- Rhetorical Readings, Dark Comedies, and Shakespeare’s Problem Plays
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 [End Page 246] 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, [End Page 247] 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...