At long last – at least from my students’ point of view – we’ve finished up with Romeo and Juliet, so I’m in the process of saying goodbye to my beloved play for another year. I suppose it’s only fair to do so by looking at how Romeo begins his goodbyes to Juliet in his final soliloquy. After he has mortally wounded Paris (not knowing, at first, who he is), Romeo honors his promise to bury Paris with Juliet:
I’ll bury thee in a triumphant grave.
A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughtered youth;
For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence full of light. (5.3.83-6)
There are many things about these lines that I find heartbreaking and hard to read, even now – from Romeo’s final depiction of Juliet as a source of light (a theme he begins with “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”), to the fact that “Here lies Juliet” sounds painfully like an epitaph. But this time around, my attention was caught by the use of a particular rhetorical device: anadiplosis, the repetition of a word at the end of one line and the beginning of the subsequent line. In this case, we see anadiplosis in Romeo’s use of “grave” in lines 83 and 84.
I spend a fair amount of time on rhetorical devices when I teach Shakespeare. For one thing, I think it levels the playing field: even students who think they don’t “get” Shakespeare can spot examples of devices like anaphora or epistrophe, once they know what those things are. And I like to think that it takes away some of the intimidation students sometimes feel when studying poetry; even if my students don’t remember the specific names of these devices, they’ll have learned that they are capable of noticing and talking about them, and these poetic features won’t be alien to them when mentioned by other teachers or professors in the future.
But the most important reason for focusing on rhetorical devices when teaching Shakespeare is that Shakespeare focused on them. Early modern writers knew their rhetoric, and put it to good use. After I read Renaissance authors like George Puttenham and Thomas Wilson and Angel Day, who wrote and compiled detailed rhetoric manuals for people of varying levels of society, and as I read modern scholars who detailed how crucial rhetoric was to early modern thought, it no longer made sense to me that we so often avoid this subject when teaching Shakespeare, simply because the terms can be unfamiliar. After all, if Shakespeare uses these rhetorical devices to draw his characters more fully, then it can only help us – as students, as audience members, or as actors – to pay attention to what it is he’s doing with them. And we can only do that if we know enough to look for them, when they’re there.
Which brings us back to Romeo, and his repetition of “grave.” One of the things I love about Shakespeare is that he shows us characters listening to the last thing they said and interrogating it, changing their minds about it. You see it quite a bit – as when Richard II declares that he and his followers should “choose executors, and talk of wills; / And yet not so, for what can we bequeath, / Save our deposed bodies to the ground?” And Hamlet famously does this just as he’s on the cusp of killing Claudius and freeing himself from the terrible debt his father’s ghost has placed him under: “And now I’ll do’t; and so he goes to heaven, / And so am I revenged. That would be scanned”. Watching a character thinking his way through something – not just declaiming the results of his decision, but considering it at the moment of speech – is one of those little things that make characters seem more vivid, less static and unchanging; the more so because those moments are usually “unnecessary.” Romeo could simply start this speech by saying that Juliet’s beauty makes the tomb a feasting presence full of light, and we wouldn’t lose any of the sense of the passage. Juliet would still be beautiful enough, even in her presumed death, to light up the grave. But without that moment when he calls the tomb a grave, and then stops, and hears himself, and changes his mind – “A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughtered youth” – we would lose the moment when he notices Juliet’s beauty, as if anew, and by noticing it in the moment, shares the discovery with us.
Text: Romeo and Juliet, New Cambridge edition, G. Blakemore Evans, ed. Cambridge UP, 2012.