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Structural secrets: Shakespeare's complex Chiasmus.

1. Introduction

In 1753, Robert Lowth, D.D., Bishop of London and the former Professor of Poetry at New College, Oxford, published a series of lectures on biblical Hebrew texts that permanently altered the fundamental approach to modern biblical interpretation. (1) Noting a frequently recurring pattern of related phrases set into adjoining positions in the text, he "coined the phrase parallelismus membrorum ('the parallelism of the clauses')" (Kuge 112) to describe these forms and subsequently triggered a major paradigm shift in Hebrew translation and the understanding of biblical structure. Yet, even though he identified these structures, and even recognized complex arrangements of interrelated parallelisms in the text, he never fully realized the elaborate systems these fundamental parallelisms could build. Not until 1942, when Nils Lund published his groundbreaking book Chiasmus in the New Testament, did researchers begin to comprehend the full scope of parallelisms, particularly the way in which they formed the fundamental units of complex biblical chiasmus--a large-scale form of chiasmus, more intricate than the structures previously thought to exist in the Western classical rhetorical tradition (Welch, "Chiasmus in Ancient Greek" 259)--and a new field in biblical research emerged to form a crucial branch of interpretive analysis.

Despite the modern biblical community's apparent discovery of these ancient and highly complex forms, they had in fact merely rediscovered a compositional style and tradition that had been recognized among Western writers in earlier centuries. This was, at the very least, true among British writers who had utilized these complex systems "from the time of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest and beyond" (Howlett 1). Nevertheless, even though these patterns were commonly used in earlier centuries, an awareness of the large-scale biblical patterns appears to have begun fading into the background with the passage of time, and English Renaissance books on rhetoric and poetry remain silent on the subject. (2) However, notwithstanding this apparent decline, nearly three hundred fifty years before Lund and a century and a half before Lowth, a young writer in Britain began incorporating these complex structural patterns into his texts. Combining his classical rhetorical training with biblical structural traditions, he adopted this unique system into his work and it not only enhanced his compositional techniques but would also reveal the development of his structural style and provide an additional tool for future textual exegesis and research. His works consisted of poetry and plays, and the young man's name was William Shakespeare.

2. Fundamentals of Biblical Chiasmus

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, chiasmus is "a grammatical figure by which the order of words in one of two parallel clauses is inverted in the other" (103). Simple chiasms are common in many languages, and even though the layperson may not be familiar with the term chiasmus, the wordplay is easily recognized: "Ajax, who wears his wit in his belly and his guts in his head" (Tro 2.1.73-4). (3) This basic definition of chiasmus, however, is the result of a modern classical rhetorical viewpoint, and today nearly all standard dictionary definitions do not include the large-scale structures found in ancient literature. Therefore, to fully understand what these larger structures are and how they operate in Shakespeare's text requires a closer look at the fundamental structural units that work together to compose chiasmus.

The primary component of complex chiasmus, which is also one of the basic structural units in the Bible, is parallelism (Kugel 1; Breck 93). Bishop Lowth defines this structure simply as "the correspondence of one verse or line with another" (Lowth, Isaiah viii), while a modern definition describes it as "a component of literary style in both prose and poetry, in which coordinate ideas are arranged in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that balance one element with another of equal importance and similar wording.... [and] may consist of a pair of single words that are synonymous" (Merriam-Webster's 856). Hebrew parallelisms contain relatively few departures from classical rhetorical definitions and include "two (or sometimes three) lines, in which a theme is repeated and developed. The second line of a Hebrew couplet, for example, can take up a word or theme of the first line" (Breck 94). This often results in parallelisms formed by corresponding phrases that contain shared keywords, phrases, or concepts, even though the syntactical and grammatical structures may be different (i.e., parison, though common in Hebrew parallelisms, is not a requirement of the form). Parallelisms are abundant throughout the biblical text, and Shakespeare would have observed structures similar to the following example from the Geneva Bible: (4)
 The mouth of a righteous ma[n] is a wellspring of life:
 but iniquitie couereth the mouth of the wicked. (Prov. 9:11)

Parallelisms are effective in delivering a succinct message, but they do not always have enough space to reflect on multiple facets of complex issues. This limitation could pose a challenge when ancient authors needed to address an issue that required more information than a single parallelism could hold. To cope with this obstacle, they often wrote a series of successive parallelisms, which could be as short as three or four phrases or as long as a series of phrases filling an entire chapter. Bishop Lowth gives the following example:
 For the mountains shall be removed;
 And the hills shall be overthrown:
 But my kindness from thee shall not be removed;
 And the covenant of my peace shall not be overthrown.
 (Lowth, Isaiah xv; Isa. 54:10)

Because this technique was not sufficient in every circumstance, ancient writers began to manipulate the structure of successive parallelisms in an attempt to integrate them into a single, large-scale form. They eventually came up with an intriguing solution that changed the way parallelisms could be written. Understanding the process requires a brief look at the component parts of parallelisms. To begin, every basic parallelism is composed of two parts: part A, the first phrase, and part B, the second phrase (Kugel 2; Breck 95):

(Part A): He that regardeth instruction (is in) the way of life:

(Part B): but he that refuseth correction goeth out of the way. (Prov. 9:17)

Instead of writing a passage of successive parallelisms, where parts A and B remained together, early writers split the two phrases apart and set them at opposite ends of a passage in corresponding positions:

(Parallelism 1, Part A): Ashkelon shal se it, and feare

(Parallelism 2, Part A): and Azzah also shall be verie sorowful

(Apex)and Ekron: for her countenance shal be ashamed,

(Parallelism 2, Part B): and the King shal perish from Azzah,

(Parallelism 1, Part B): and Ashkelon shal not be inhabited. (Zech. 9:5)

