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Portia's Powerful Tongue: The Ethics of Lady Rhetoric in The Merchant of Venice

Written By: 
Scott F. Crider

When early modern Europeans searched for a myth of human nature, familial bond, and civil association, they found one in an early Ciceronian treatise on oratory, de Inventione, in which he offers an etiological myth of rhetoric, “the origin of this thing we call eloquence”:

For there was a time when men wandered at large in the fields like animals and lived on wild fare; they did nothing by the guidance of reason, but relied chiefly on physical strength; there was yet no ordered system of religious worship or of social duties; no one had seen legitimate marriage nor had anyone looked upon children whom he knew to be his own; nor had they learned the advantages of any equitable code of law.  And so through their ignorance and error[,] blind and unreasoning passion satisfied itself by misuse of bodily strength, which is a very dangerous servant.  At this juncture a man—great and wise I am sure—became aware of the power latent in man and the wide field offered by his mind for great achievement if one could develop this power by instruction.  Men were scattered in the fields and hidden in sylvan retreats when he assembled and gathered them in accordance with a plan; he introduced them to every useful and honorable occupation, though they cried out against it at first because of its novelty, and then when through reason and eloquence they had listened with greater attention, he transformed them from wild savages into a kind and gentle folk.[1]

For Cicero and his early modern heirs, the first orator established human being, familial bonds, and civil association by means of eloquence, and this founding is re-enacted during important moments of eloquence.  The gathering of humanity through eloquence establishes us as human, and that gatherer is an especially important human, imagined by Cicero and most of his humanist sons as a special man. 

Augustine on the Use of Liberal Education for the Theater of Life

Written By: 
Michael P. Foley

Among the attributes that conspire to make the plays of William Shakespeare the best of their kind in the English language, we should surely count Shakespeare’s sensitive appreciation of the interplay between theatrical performance and human living.  When Shakespeare’s characters proclaim that “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” or that “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,” they are declaring a truth that rises above the level of a self-congratulating plug by members of the actors’ guild.  Stage plays not only imitate the drama of life and are derived from it, but make life itself a kind of play.  This parallel was recognized long before Shakespeare.  According to Michael Davis, Aristotle’s Poetics is a profoundly political book about the isomorphism of stage-acting and political action, that is, human action conducted before others.[1]  Aristotle recognized that drama, more than any other art form, “reflects the distinction between doing and looking at doing—between acting and reflecting” that is so essential to the complex genealogy of human deeds.[2]  Indeed, Davis argues, the title of Aristotle’s little work, Peri Poiêtikês, would be better translated On the Art of Action.[3]