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  • Using Shakespeare’s King Lear to Teach Symmetry, Metaphor, and the Rhetorical Question
  • Kathleen McEvoy (bio)

In "To Write Is to Read Is to Write, Right?" David Kaufer and Gary Waller (1985: 72) write, "Teaching students to read or to write without also teaching them to read to write . . . is not to teach them to read or to write [at] all. It is only to teach them the thin parodies of reading and writing represented by these extremes." Essentially, Kaufer and Waller argue for a symbiotic approach to reading and writing in which students read and analyze in order to improve their own writing abilities. That does not mean, of course, that students learn to copy other writers' styles but that they learn to understand and adapt what they encounter in reading to their own writing purposes. The ultimate goal for many teachers in composition courses is to assist students in perfecting an individual style, achieving audience awareness, and learning the finer points of rhetoric and argument. We want our students to create effective, persuasive prose. To that end, we may show them examples of good prose or use readings to generate writing topics, but we can also use readings specifically to teach students rhetorical devices such as symmetry, metaphor, and the rhetorical question. Once students see how these devices work within a text, they will be able to incorporate them into their own prose more easily.

While virtually any type of reading can accomplish this goal, a truly excellent text for teaching students the importance of symmetry, metaphor, [End Page 409] and the rhetorical question is William Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear. Works of literature provide not only an opportunity to teach rhetoric but also an opportunity to help students appreciate the value of reading and analyzing literature. In Rhetoric for Academic Reasoning, L. Bensel-Meyers (1992: 321) argues that a "helpful way to reason about the value of a poem, play, or novel is to view the literary work as rhetoric, as the author's ongoing conversation about the value of human existence." In Shakespeare's plays, this "ongoing conversation" results in a rhetoric that is extremely potent, emotional, and effective. Rex Gibson (1992: 156) puts it best: "There is no more powerful vehicle for teaching language than Shakespeare's plays. They are filled with argumentative human voices that plead, cajole, reason, threaten and debate. In a huge variety of ways Shakespeare's voices contend, dispute and enjoin as they seek to influence, convince or spur to action. All are examples of rhetoric in action: the persuasive use of language." King Lear is an especially good choice because the precipitating event of the tragedy centers on an issue of rhetoric: the contest among the sisters to prove—through speech—which one loves her father best. It is also significant that Cordelia fails this test of rhetoric: she cannot express her feelings to her father adequately, and the miscommunication between them sets the action of the play into motion. In this way, the play directly proves to students how important rhetoric can be.

The speeches of King Lear burst forth with persuasive and passionate rhetoric filled with symmetry, metaphor, and rhetorical questions. Students reading King Lear with an eye toward identifying these rhetorical devices can learn precisely what these rhetorical devices are, why they are useful, how they work in the play, and how they can be adapted to their own writing. In this article, I analyze both how these particular devices work within the play and some of the ways I have used King Lear to teach students these devices, both in my composition courses and in a special January course titled "Rhetoric and Madness."

First, however, a note about mediating Shakespeare's language. Too often, students believe that Shakespeare is impenetrable, that only English majors can understand him, or that they are simply too dumb to get it. None of that is true, and the teacher must disabuse students of these beliefs for teaching to be successful. Choosing the right edition goes a long way in helping students get over their fears of Shakespeare. Clearly, students need an edition that helps them understand the text of the...


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pp. 409-425
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