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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Rome and Rhetoric’
Question of the Day
First, let’s acknowledge that Garry Wills‘ book-length discussion of Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar” is full of useful information and likely to be an indispensable companion to students of the play in years to come. It collects in one place much of what you need to know about Shakespeare’s knowledge of the classical world and, up to a point, offers a useful account of what he was doing with it in the play.
He measures Shakespeare against his Greek and Roman models - not only Plutarch’s “Lives,” which was the Bard’s principal source in “Julius Caesar,” as it was in his other plays about the ancient world, but also the Roman rhetorical tradition, consisting of carefully classified figures of speech thought to be instrumental in the arts of persuasion. This was still a big part of the basic education of Elizabethan schoolboys - even at Stratford, where Shakespeare presumably acquired his “small Latin and less Greek.”
That was the testimony of Ben Jonson, who was a much more learned classicist than Shakespeare, as this implied censure would suggest, but who, Mr. Wills says, lacked Shakespeare’s gifts of synthesizing his learning for the popular stage. Where Jonson’s plays “are congested and clogged with their own learning, Shakespeare has a feel for Roman rhetoric, Stoicism, nobility, and cynicism that are immediately convincing.”
Mr. Wills will be known to readers as himself one of our more learned men - or, as they are often called these days, “public intellectuals” - but he probably is better known for his polemics than his scholarship. Or for polemics in the form of scholarship. There is not a lot of that in this volume, but what there is rather crucially limits what he is able to tell us about Shakespeare. For instance, he thinks that in “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare was criticizing if not ridiculing the Roman idea of honor in a way much more familiar today than it would have been in Elizabethan England.
Thus, he tells us that “each leading character has his own self interest in mind, his own pride (which he thinks of as honor).” This is not untrue, but it begs all kinds of questions as to what honor actually is. Or was. Later he writes that “the way these men mirror one another shows how the political dynamics of an honor-fueled drive for power makes competitors resemble their opposites.” But don’t competitors generally resemble their opposites - that is, those they are competing against - in any case? Some of these competitors are said to “perish in the illusory name of Roman nobleness.” But if they perish in its name, what makes that name illusory?
In short, “Shakespeare looks below and behind the poses of honor with which this play is filled. The vices of Rome poison even the traces of nobility left in friendship.” This is a familiar point of view to us, but it would not have been to Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who took the ancient idea of honor very seriously. It is possible, of course, that Shakespeare anticipated a point of view that was not common until three centuries after his death, but I don’t think Mr. Wills is well-advised simply to take that for granted.
Yet taking such things for granted is more or less the stock in trade of the public intellectual. The scholar tells us how people of the past thought; the intellectual takes that thought and attempts to fit it anachronistically into an ideological system very much of the present day.
At one point, for instance, Mr. Wills digresses from his account of “Julius Caesar” to characterize Menenius’ famous parable of the belly in “Coriolanus” as an early example of “trickle-down theory” - even though, he says, “Menenius is a better propagandist than most trickle-down theorists.”
In fact, there is no such thing as “trickle-down theory” or theorists. Those who make the case he so derisively characterizes - that “wealth must go first to the rich, who will create work with it for the poor” - are merely describing the way the world works. The “theory” in this case is the theory of gravity, also known as the basic law of physics that things do not trickle up. The “must” part is supplied by the ideologue in order to make this descriptive principle into a theory, to which he then counterposes an (implied) countertheory of up-trickling wealth, which, perhaps fortunately, he never has to spell out.
It is a typical leftist trick, this of treating the utopian theory as being on all fours with reality, which is thus reduced to mere theory itself. It ought to be included in the catalog of rhetorical devices he dazzles us with in his account of Brutus and Antony’s rival speeches over dead Caesar’s body - except that neither the Romans nor the Elizabethans would have been persuaded by it.
James Bowman, a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of “Honor: A History” (Encounter, 2006).
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