This pattern marked the beginning of large-scale, complex chiasmus. Yet, even though Bishop Lowth's work began to reveal the presence of complex systems, his writing does not indicate whether or not he recognized how these fundamental parallelisms could often link together into large-scale, complex forms that covered entire passages. A century and a half later, however, following the research of a limited number of scholars who addressed various characteristics of complex and interrelated parallelisms (Welch, Introd. 9), Nils Lund did recognize this potential and published his findings, which included previously undetected large-scale forms:
 For thy light is come,
 And the glory
 Of Yahweh
 Upon thee is risen
 For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth
 and gross darkness the peoples
 But upon thee will arise
 And his glory upon thee be seen,
 And nations shall come to thy light,
 And kings to the brightness
 Of thy rising. (Lund 44; Isa. 60:1-3)

3. Merging Rhetorical Traditions

Parallelisms and the complex structures they are able to build are common throughout the Bible, and Shakespeare makes widespread use of them in his work. Many of Shakespeare's earliest forms reflect an awareness of both parallelisms and the complex chiastic structures in the Bible, and he frequently applies these structures to the dialogue in his plays. In the following example, he not only uses parallelisms but sets two parallelisms (one in each A level) into corresponding positions in the passage, creating a structural chiasm (in this case, a chiastic inclusion, or ABA) for the main body of the speech:
Brackenbury (R3 1.4.76-83):
Sorrow breaks seasons and reposing hours, [introduction; standard
makes the night morning and the noontide night: parallelism]
 [basic chiasm (5)]
A: Princes have but their titles for their glories,
 An outward honor for an inward toil,
 B: And for unfelt imaginations
 they often feel a world of restless cares
A: So that between their titles and low name
 There's nothing differs but the outward fame.

In addition, Shakespeare does not limit his complex structural forms to the parameters found in the Bible but expands on them and introduces principles from the classical rhetorical tradition. For example, instead of creating complex chiasms with both parts of a parallelism, Shakespeare also incorporates figures of speech and schemes into his systems, generally focusing on the common topics of classical rhetoric. In effect, he takes classical rhetorical principles, handed down from the Greek and Latin traditions, and combines them with the Hebrew tradition of biblical complex chiasmus to form the structural foundation of many passages (which frequently results in the presence of complex forms that are uniquely his own). In the following example, Berowne is speaking about events that should follow a natural order, and Shakespeare builds the chiastic structure of the argument with phrases that relate to each other through the classical rhetorical concepts of anaphora, exemplum, subjects and adjuncts, synecdoche and figures of definition:
Berowne [LLL 1.1.104-09):
A: why should proud summer boast before the birds have any cause to
 Why should I joy in any abortive birth? [anaphora; natural order
 B: At Christmas [subject; winter
 C: I no more desire a rose [adjunct to May]
 C: Than wish a snow [adjunct to Christmas]
 B: in May's new-fangled shows; [subject; spring
A: But like of each thing that in season grows. [natural order]
 B: So you, to study now it is too late [defining the time]
A: Climb o'er the house to unlock the little gate. [exemplum]

The rhetorical figures Shakespeare uses to build his complex chiasms go well beyond this example, and frequently include such devices as antithesis, antecedent/ consequence, circumlocution, epexegesis, euphemismus, exemplum, exergasia and parison, among many others, to establish parallel concepts through similar structures, or the repetition of ideas. In addition, these structures, which combine classical rhetoric with biblical chiasmus, are not rare structural anomalies that surface momentarily in passages, only to disappear for long stretches of text. Rather, they are surprisingly common and Shakespeare continually resorts to them throughout his writing career to form the structural foundation of passages, suggesting that biblical-style complex chiasmus plays a significant role in Shakespeare's approach to composition. To convey a greater appreciation for these forms and the structural variations in which they can appear, I will provide a brief survey of the most common types of structures Shakespeare employs (along with basic features that accompany them), followed by an observation of specific characteristics that mark the development of his style.

4. Shakespeare's Chiastic Patterns

In Shakespeare's chiastic systems, there are two common stylistic components (which also frequently occur in biblical chiasmus): parts containing the introduction and conclusion. The introductory portion, termed anacrusis among biblical scholars (Watson 150), appears as a single word, a phrase, a parallelism, or a small paragraph that propels the text into the chiasm that follows. Shakespeare follows this pattern and occasionally expands the use of this device to include other functions (such as stating the premise of a rhetorical argument, which the next example illustrates). As a reflection of the forward momentum this device creates, as well as the multiple terms it can encompass in the dialogue of Shakespeare's plays, it is simply described as the "springboard" (Davis 314). The concluding section brings the thought or rhetorical argument contained in the chiasm to completion and usually appears as a moral or summarizing phrase (often manifesting as epitasis or epiphonema). A range of devices can also occur in this position, so the term "rejoinder" is used as another all-inclusive term (Davis 314):
Touchstone (AYL 3.2.40-44):
Why, if thou never wast at court, [Springboard; opening
thou never saw'st good manners: parallelism, parison]
 [gradatio/climax begins]
A: if thou never saw'st good [chiastic proof begins]
 B: manners,
 B: then thy manners
A: must be wicked; [antithesis]
A: and wickedness
 B: is sin
 B: and sin
A: is damnation. [chiastic proof ends]
 Thou art in a parlous state, shepherd. [Rejoinder]

In biblical complex chiasmus, as well as in many of Shakespeare's forms, the structures containing the springboard and rejoinder sections are generally independent from the main body of the chiasm; however, this is not always the case. Oftentimes the springboard and rejoinder are absent, while at other times they are incorporated into the overall structure of the complex chiasms they border. The presence and shape of these sections change from one structure to the next, offering a wide variety of combinations, and constitute an integral element of complex chiastic systems. Awareness of these features facilitates the identification of complex chiastic structures in the text and further enhances the study and appreciation of Shakespeare's basic chiastic patterns found throughout the plays.

Complex chiasms appear in many different structural shapes in the Bible, and one of the most basic forms is the chiastic inclusion, or ABA. Chiastic inclusions create a simple pattern of repetition, and Shakespeare frequently places complete parallelisms into each chiastic level to create short speeches (as seen in the previous Brackenbury example) or to arrange the structure of a passage. Consider the following example of an early chiastic inclusion:
King Henry (2H6 4.9.1-6):
A: Was ever king that joy'd an earthly throne [anaphora between
 And could command no more content than I? A levels]
 B: no sooner was I crept out of my cradle [parallelism: infancy]
 But I was made a king, at nine months [note reversal:
 old. was--I :: I--was]
A: Was never subject long'd to be a king [chiastic parallelism]
 As I do long and wish to be a subject.

