Vivid Language I
One of the joys of reading Shakespeare is that you know, sooner or later (generally sooner), that you will be arrested by his language. Shakespeare is a master of creating pictures through language as well as of using language to probe the depths of human motivation and feeling. He is the most frequently-quoted author not simply in books of notable quotations but also in works of rhetoric and word usage. A case in point is the 1993 book Figures of Speech by Arthur Quinn.
Quinn explains 60 literary devices, from "abusio" to "zeugma," and illustrates them copiously from classical and modern literature. By far the most frequently-quoted author is Shakespeare. Examples...Word: Asyndeton. Example: Julius Caesar 3.1.148, "Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,/ Shrunk to this little measure?" Word: Aphaeresis. Example: Hamlet 2.2.561, "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"
Although learning how rhetorical devices may be illustrated through Shakespeare's work is challenging, fun and sometimes even exhilarating, most people are just willing to let the power of his language wash over them without being too concerned whether metaplasm or antanaclasis is doing the washing. A rose by any other name, or perhaps by no name at all, would still smell as sweet. Didn't someone famous say that?
So, as I was studying Julius Caesar, I paid special attention to which word pictures stopped me and made me think, smile, wince or even shed a tear. One such picture was created for me in three unassuming lines in Cassius' long speech to Brutus in 1.2.90-131. The subject of his speech, he says, is "honor," but in fact it is a screed against Caesar. It drips with jealousy, resentment and bitterness because Cassius' boyhood friend (i.e., Caesar) is now at the acme of the civilized world and he, Cassius, must "bend his body/ If Caesar carelessly but nod on him (1.2.117-18)."
Three Arresting Lines
As a means of illustrating how he was even superior to Caesar as a young man, Cassius tells the story of a challenge Caesar issued to him long ago on a raw and gusty day while the Tiber was "chafing with her shores (1.2.101)." 'Let's swim to yonder point,' Caesar intoned. Without further adieu and notwithstanding the way he was dressed, Cassius plunged in after Caesar. Shakespeare then captures the vividness of their swim against the swollen river:
"The torrent roar'd, and we did buffet it/ With lusty sinews, throwing it aside,/ And stemming it with hearts of controversy (1.2.107-09)."
Pause to consider each phrase. We are immediately thrown into the maelstrom with the two youthful swimmers. The angry current roars, and we can easily imagine the shock to the young men of the combined force of the chilly and turbulent waters of the Tiber. But a challenge had been issued, and the ambitious males were not about to back down from it. So, these lusty guys, hard-talking and hard-living, confident and courageous, battled the waves. They did "buffet" the water, fighting back against the surging tide that nature threw at them.
They threw the waves aside, much like one might wade through the surging ranks of opponents on the battlefield, throwing them aside as one proceeds. One can see them in the mind's eye gradually making headway ("And stemming it") as they aproached "the point propos'd." There they were-- wet, scared, driven to succeed, and competing against themselves, each other and the waves that roared.
Then the picture quickly changes. Caesar grew weary, and Cassius had to come to his rescue. Like the great ancestor Aeneas, who rescued his father Anchises from the flames of Troy, so Cassius had to put Caesar on his shoulders and rescue him from the Tiber. Cassius won the immediate contest with Caesar but eventually lost the war, and he was embittered to Caesar's dying day because of the perceived inequity of it all. Why should Caesar "bear the palm alone" when he is a weak and even a sissified man? It was a constant source of resentment for Cassius.
Shakespeare is wonderful because en route to the description of Cassius' resentment are these three lines dropped into the middle of his speech. Cassius could easily have said simply that he rescued Caesar from the surging Tiber. That isn't good enough for Shakespeare. He creates a vivid picture so that we may see the artistry and be engaged by the picture, even if that picture is not the point of the story.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long