Christopher Page and Quentin Skinner Lectures

I’ve been to two lectures at the Oxford Exam Schools this week, both given by leading academics associated with Cambridge University. On Monday I heard a talk, with sung interludes, given by an authority on medieval music, Chris Page (he has recently published a book on the first thousand years of music in the Christian West). He stressed the importance of music in the medieval liturgy: people sang the bible more than they read it, and plainchant evoked emotions in the listener and singer. He spoke about neurological and psychological aspects of auditory experience, but worried that these approaches don’t take account of the historical moment where music is produced; i.e., how society and culture condition our response. This extends to the vocabulary we use to talk about medieval music. So, rather than just talk about ‘zygonic memory’ (referring to music that’s easily memorized), Page considered how the word ‘compunction’ was used in the first millenium to discuss emotional responses to music.

This interest in the language, the terms being used to make argument is closely identified with the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ of historical thinking. Quentin Skinner is closely identified with this approach to intellectual history, and he is giving this year’s Clarendon Lectures–the first lecture was on Tuesday. The series’ title is ‘Shakespeare and Rhetorical Invention’, and already the connection with his broader methods of analysis is clear: he’s going to see how Renaissance theories of rhetoric (the art of persuasion) help us to understand how Shakespeare was writing speeches in the plays.

It’s nothing new to argue for rhetoric’s central importance to understand what’s going on in Renaissance literature: it’s a key part of the classical heritage that was being reclaimed across Europe, and in England all grammar school students, including those at Stratford, would have been immersed in it. Skinner’s argument focuses on ‘invention’ (what you put in a speech), but sounded original to me mostly in its specific claims about when Shakespeare was most interested in rhetoric–from the end of 1596 (when he’s writing Romeo and Juliet) until about 1604 (Measure for Measure and Othello). He claims to have found Plutarch’s Moralia (Philemon Holland’s 1603 translation) being quoted in Hamlet, which struck me as particularly provocative not only because scholars have been combing through that particular play for centuries, but also because, if true, it’d be relevant to the debate about how the three different versions of Hamlet relate to each other: it’d be a neat piece of evidence for arguing that the 1604 quarto really was made more literary by Shakespeare for print publication…but this is another story.

Skinner’s lecture was attended by a Who’s Who of academics in the Oxford English Faculty working on the early modern period. Some of them may have drifted off in the first half while Skinner was introducing rhetorical theories, which is to say that he was pitching it beyond the inner sanctum of Oxford dons, towards the outer sanctum of graduate and undergraduate students and beyond. The lectures are telling us how to read Shakespeare with a better sense of the historical ideas about language that are informing his writing. This helps us appreciate Shakespeare’s plays and his dramaturgy (writing drama). More globally, it encourages us to think about how language is shaped by its historical circumstances that give words meaning. This applies to literature written five hundred years ago, a millenium ago and just yesterday. Words change, gain and lose meaning–‘credit crunch’ and ‘Big Society’ being two examples of words with meanings specific to how they’re used in twenty-first century Britain. You could even analyze this blog post for traces of how my having typed it out on the screen makes it different from something handwritten. Rhetoric exists in many forms.

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