Apart from the parallelisms Shakespeare uses for building blocks in this short speech, he frequently composes complex chiasms that operate on multiple structural levels simultaneously. This stylistic approach will be addressed later in the essay; however, it is interesting to observe the chiastic flourishes he builds into this piece by creating minor chiasms in each A level. Building minor chiasms within a larger form is a common feature of Shakespeare's complex systems:
 Was ever king
 that joy'd
 an earthly throne [metonymy: the king's power and rule]
 And could command
 no more content
 than I?
 Was never subject
 long'd to be
 a king
 as I
 do long and wish to be
 a subject

The next level of chiastic structure, which is perhaps the most common form, is the basic ABBA scheme. Shakespeare makes extensive use of this pattern, and it appears in short passages that may contain only one ABBA structure, or it may manifest as a chiastic unit embedded in longer passages--passages which often contain a series of chiastic units linked together to form larger, more complex systems. In the following example, the Duke of York opens a chastising speech against Bullingbrook with a retort that is arranged in this basic form:
Duke of York (R2 2.3.86-89):
Tut, tut, [springboard]
A: Grace me no grace,
 B: nor uncle me no uncle,
 B: I'm no traitor's uncle,
A: and that word grace in an ungracious mouth is but profane.

Following the basic ABBA pattern of chiasmus, the next scheme Shakespeare uses is a more complex structural form that ascends to an apex and then returns to the point of origin. A basic scheme might be notated as ABCBA, with the C level representing the apex; however, this type of chiasm may actually contain any number of levels and is more directly related to the biblical forms than the first two examples (Renaissance writers often compose passages of successive couplets, or phrases employing parison, which can mimic some of the earlier ABA examples mentioned here). It should also be noted that while these structures can become much more intricate and unique, Shakespeare is not the only writer using them. A limited number of Shakespeare's contemporary playwrights also use similar patterns of chiasmus (most of which are usually simpler than the following examples illustrate), yet none of them approaches Shakespeare's complexity or constructs the forms with the same variations that Shakespeare displays. In fact, this particular style of complex chiasmus, along with the ABBA scheme, is one of Shakespeare's structures of choice and he constantly manipulates the shape into an endless number of variations.
The Rape of Lucrece (169-75):
A: And now this lustful lord leapt from his bed
 Throwing his mantle rudely o'er his arm
 B: Is madly toss'd between desire
 C: and dread;
 D: Th' one sweetly flatters, [anaphora]
 D: th' other feareth harm,
 C: But honest fear,
 B: bewitch'd with lust's foul charm,
A: Doth too too oft betake him to retire, [antithesis: "leapt
 from his bed"]
 Beaten away by brain-sick rude desire. [keyword]

Buckingham (R3 3.1.44-56):
You are too senseless-obstinate, my lord, [springboard;
Too ceremonious and traditional. standard parallelism]
A: Weigh it but with the grossness of this age
 B: You break not sanctuary
 C: in seizing him.
 D: The benefit thereof is always granted [antithesis:
 cannot have]
 E: unto those whose dealings have deserv'd the
 F: And those who have the wit to claim
 the place
 F: This prince hath neither claim'd it
 E: nor deserv'd it,
 D: And therefore, in mine opinion, cannot have it.
 C: Then taking him from thence that is not there,
 B: You break no privilege nor charter there.
A: Oft have I heard of sanctuary men, [rejoinder;
 chiastic parallelism]
 But sanctuary children, never till now ["the grossness of this
 age" defined]

Shakespeare's use of complex chiasmus also extends to his nondramatic texts. In the dedications for Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, two of the only known passages in which Shakespeare is addressing an auditor as himself (apart from legal documents), he enhances the prose by using complex chiasmus as a structural foundation:
Dedication for Venus and Adonis:
A: Right Honourable, I know not how I shall offend
 in dedicating my vnpolisht lines to your
 Lordship, nor how the worlde will censure me [parison]
 B: for choosing so strong a proppe [epistrophe
 to support so weake a burthen, in all B phrases]
 C: onelye if your Honour
 seeme but pleased,
 I account my selfe highly praised,
 [i.e., if the poem is acceptable,
 then I am praised]
 D: and vowe to take aduantage of all idle houres,
 till I haue honoured you with some grauer labour.
 C: But if the first heire of my inuention proue deformed,
 I shall be sorie it had so noble a godfather:
 [if the poem is
 bad, then I am
 B: and neuer after eare so barren a land,
 for feare it yeeld me still so bad a haruest,
A: I leaue it to your Honourable suruey, and your [keywords]
 Honor to your hearts content, which I wish may
 alwaies answere your owne wish, and the worlds
 hopefull expectation.

One final shape of complex chiasmus that Shakespeare occasionally employs, one that differs significantly from the previous examples, is a type of biblical form that, "beginning with a series of alternating lines, shifts to chiastic order at the centre; then it resumes the original alternating order after the centre is passed, retaining this order till the system is completed" (Lund 44-45). Observe the following example from The Merchant of Venice (note the reference to scripture, which sets a pattern and context for the speech):
Antonio (1.2.97-102):
Mark you this, Bassanio, the devil can cite
 Scripture for his purpose: [springboard]
A: An evil soul [evil]
 B: producing holy witness [good]
A: Is like a villain [evil]
 B: with a smiling cheek, [good; apex of the system/reversal]
 B: A goodly apple [good; apex/reversal]
A: rotten at the heart. [evil]
 B: O, what a goodly outside [good; rejoinder begins]
A: falsehood hath. [evil]

