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Backbiter and the Rhetoric of Detraction Douglas W. Hayes This essaywill look at the development ofoneproto-Vice figure, Backbiter , as he appears in two East Anglian playtexts from the fifteenth century.1 The CastleofPerseveranceand theN-Town"Trial ofJoseph and Mary" share this character, and although his roles in the two plays are not the same, his functions derive from the same potentialities—potentialities enlivened by rhetoric.This examination will begin by discussing the earlier Castle ofPerseverance and follow with a discussion ofthe NTown "Trial"play in an effort to show the impact ofthe dissident quality ofBackbiter's rhetoric—indeed, Backbiter as rhetoric—upon the operations ofthe plays. Although his role in The Castle ofPerseverance (circa 1425) has not seemed significant to many previous students of the morality tradition, Backbiter (also referred to as Detractio in the speech-headings and as Flibbertigibbet at lines 775, 1724, and 1733) occupies a complex position in this early English play.2 Backbiter is not simply a "bad" figure in the play who leads Mankind away frorn the path of righteousness and into sin in the same way that the Bad Angel and Covetousness do; on the contrary, this messenger of theWorld, the relative brevity ofhis appearances notwithstanding, manages to "serve" Mankind by bringing him to Covetousness—and hence sin—and to subvert the authority of his evil superiors by pitting them against each other, pulling it all off without sufferingpunishment. Backbiter crosses—transgresses—boundariesbe53 54Comparative Drama tween what is ostensibly good and evil in the play and renders those boundaries susceptible to ambivalence in the process. More is at stake here than comic appeal. The medium Backbiter uses and, indeed, embodies allegorically and dramatically, to transgress these boundaries is language. An examination ofBackbiter's language in The Castle ofPerseverance demonstrates the extent to which he represents the coalescence of rhetorical views on detraction and the uses of rhetoric in general in order to present the audience with a conception of evil that is at once highly rhetoricized and markedly ambivalent and, further, the extent to which this rhetorical ambivalence is an index ofBackbiter's moral positioning as a representative ofevil in the play who suffers no retribution for his wrongdoing.3A discussion ofsome ofthe rhetorical background behind Backbiter will be followed by a consideration of his allegorical and rhetorical representation in the play as evidenced byhis relationship with the audience, with Mankind, and with the "bad" figures.4 The first thing that needs to be established by way ofbackground is a sense of the parts of rhetoric as they would have been understood by an educated medieval English audience. Two classical texts, theRhetorica ad Herennium and Cicero's De inventione, are especially good sources to draw upon for this summary because they were widely known in England during the medieval period.5 An excerpt from De inventione, for example, provides such an encapsulation of rhetoric: partes autem eae quas plerique dixerunt, inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, pronuntiatio. Inventio est excogitatio rerum verarum aut veri similium quae causam probabilem reddant; dispositio est rerum inventarum in ordinem distributio; elocutio est idoneorum verborum ad inventionem accomodatio; memoria est firma animi rerum ac verborum perceptio; pronuntiatio est ex rerum et verborum dignitate vocis et corporis moderatio. [The parts of it, as most authorities have stated, are Invention, Arrangement , Expression, Memory, Delivery. Invention is the discovery of valid or seemingly valid arguments to render one's cause plausible. Arrangement is the distribution of arguments thus discovered in the proper order . Expression is the fitting of the proper language to the invented matter . Memory is the firm mental grasp ofmatter and words. Delivery is the control ofvoice and body in a manner suitable to the dignity ofthe subject matter and the style.]6 Douglas W. Hayes55 All the main parts ofrhetoric as they were understood by medieval English rhetoricians are described in this passage.7 Used as a template for constructingeloquent expressions designed to persuade an audience, this rhetorical framework is general enough to be deployed in a wide range ofsituations. Such general applicability did not go unexamined, as a look at an explicitly Christian conception ofrhetoric will show. Another element ofthe rhetorical background behind Backbiter lies inAugustine's Dedoctrina Christiana...


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