has become a constant presence in our lives, surrounding us everyday in the form of words, phrases, expressions, images, ideas, speeches, characters, so familiar to us, so universal, that we often take them for granted.

But here’s the rub: even while we deify the man as an unsurpassed genius, we have ignored, or worse, forgotten—because of our cultural prejudices against language devices and wordplay—that a large portion of that genius was his masterful use of rhetoric.

We have forgotten that when Hamlet says: “I must be cruel only to be kind,” he is using a figure of rhetoric.

We have forgotten that when King Richard cries: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” he is using a figure of rhetoric.

We have forgotten that when King Henry urges: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” he is using a figure of rhetoric.

We have forgotten that when Antony pleads: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” he is using a figure of rhetoric.

We have forgotten that when the Othello muses: “Put out the light, and then put out the light,” he is using a figure of rhetoric.

For we have lost our primal connection to these rhetorical devices in our daily lives, just as we have lost our primal connection to the stars in the night sky.

And this makes our perception of Shakespeare’s words—the ability to read, speak, listen to, comprehend, and appreciate them—hazy.

It’s as if we’re in a big city, looking skyward, knowing that multitudes of stunningly beautiful constellations illuminate our world, yet we, poor fools, because our electric lights obscure the magnificence of the cosmos, can only pick out the Big Dipper and Orion’s belt.

This, then, is the aim of the book you hold in your hands: to take the reader well away from the glaring lights of the city, to a hilltop, on a clear moonless night, where the stellar patterns of Shakespeare’s language can be seen for their exquisite beauty, appreciated for their power to ignite the imagination, and revered for their ability to tell stories.

In making this excursion, every attempt will be made to “just say so in the first place.” That is to say, you will not be asked to master arcane terminology, nor remember unpronounceable names, nor grapple with complex definitions.

Rather, you will be asked to see patterns, and to recognize that these patterns were not accidental or coincidental, but designed and crafted by a master of the word.

For a study of Shakespeare’s wordcraft, like an appreciation of music, is not, ultimately, about definitions and terms. It’s about patterns—audible, discernable, memorable patterns that enter the ear and mix in the brain, giving meaning to the sounds and pleasure to the listener.

For this reason, the book is organized around nine basic patterns that will help the reader make sense of the dizzying array of devices that Shakespeare liked to employ.

Each chapter explores one of these nine patterns in depth, beginning with a general explanation of the qualities of the pattern, then introducing, in a logical progression, the various devices that follow that particular pattern. Each of these devices is briefly explained—sometimes using modern quotations as models—then illuminated by many examples of Shakespeare’s use of the device in context. At times, for the sake of clarity, the examples are further divided into sub-categories, such as prose and verse, or soliloquy and dialogue.

It’s important to understand that, although every effort has been made to present “pure” examples of each device, the patterns often defy attempts to place them into neatly arranged boxes. For Shakespeare often blends them, weaves them together, in much the same way Beethoven or Mozart weave musical figures together to make symphonies. Because of this, many examples will contain more devices than the one being explained. 

It’s also important to understand that, although there are hundreds of examples presented in these pages, the book is by no means intended to be a complete and unabridged presentation of them, but rather a carefully selected and ordered sampling of them.

But now, the city is miles away, the moon is down, the clouds have vanished, and the night sky is breathtakingly clear.

To our hilltop!

And whether you’re a young actress grappling with Juliet’s verse, a student, a teacher, a director, a coach, a lover of Shakespeare, or a lover of all English literature, chances are you’ll be amazed at what you discover.

For all these wonders are visible to the naked eye once you’ve learned to see the patterns.

And once you see and understand the patterns, you’ll be on your way to better writing, better speaking, better reading, and better listening.