The patterns illustrated thus far represent a basic framework by which to recognize and analyze Shakespeare's chiastic patterns; Shakespeare's forms, however, are not limited to these basic schemes. Throughout his work, Shakespeare is constantly manipulating the complex structures to create new variations, and he often achieves these results by combining a number of rhetorical devices and chiastic patterns into systems that express greater complexity than these basic patterns already reveal. The next illustration, for instance, displays Shakespeare's use of catalogues within complex chiastic schemes, and this example is particularly notable because Shakespeare makes frequent and prominent use of catalogues in a great number of his complex structures (catalogue is used here as a general term to encompass any list of descriptive items or phrases that elaborates on or defines a topic, including such devices as blazon and notatio and the various figures associated with enargia). The following system is an ABCBA chiasm linked to an ABA chiasm with a typical Shakespearean catalogue embedded in the structure (the word sin illustrates rhetorical repetition, but it does not define the structural spine of the chiasm):
King Henry the Sixth (2H6 5.1.181-90):
A: Canst thou dispense with heaven for such an oath?
 B: it is great sin
 C: to swear unto a sin
 B: but greater sin
A: to keep a sinful oath. [note the repetition
 of "sin" in all levels]
A: Who can be bound by any solemn vow
 B: to do a murd'rous deed,
 to rob a man,
 to force a spotless virgin's chastity,
 to reave the orphan of his patrimony,
 to wring the widow from her custom'd right
 And have no other reason for this
 wrong [summarizing phrase]
A: But that he was bound by a solemn oath?

As Shakespeare moves into his middle and late period plays, he pushes the envelope of the forms even further by merging and overlapping multiple structures in the same space, thereby creating some of the most highly organized and complex chiastic systems in his texts. Julius Caesar provides an example of how Shakespeare combines two different styles of complex chiasmus to enhance the complexity and rhetorical weight of the speech:
Brutus (3.2.12-34):
Be patient till the last. [springboard]
A: Romans, countrymen, and lovers,
 B: hear me
 C: for my cause, [parison with the
 following chiasm]
 X: and be silent,
 B: that you may hear. [epanalepsis; periodic]
 B: Believe me
 C: for mine honor,
 C: and have respect to mine honor,
 B: that you may believe. [epanalepsis]
 B: Censure me
 C: in your wisdom,
 C: and awake your senses,
 B: that you may the better judge.
A: If there be any in this assembly,
A: any dear friend of Caesar's,
 B: to him I say that Brutus' love to Caesar
 B: was no less than his.
A: If then that friend demand ["friend" links backward; "demand" (ask)
 links forward]
 B: why Brutus rose against Caesar, [antithesis: "Brutus'
 love to Caesar"]
A: this is my answer:
 B: Not that I lov'd Caesar less, [see next B level:
 but that I lov'd Rome more. I lov'd Caesar:
 Caesar lov'd me]
 C: Had you rather Caesar were living,
 D: and die all slaves,
 D: than that Caesar were dead,
 C: to live all freemen?
B: As Caesar lov'd me, [alternating biblical chiasmus opens;
 C: I weep for him; [Brutus/effect]
B: as he was fortunate, [Caesar/cause]
 C: I rejoice at it; [Brutus/effect]
B: as he was valiant, [Caesar/cause]
 C: I honor him; [Brutus/effect]
B: but as he was ambitious, [Caesar/cause]
 C: I slew him. [Brutus/effect; apex]
 C: There is tears [Brutus/effect; apex and reversal]
B: for his love; [Caesar/cause; note the internal chiasms:]
 [lov'd--weep : tears--love]
 C: joy [Brutus/effect]
B: for his fortune; [Caesar/cause; fortunate--rejoice : joy--fortune]
 C: honor [Brutus/effect]
B: for his valor; [Caesar/cause; valiant--honor : honor--valor]
 C: and death [Brutus/effect]
B: for his ambition. [ambitious--slew : death--ambition]
 [close of two parallel sections]
A: Who is here so base that would be a bondman?
 If any, speak, for him I have offended.
A: Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman?
 If any, speak, for him I have offended.
A: Who is here so vile that will not leave his country?
 If any, speak, for him I have offended.
I pause for reply. [rejoinder]

In the following example from The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare creates a complex, overlapping chiasm that begins with a basic arrangement of related parallelisms, which he uses to bookend a second chiasm that lives in the center of the overall passage. By compounding the two complex forms together, Shakespeare creates a new variation of the complex structure. First, the chiastic inclusion:
Camillo (1.2.250-54; 262-64):
(a): I may be negligent, foolish, and fearful
 in every one of these no man is free
 (b): But that his negligence, his folly, fear,
 Among the infinite doings of the world sometime puts forth
(a): these, my lord, are such infirmities
 that honesty is never free of.

Next, Shakespeare splits this basic chiastic arrangement of parallelisms and forms a border surrounding the central chiasm of the overall system:
Camillo (1.2.249-67);
A: My gracious lord [springboard I]
 B(a): I may be negligent, foolish, and
 fearful [internal springboard II]
 in every one of these no man is free
 B(b): But that his negligence, his folly, fear,
 Among the infinite doings of the world sometime puts forth
 C: In your affairs, my lord, if ever I were
 D: it was my folly;
 D: if industriously I play'd the fool
 C: it was my negligence not weighing well the end
 C: if ever fearful to do a thing,
 D: where I the issue doubted,
 D: Whereof the execution did cry out against the
 C: 'twas a fear which oft infects the wisest
 B(a): these, my lord, are such
 infirmities [internal rejoinder II]
 that honesty is never free of.
A: But beseech your Grace be plainer with me [rejoinder I]
 B: Let me know my trespass by its own visage
 C: if I then deny it,
 B: 'Tis none of mine--
 --Ha' not you seen,
 Camillo [interruption; shared verse line]

Although many other complex chiastic patterns exist, these basic schemes represent the majority of the biblical forms that Shakespeare incorporates into his plays (the Sonnets contain a number of additional but related structures). While this introduction is not intended to be a comprehensive view of Shakespeare's chiastic patterns, the principles that govern the formation of these systems are consistent throughout Shakespeare's work and offer insights into his particular approach to the text. Once these basic forms are familiar, the larger ones become more accessible--particularly in relation to Shakespeare's unique style--and thereby make it easier to observe the types of repetition Shakespeare employs, as well as the progression of Shakespeare's style within the context of the complex chiastic forms.

