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Ira Clark. Rhetorical Readings, Dark Comedies, and Shakespeare's Problem Plays.

Ira Clark. Rhetorical Readings, Dark Comedies, and Shakespeare's Problem Plays. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. Pp. 160. $59.95.

Ira Clark's Rhetorical Readings, Dark Comedies, and Shakespeare's Problem Plays examines the function of specific rhetorical structures within Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida. Reacting against the "predisposition [in prevailing criticism] to preferred sociopolitical and ideological results" present in readings where there is a "predetermination of confirming conclusions by the method of approach" (2), Clark proffers rhetorical analysis as a corrective methodology--not simply as a replacement for more theoretically informed readings but rather as a more neutral (and, consequently, for Clark, a more reliable) grounding for readings of all stripes. Clark intends to "embed history within the forms whereas most tend to embed the formal discussions within their histories" (3). This desire to "embed history within the forms" leads to a useful, if brief, overview of rhetorical education in early modern England at the end of the first chapter and to a second chapter that "sets a historical critical context for the formal ones to come" (1). While the historical and critical contextualization signaled in these early chapters rarely reappears in succeeding ones (each essay almost exclusively focuses on one play and its rhetorical devices), Clark's lucid and accessible review of the criticism would prove useful for the classroom or one seeking an entry point into the problem plays.

Beginning his critical review with Alfred Harbage's Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions, Clark revisits Harbage's claim that the "public theater" wielded greater influence than the "private theater" in the development of English nationalism (11). Clark rereads Harbage through more recent criticism that situates problem plays within a variegated network of influences (including the rise of satiric city comedy, interest in Continental skepticism, and intensified competition among rival companies during the Poetmachia), and he does so in order to nuance our understanding of the stage's role in the development of national identity. While this critical survey adds little by way of new insight, it sets up Clark's reminder that, in some respects, "problem plays succeed history plays in helping determine what constituted England" (19). The complex role of the theaters in the development of English nationalism, however, remains a subtext in Clark's study, not a principal focus of investigation, since he wishes to "return to a more formal questioning of the predicaments and tensions, resolutions and irresolutions of these dark comedies that were modulating into tragicomedy's resolving formulae of miraculous grace and forgiveness" (23). This project, Clark signals, is particularly pertinent since "no comprehensive stylistic study of the problem plays yet exists" (23).

As part of his effort to provide just such a study, Clark proposes a taxonomy of five particular rhetorical modes characteristic of problem plays. Such plays, Clark avers, remain preoccupied with "a neologistic and polysyllabic diction that collides with a vulgar ... punning diction"; "a showy rhetorical high style ... generally in verse juxtaposed against an abrupt, jarringly irregular, suggestive colloquial low style customarily in prose"; "a density of figurative language that is involved, mixed, elliptical"; "a frequency of brief satiric characterizations"; and "a high incidence of sententious, analytic, and self-serving proverbs" (23). Although one may reasonably wonder how other plays (perhaps Love's Labor's Lost, for instance) might complicate these devices as markers of problem plays, the schema remains useful for this study and accords well with the satiric, urbane turn of early Jacobean theater outlined by Clark in the first part of his work.

In his third chapter, Clark exclusively focuses on chiasmus as a rhetorical device crucial (as it were) to Measure for Measure's presentation of "social, political, sexual, theological, and legal relationships" (32), a device particularly suited for encouraging yet frustrating engagement with social matters. "Chiasmus" Clark argues, "lends itself to the expression of problems" yet concomitantly "compels us to measure the intractability of problems" (33). Less concerned with where exactly that leaves us in rethinking the broader cultural implications of Measure for Measure, Clark, after a brief (perhaps extraneous) digression into 2 Henry IV, instead takes up the proliferation of chiastic formulations throughout the play. And there are indeed many. Clark's readings of the play are best when showing the impact of rhetorical forms that often seem at odds with the situation presented onstage. Taking the problematic ending of the play as his beginning, for example, Clark astutely observes that Duke Vincentio's line to Isabella, "What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine"--spoken as it is "by a duke to a subject, a man to a woman, an elder to a junior, a Machiavel to an innocent"--is in fact a chiasmus that "is not rightly reversible" one that is instead "controverted by the situation in which it is spoken" (44). Clark invites us to consider whether this chiasmus posits equality of terms or, quite the opposite, the negation of one term by the other--and whether the play in essence dramatizes the very tension inherent in the rhetorical form itself. For chiasmus, Clark asserts, "anatomize[s] the relationship of judgment and mercy, legality and clemency that the play requires" and, what is more, "helps to configure Measure for Measure as a problem play for formal, syntactic reasons as well as for the thematic reason of presenting vexatious links between justice and mercy" (54, 56).

