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The Orator in the Laboratory: Rhetoric and Experimentation in Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso
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The Orator in the Laboratory:
Rhetoric and Experimentation in Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso

In his History of the Royal Society (1667), Thomas Sprat lashes out against "specious tropes and figures," condemning the seemingly benign stylistic devices for "the evil . . . now so inveterate, that it is hard to know whom to blame, or where to begin to reform" (112). Sprat does not attribute blame to a specific perpetuator of such "specious" objects, though he could have found many over the previous century of stylistic treatises, from Henry Peacham's Garden of Eloquence (1667) to Thomas Blount's Academie of Eloquence (1654). Rather, Sprat targets a rhetorical tradition dedicated to instilling "vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue, which makes so great a noise in the World" (112). The "noise" undoubtedly invokes the clamors and inquietude of the civil war that Royalists such as Sprat did not want to relive. Sprat's banishment of rhetoric even reflects occasional Royal Society enemy Thomas Hobbes, who scoffs in his Leviathan that "orators have great power to hurt, have little to save" (125-26). As Larry Stewart argues, Sprat's concern that "material reality must overcome rhetoric" is connected to an anxiety that "rhetoric, in whatever guise, gave rise to an unease over the whims of the mob" (Rise xxi). The moves toward transparency and precision in language reveal, as Robert Markley perceptively notes regarding language projects, a Restoration "urgency . . . to control the dialogical and subversive tendencies of language" (72). Sprat insists that a fulfilled goal of the society he commemorates, and the sanctified innovation of the laboratory, has been the development of a "remedy" to rhetorical extravagancy: "a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness: bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness, as they can" (113). This solution can be seen not only specifically as the necessary language for experimental settings, but also as a broader intervention for the "noise" that threatens to animate further divisive conflict. [End Page 3]

But while "specious tropes and figures" were supposedly banned from the laboratory, critics consistently pointed to the florid language that experimental philosophers used to publicize their accomplishments as proof that figuration remained. In a sharp censure on Sprat, the controversial physician Henry Stubbe isolates the connection between divine prerogative and institutional status: "It was not intended of the Virtuosi: Except ye become like one of these, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven" (37). Targeting Sprat's passages on rhetoric in particular, Samuel Butler scoffs, "The historian of Gresham College endeavours to cry down oratory and declamation while he uses nothing else" (285). Butler criticizes an inherently anti-rhetorical text not only for using rhetoric, but also for participating in the very tradition it claims to reject. For Butler, in eulogizing the Royal Society, Sprat and his cohorts develop a new rhetoric that is just as self-interested as a more transparent rhetorical program, yet they absolve themselves because of explicitly stated formal principles. Butler's friend and coffee-house cohort Thomas Shadwell advances this line of argument even more forcefully and satirically in his play The Virtuoso (1676). While Butler finds oratory in the midst of Sprat's polemic, Shadwell even more explicitly places an orator in the laboratory itself.

As I argue in this essay, Shadwell's figure of Sir Formal Trifle, a self-professed orator "very much abounding in words and very much defective in sense" (I.i.115-16),1 acts as synecdoche for a system of experimental mediation and publication that its participants were calling infallible and responds to the exclusion that Sprat so emphatically proclaims. Sir Formal's presence in the laboratory of the titular virtuoso, Nicholas Gimcrack, reflects the process through which experimental modes of witnessing and reporting corrupt rather than confirm experimental truths. As issues of public reception and internal methods of validation become key components to the integrity of the early Royal Society, Formal's symbolic function is to show the means by which objective schemas of assent and dissent, whether in direct or virtual observation, can be exposed because of the flawed, overly-trusted nature of operative...