5. Development of Shakespeare's Chiastic Style

Tracking the development of Shakespeare's structural style offers a number of potentially valuable observations; however, the process itself is still in its infancy (speaking specifically in terms of complex chiasmus), and the full range of stylistic markers that might identify Shakespeare's development has yet to be determined. Even at this early stage, though, Shakespeare's forms express a certain number of specific characteristics that reflect the progression of the complex structures throughout his career. Of these features, two of the most prominent are the length of phrases in each chiastic level and the style of repetition used to establish parallel thoughts.

Style of Repetition. With regard to repetition, the key words and phrases Shakespeare uses to build the structural spine of complex chiastic systems tend to graduate from simple forms in the early plays to more complex variations in later plays (for example, in the early plays Shakespeare more frequently establishes parallel ideas through the sole use of anaphora, rather than including the information contained in the lines). Consider the following example:
Cade (2H6 5.10.10-15):
A: And I think this word "sallet" was born to do me good
 B: for many a time, but for a sallet, my brain-pan had been
 cleft with a brown bill;
 B: and many a time, when I have been dry and bravely marching,
 it hath serv'd me instead of a quart pot to drink in;
A: And now the word "sallet" must serve me to
 feed on. [key word/phrase]

Cade's speech is a good illustration of the basic mode of repetition Shakespeare employs in many of his earliest chiasms. The repetition of the key phrases "this word 'sallet'" and "the word 'sallet,'" along with "many a time" and "many a time," forms the structural spine of the overall system, but these phrases lack the imagination and variation of later chiasms and merely meet the basic requirements of the structural form. The key phrases are virtually identical, and the text does not reach to a deeper level of meaning through the collocation of ideas. Compare this example with the following illustration from Macbeth:
Macbeth (5.5.9-15):
A: I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
 B: The time has been, my senses would have cool'd to hear a night
 B: and my fell of hair would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
 as life were in't.
A: I have supp'd full with horrors;
 Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, cannot
 once start me. [rejoinder]

In this example, Shakespeare goes beyond the basic use of anaphora to establish the corresponding levels, and provides more interesting relationships between parallel concepts, such as "taste ... fears" and "supp'd ... horrors," and "a night shriek" with "a dismal treatise," or the antithesis found between "cool'd" with "rouse and stir" (along with the variation created by the reversal of syntax in the B level phrases). As Shakespeare develops his style, this form of complex repetition adopts a more prominent role in his structures.

Chiastic Phrasing in Prose. The next marker that reveals the development of Shakespeare's complex chiastic style is the length of the chiastic phrases he uses to build the forms, and these phrases follow different patterns of development, depending on whether the complex chiastic forms are written in verse or prose. In prose, the development is fairly simple and straightforward: the phrases tend to evolve from rather long and verbose phrases to a mixture of phrases in the later plays that vary in length but are generally more succinct and economical expressions of an idea. Note, for example, how Shakespeare's forms evolve from the verbose phrasing of Cade's earlier speech to the phrasing in The Merry Wives of Windsor: (6)
Falstaff (1.3.58-74):
A(a): I have writ me here a letter to her [i.e., to Mistress Ford]
 (b): and here another to Page's wife
 B: who even now gave me good eyes too
 C: examin 'd my parts with most judicious iliads
 D: sometimes the beam of her view gilded my foot
 D: sometimes my portly belly [anaphora; parison]
 Then did the sun
 on dunghill shine [interjection by Pistol]
 I thank thee for
 that humor [interjection by Nym]
 C: O, she did so course o'er my exteriors
 with such a greedy intention
 B: that the appetite of her eye did scorch me up like a
A(b): here's another letter to her. [i.e., to Mistress Page]
 B: she bears the purse too [dual imagery:
 monetary/sexual, "bears"; cause)]
 C: she is a region in Guiana, all gold
 and bounty [port of trade]
 D: I will be cheaters
 to them both [D level: abc:cba chiasm]
 D: and they shall be
 exchequers to me [reciprocity, (7)
 C: They shall be my East and West
 Indies [ports of trade]
 B: and I will trade to them both [monetary/sexual:
 "trade to"; effect]
 (b): Go, bear thou this letter to Mistress Page
A(a): and thou this to Mistress Ford.
We will thrive, lads, we will thrive. [rejoinder]

Another important stylistic effect that this example illustrates is the poetic effect Shakespeare creates by using complex chiasmus in prose. Even though prose is traditionally viewed as being "more colloquial" (Widdicombe 40), prose written on the structural foundation of complex chiasmus often indicates "that a particular passage is poetic in character" (Watson 158). In what could possibly be an attempt to sidestep the phrasing constraints imposed on the text by the verse line and yet to maintain a higher level of poetic style than standard prose might achieve, Shakespeare frequently uses chiasmus in the composition of passages containing heightened language. In the previous example, for instance, though speaking in bawdy terms to his companions about their prospects with Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, the structure here suggests that Falstaff is waxing eloquent in his vision. (8)

Chiastic Phrasing in Verse. Chiastic phrases written in verse rather than prose follow a more complicated path of development. Throughout his entire career, the phrasing in Shakespeare's chiastic verse forms appear in a full range of sizes that are smaller than, equal to, or greater than a standard iambic pentameter verse line in length. Despite this variety, however, a few distinctive tendencies emerge in his early work: either the phrasing in each chiastic level is similar to that of his prose (e.g., long and verbose) or the chiastic phrases tend to gravitate toward the length of a verse line. The following example illustrates the verbose phrasing in the early forms:
Richard Plantagenet (2H6 5.1.151-154):
A: Oft have I seen a hot o'erweening cur run back
 and bite, [consequence]
 B: because he was withheld, [antecedent; not allowed to attack]
B: Who being suffer'd, [antecedent; allowed to attack]
A: with the bear's fell paw hath clapp'd
 his tail between his legs and cried.