Turning to All's Well That Ends Well in his fourth chapter, Clark examines the play's interrelated investments in both "trickery and reversals" and "proverbs, gnomes, terse sayings, puzzles, riddles, and wit contests" (59). He argues that the play "explores the shifting uses of such sayings for summing up communal moral and prudential advice" and he revels in the capacity of such rhetorical forms to enthrall, arguing that the play's speakers "employ them as 'trappings' in every sense of the word" (61). Taking up this rhetorical-ornament-as-method-of-trickery thread, Clark traces the function of rhetorical traps in key moments such as Helen's winning over of the king (despite his initial resistance), her ensnarement of Bertram, and the trapping of Parolles with his own words. Eschewing any larger claim about the play, Clark notes that "Bertram may or may not have been converted from prodigal to husband, may or may not be worthy"; the "older generation may rightly or wrongly have compelled the younger"; "the public interest in private sexual matters may or may not have appropriate extensions or limitations"; and the "coupling of aggression with sexuality may or may not be attractive or repellant" (80). If Clark remains notably unconcerned with proffering a reading on one side or the other, it is because he wishes to assert instead that all such readings ultimately "depend on the simple fact that [the play] has declared itself to be one of Shakespeare's contributions to the company of difficult problem plays" (80). Such plays, Clark concludes, operate by offering "challenges and counterchallenges, tricks and countertricks, perplexing and disturbing entanglements of good and evil, loss and victory; and they do so by means of riddling and punning, challenging and manipulating proverbial expressions and entangling image patterns that replicate and urge problems that mark the transition from Elizabethan to Jacobean" (80).

For his fifth chapter, Clark examines Troilus and Cressida's interest in reflexivity, or "our realization of some notion about ourselves when and only when we believe that others recognize and confirm our sense of it" (82). Identifying three distinct types of wit at work in the play--the wit of Ulysses, the wit of Pandarus, and the wit of Thersites--Clark details how the first emphasizes "displays of self and calculation"; the second centers on "interplays of wit among characters"; and the third operates as "a counter commentary of scurrility" (91). Noting that this taxonomy is neither wholly original to his work nor entirely definitive (various characters shift rhetorical modes as occasion warrants), Clark utilizes the categories to read the play, most productively in his discussion of the council scene. Here, Clark argues that the council's debate dramatizes "a continuous devaluation of logos as the instrument for consideration" and that the repeated appeals to honor generate a "communal valuation [that] depends on emotional involvement, pathos, and self-esteem, ethos" (112-13). The rational calculation of Hector (akin to the wit of Ulysses) gives way, it would seem, to the social imperatives raised in opposition during this debate and personified (in various guises) throughout the play.

Clark offers a brief apologia in his concluding chapter, noting that "the approach I am advocating might seem to turn back to formalism in ways I would regret and away from important theoretical ... contributions I want to hold on to. But I am offering merely a modest proposal for reformation that takes more account of formal analysis than is now common" (120). If Clark tends to avoid sustained consideration of theoretical and historical contextualization throughout most of his study, such privileging of rhetorical analysis remains by design, an attempt to emphasize his methodology. While those desiring more connection between text and context may be disappointed, those interested in the function of specific rhetorical forms in Shakespeare's problem plays will find material worth reviewing in this very focused study.


North Carolina State University
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Author:Crosbie, Christopher
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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