Next, the following example illustrates the way in which the chiastic phrases match the verse line in length. While Shakespeare writes complex chiasms in this form throughout all his plays, it is important to recognize that the earliest texts still contain a higher frequency of complex chiastic systems written with this regimented approach. Consider the following example: (9)
Suffolk (2H6 3.2.388-402):
A: If I depart from thee, I cannot live, [antithesis with "stay";
 B: And in thy sight to die, what were it else
 C: but like a pleasant slumber
 in thy lap? [death = pleasant slumber]
 D: Here could I breathe my soul into the air,
 As mild and gentle as the cradle-babe
 E: Dying with mother's dug between its lips;
 F: Where, from thy sight, I should
 be raging mad,
 and cry out for thee to close up
 mine eyes
 E: To have thee with thy lips to stop
 my mouth
 D: So shouldst thou either turn my flying soul,
 Or should I breathe it so into thy body
 C: and then it liv'd in sweet Elysium. [death = sweet
 B: To die by thee were but to die in jest,
 From thee to die were torture more than death.
A: O, let me stay, befall what may befall! [antecedent/consequence]

Later, as Shakespeare begins to transition from the early to the middle period of his writing, the chiastic phrases begin to break free from the verse form. The following systems from Richard III and Romeo and Juliet illustrate this development (in particular, note how Romeo's soliloquy observes the caesural pauses):
Duchess of York (R3 2.2.79-88):
A: Alas! (a) I am the mother of these griefs: [springboard; anaphora
 between opening
 and closing parallelism]
 (b) Their woes are parcell'd, mine
 is general. [division of griefs]
 B: She
 C(a): for an Edward weeps,
 D: and so do I;
 D: I
 C(b): for a Clarence weep,
 B: so doth not she;
 B: These babes
 C(b): for Clarence weep,
 D: and so do I;
 D: I
 C(a): for an Edward weep, [note: Edward--Clarence :
 B: so do not they.
A: Alas! (b) you three on me, threefold distress 'd,
 pour all your tears. [rejoinder; griefs]
 (a) I am your sorrow's nurse, and I will pamper it with lamentation.

Romeo: (2.2.1-10):
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? [springboard]
A: It is the east
 B: And Juliet is the sun [the breaking/dawning sun;
 antithetical to moonlight]
 Arise fair sun [break forth]
 C: And kill the envious moon
 Who is already sick and pale with grief
 D: That thou her maid
 E: Art far more fair than she [apex; rhetorical degree]
 D: Be not her maid
 C: Since she is envious
 Her vestal livery is but sick and green
 B: And none but fools do wear it [remain enclosed in moonlight]
 Cast it off [a rising sun "casts off" the moonlight]
A: It is my lady [parison]

As Shakespeare enters his middle period of writing, this pattern of breaking free from the verse line continues, and he composes complex systems with a wide variety of lengths. However, an interesting development occurs. As he begins to break further from the verse line, the phrases occasionally become rather verbose again (reflecting his earliest chiastic phrasing in prose, but with more advanced forms of repetition). While the structural varieties in both verse and prose eventually express similar characteristics in the later plays, this development suggests that Shakespeare's complex chiastic systems matured more quickly in prose than in verse:
Macbeth (4.1.50-61):
A: I conjure you, by that which you profess
 (How e'er you come to know it), answer me:
 B: Though you untie the winds, and let them fight against the
 though the yesty waves confound and swallow navigation up;
 though bladed corn be lodg'd, and trees blown down;
 though castles topple on their warders' heads; [apex]
 though palaces and pyramids do slope their heads to
 their foundations;
 though the treasure of nature's germains tumble all together,
 even till destruction sicken; [apex followed by
A: answer me to what I ask you. [I conjure you--answer
 me : answer me--I ask you]

Finally, in the late period, the chiastic phrases in verse often contain a variety of phrases that both observe and break free from the verse structure throughout the complex forms (e.g., chiastic phrases are both longer and shorter than the standard iambic pentameter verse line, as well as matching the verse line in length--oftentimes in the same chiastic structure).

Overall, it is important to note at this stage that these descriptions of the development of Shakespeare's chiastic verse forms (as well as the forms in prose) reflect the general tendencies of Shakespeare's style but are not strict indicators of how Shakespeare's complex chiastic structures are always built in any given time period. Shakespeare uses a mixture of long and short phrases in these systems throughout his entire career, and finding long phrases in the late plays or succinct phrases in the early plays is not uncommon.

6. A Pattern of Invention

All these examples of Shakespeare's complex chiasmus, which to this point have occurred on the structural level of a single passage, illustrate the recurring role chiasmus plays in Shakespeare's style; however, these forms do not reveal the full scope of Shakespeare's complex systems. One of the most intriguing characteristics of complex chiasmus, particularly in the style that Shakespeare adopts for his texts, is the way it can operate on multiple structural levels simultaneously. Shakespeare not only uses chiasmus as the foundation of short passages but also uses complex chiasmus as a structural blueprint for the dialogue in entire scenes and even for the structure of plays. (10) This application of the chiastic structure is not unique to Shakespeare; it originates in biblical passages where "entire writings can be structured according to this same [chiastic] model" (Breck 96). The following example from Romeo and Juliet (1.1.159-82) illustrates the way chiasmus works on multiple structural levels in the same passage, beginning with chiasmus operating in the space of a single verse line:
 Romeo (line 176):
 Why then, O brawling love? O loving hate?

In this line, the words "love" and "hate" form a chiasm with "brawling" and "loving," as well as simultaneously forming yet another chiasm with line 175, the previous verse line in the text (as seen below). The figure here is technically antimetabole; however, "among Renaissance rhetoricians, the figures are interchangeable" (Davis 312). (11)
Romeo(lines 175-76):
A: Here's much to do with hate,
 B: but more with love.
 B: Why then, O brawling love!
A: O loving hate!

At the next level, "hate" and "love" in line 175 form distant parallelisms with the final portion of the speech, and the phrases "O brawling love! O loving hate!" become the first two items in a catalogue of contraries:
Romeo (lines 175-82):
A: Here's much to do with hate
 B: but more with love
 C: Why then, O brawling love!
 O loving hate!
 O any thing, of nothing first create!
 O heavy lightness,
 serious vanity,
 misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
 feather of lead,
 bright smoke,
 cold fire,
 sick health,
 still-waking sleep,
 that is not what it is! [culminating phrase;
 epitasis (12)]
 B: This love feel I,
A: That feel no love in this. [i.e., hate; contradiction]

The final portion of this speech also happens to be another chiasm, which balances the opening chiasms in lines 175-76:
Romeo (line 182):
 no love
in this.

Chiasmus in this scene is not limited to Romeo's passage but actually forms the structural basis on which Romeo and Benvolio's interaction takes place. The following chiastic structure leads up to Romeo's speech:
(Lines 159-70):
Good morrow, cousin.
Is the day so young?
But new strook nine.
A: Ay me, sad hours seem long.
 B: Was that my father that went hence so fast?
 B: It was.
A: what lengthens Romeo's hours?[note reversals: hours--long :
 B: Not having that
 B: Which having
A: makes them short. [lengthen's--hours :: them
A: In love?
 B: Out--of love? [shared line]
 B: Out of her favor
A: Where I am in love.
A: Alas that love,
 B: so gentle in his view,
 B: should be so tyrannous and rough in proof!
A: Alas that love,
 B: whose view is muffled still, [blind]
 B: should without eyes [blind]
X: see pathways to his
 will! [X = periodic sentence (13)]

Shakespeare frequently uses chiasmus to compose the dialogue in scenes, but to fully appreciate the manner in which Shakespeare applies chiasmus in such instances, one must recognize a further level of structural chiasmus. This level can be observed by returning to Romeo's speech regarding love and hate. The overall form of the speech is broken down into three parts: the opening, the catalogue, and the conclusion. In this case, the entire speech follows the pattern of a basic chiastic inclusion (ABA):
Romeo's Speech (lines 175-82):
A: Love and Hate (chiasms)
 B: Catalogue of Contraries
A: Love and Hate (chiasm)

The balanced arrangement of ideas and structures is no accident here but rather a key to understanding Shakespeare's method of composition. Complex chiasmus is not merely a structural format that covers the phrasing of any given chiastic passage, but on a higher level it can also be used as a writing tool to arrange the overall order in which ideas and concepts are presented. More specifically, the basic process of composing a passage according to complex chiastic principles begins by outlining a simple chiasm (such as the basic inclusion shown above), and then expanding each level with yet another chiasm, catalogue, periodic sentence, parallelism, or any other type of structure that addresses the original concept. As each level is fleshed out, a large-scale and precisely organized complex passage emerges from what began as a very simple structural blueprint, and it is a pattern of invention that Shakespeare uses throughout the course of his career. Consider the following example from All's Well That Ends Well (1.1.125-32):
Parolles--Structural Blueprint (ABA inclusion):
A: Loss of virginity increases posterity [chiasm 1]
 B: You (Helena) are a good example of why virginity should
 be lost [chiasm 2]
A: Loss of virginity increases posterity [chiasm 3]

Once the author identifies the main ideas for a passage and arranges them into a basic chiastic order, composing the dialogue merely consists of expanding each level with a selected structure, and then attaching a springboard and a rejoinder to enclose the speech:
It is not polite in the commonwealth of nature to preserve
virginity: [springboard]
A1: Loss [chiasm 1]
 B1: of virginity
 C1: is rational increase
 C1: and there was never virgin got
 B1: till virginity
A1: was first lost.
A2: That you [i.e., Helena, a virgin; chiasm 2]
 B2: were made of
 B2: is metal to make
A2: virgins.
A3: Virginity, by being once lost [chiasm 3]
 B3: may be ten times found;
 B3: by being ever kept,
A3: it is ever lost.
'Tis too cold a companion; away with it? [rejoinder]

While these examples illustrate how relatively short passages can be built, this pattern of invention also serves to compose longer, more complex speeches. Observe the following structural blueprint for the first half of Hamlet's speech "What a rogue and peasant slave am I" (2.2.549-82): (14)
Hamlet--Structural Blueprint:
A: What a rogue and peasant slave am I.
 B: This player acts/speaks for nothing, for Hecuba, what's Hecuba?
 C: What would he do if he had the motive I have?
 C: He would drown the stage with tears
 B: I can say nothing, no, not for a king.
A: Am I a coward?
 B: Who calls me villain?
 C: Catalogue of abuse
 B: Who does me this?
A: I am pigeon-liver'd
 B: Bloody villain
A: What an ass am I.

Next, by expanding each chiastic level with phrases composed of chiasms and periodic sentences (the outline of this passage generally follows the periodic sentences it contains), the full speech subsequently takes shape into a highly complex and interrelated passage:
A: Now I am alone.
 B: what a rogue
 B: and peasant slave
A: am I!
A: Is it not monstrous that this player here,
 B: But in a fiction,
 B: In a dream of passion,
A: Could force his soul
 B: So to his own conceit
 C: that from her working all the visage wann'd,
 D: Tears in his eyes,
 Distraction in his aspect, [catalogue]
 A broken voice,
 C: An' his whole function suiting
 B: With forms to his conceit?
A: And all for nothing, for Hecuba? [balances "say nothing ... not
 for a king";
 see blueprint diagram]
A: What's Hecuba
 B: To him,
 B: Or he
A: To Hecuba that he should weep for her?
A: What would he do had he [had--he : I--have]
B: the motive
B: And the cue for passion
A: That I have? [The structure sets Hamlet in contrast with the
A: He would drown the stage with tears, [would--he : he would]
 B: And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
 C: Make mad the guilty,
 And appall the free
 Confound the ignorant,
 B: And amaze indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears.
A: Yet I, a dull and muddy-mettle rascal,
 B: Peak like John-a-dreams [inaction]

 B: Unpregnant of my cause [inaction]
A: And can say nothing; no, not for a king
 [balances "for nothing, for Hecuba"; see blueprint]
 B: Upon whose property
 B: And most dear life a damn'd defeat was made.
A: Am I a coward?
 B: Who calls me villain,
 C: Breaks my pate across,
 Plucks off my beard
 and blows it in my face,
 Tweaks me by the nose,
 Gives me the lie i'th' throat as deep as to the lungs?
 B: Who does me this? [anaphora; parison]
Hah, 'swounds, I should take it; [interjection]
A: for it cannot be but I am pigeon-liver'd,
 B: And lack gall to make oppression bitter, [lacking gall;
 Or ere this I should 'a' fatted all the region kites
 with this slave's offal
 [i.e., if I had gall; antithesis]
 B: Bloody, bawdy villain! ["this slave" links forward to "villain"]
 C: Remorseless, [homoioteleuton; rhyme]
 D: Treacherous,
 D: Lecherous,
 C: Kindless
 B: Villain!
A: Why, what an ass am I!

The use of complex chiasmus as a pattern of invention reveals some interesting and rather amazing insights into Shakespeare's process. To begin, the form of repetition inherent in a complex chiastic system inevitably deepens the meaning of a text by providing multiple viewpoints of a single idea, making it rich with three-dimensional language and imagery. As a pattern of composition, complex chiasmus is also a very fast and economical way to write (once the first half of a chiasm is written, the remaining portion has almost written itself), which would permit an author to generate a much greater output of material than might otherwise be achieved without the device. But what is perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of using chiasmus as a pattern of invention is that an experienced writer who has mastered the form would be able to estimate with exceptional accuracy how long any given passage would be (as well as its dramatic shape) before actually penning the first line of dialogue. It is an ingenious approach to composition, and one that Shakespeare developed to an unparalleled level in his career.

7. Conclusion

Thousands of years have passed since the first writer of the ancient Mediterranean world composed the first complex chiasm, a form that subsequent generations explored and developed to an elaborate degree (though apparently falling into general disuse in later generations). Shakespeare's work, however, reveals that the complex chiastic tradition had not entirely vanished, and he continued the exploration of the form, making widespread use of it throughout his plays. Due to Shakespeare's unique approach to these complex systems, particularly the manner in which he expanded on the parameters of this structural contrivance from both the classical rhetorical and biblical traditions, the potential advantages this device offers as a new tool for textual analysis have yet to be realized. Though few commentaries on Shakespeare's large-scale structures exist, initial inquiry into Shakespeare's complex chiasmus suggests it deserves further investigation, and the possibilities of what these structures may reveal have yet to be discovered.

Special thanks to Larry Ashmead, Norman Hinton, Patricia and Scott Patrick, Noel L. Silverman, Joseph Stringham, Paul Walsh, and the staff members of the Folger Shakespeare Library; most importantly, deepest gratitude to the memory of Dr. James R. Sullivan for his guidance, support and friendship.

Works Cited

Breck, John. Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church. Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary, 2001.

"Chiasmus." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

Davis, William L. "Better a Witty Fool Than a Foolish Wit: The Art of Shakespeare's Chiasmus." Text and Performance Quarterly 23 (2003): 311-30.

Howlett, David. British Books in Biblical Style. Dublin: Four Corners, 1997.

Kugel, James. The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.

Lowth, Robert. Isaiah: A New Translation; with a Preliminary Dissertation, and Notes. 14th ed. London: William Tegg, 1848.

--. Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. Ed. Calvin Stowe. Andover: Codman, 1829.

Lurid, Nils. Chiasmus in the New Testament: A Study in Formgeschichte. 1942. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton, 1974.

Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1995.

Paul, Anthony. The Torture of the Mind: Macbeth, Tragedy, and Chiasmus. Amsterdam: Thesis Publishers, 1992.

Watson, Wilfred. "Chiastic Patterns in Biblical Hebrew Poetry." Welch 118-68.

Welch, John. "Chiasmus in Ancient Greek and Latin Literatures." Welch 250-68.

--, ed. Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis. Provo: Research, 1998.

--. Introd. Welch 9-16.

Widdicombe, Toby. Simply Shakespeare. New York: Longman, 2002.

William L. Davis

New York University


(1) Lowth's lectures were first published in Latin in 1753, titled De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum. I cite the 1829 reprint.

(2) While small-scale forms of chiasmus are addressed in many of their works, the large-scale forms are not; the list of poets and rhetoricians who do not mention biblical complex chiasmus, among others, includes Erasmus, Lily, Wilson, Cox, Butler, Day, Rainolde, Fenner, Puttenham, Sherry, Fraunce, and Hoskins.

(3) With minor changes in punctuation, all quotations from Shakespeare follow G. Evans's Riverside edition.

(4) All references to the Geneva Bible follow the 1562 edition (Bishop Lowth's examples do not rely on this version).

(5) Shakespeare establishes relationships between words and phrases on more levels than the apparent patterns. The parallelism is formed by the shared concept of "reposing hours," which forms a chiasm within a broader definition: reposing hours--waking hours: waking hours--reposing hours.

(6) Compare with the dedication to Venus and Adonis.

(7) Reciprocity in chiasmus is a common effect. See Watson 148.

(8) For further discussion on chiasmus in prose, see Davis 325-29.

(9) Predetermining the lengths of chiastic phrases throughout a system speeds up the compositional process. Apart from stylistic development, the higher frequency of such systems may also be a reflection of time constraints in composition.

(10) Paul shows how the order of deaths occurring in Macbeth follows a chiastic pattern.

(11) English Renaissance writers did not use the term chiasmus, and the device known today as antimetabole had several different names in Shakespeare's time.

(12) Shakespeare frequently ends catalogues with symperasma, epitasis, or epiphonema, i.e., a phrase that summarizes or draws the previous list to conclusion.

(13) Shakespeare incorporates periodic sentences of various lengths into his complex chiasms to assist in the narrative flow. See also Davis 326-27.

(14) Apart from the economy of space, Hamlet's entire speech is not included in this example because the last portion of the speech (lines 588-605) appears to have undergone revision in such a manner as to distinguish it from the earlier chiastic arrangement.
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Title Annotation:William Shakespeare
Author:Davis, William L.
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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