Exploring Shakespearian Tragedy

A New Critical Theory

Work in Progress

By Paul H. and Robin Jaeckle Grawe

© 2020


A Cheshire Smile:  Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies











Chapter 4: Variants on Shakespearean Tragedic Special Language

It is easy to assume out of respect for The Bard that the language of Shakespeare’s tragedies was elevated, in the style of Greek tragedy. However, in ISST, we argued that Shakespeare’s tragedic language is not elevated in the Greek tragedy sense—Shakespeare debunked that elevated language in Troilus and Cressida. In ISST we posited instead a Romantic-Roman rhetorical palette for Shakespeare’s tragedies:  Aptness, Assessment, Eloquence, and Elegance, based in the Romantic values of Truth and Beauty and the Roman values of Thought and Expression. Combined they create what we here call the A2E2 Quadrilateral.  

At first, some of these four forms can seem difficult to distinguish.  However, in ISST we presented evidence from many empirical tests with many high confidence results showing that our distinction had empirical realities backing it up. [For a fuller discussion of these empirical tests as well as of the Romantic-Roman foundation for our four rhetorical forms see ISST or its synopsis.]

Given that the special language, both in Greek tragedy and in Shakespearean tragedy, is a key mediator between the tragedic line and the resultant dynamis, it is critical that we consider what stylistics—which of these four Shakespearean rhetorical forms—are dominant or at least emphasized in each of the four Great Tragedies.  Such distinctions in stylistic emphasis are a necessary preparation for establishing a rhetorical texture for the plays as well as for defining the dynamic variation among the four.

As we move to the specific plays, it is important to keep in mind that a dominant form of the A2E2 quadrilateral is that element which is without question used more extensively than any of the other three quadrilateral set elements. Single dominant forms, however, are rare. Contrastively, in our work in comedy, it often was highly illuminating to consider the two lead elements, the two elements that are clearly more employed than their fellows.  Identifying a lead pair allows us to consider the possibility of a lead-pair synthetic rubric, a single synthetic concept derived from the combination of the two analytic leads.  The circle below illustrates the six synthetics created by pairing the four rhetorical forms one with another.

Romantic-Roman Tragedic Language Circle




While establishing dominant or lead pair rhetorical forms can be important critical tools, in the present study it is not absolutely essential to establish these.  Instead, it will be enough to show that a particular element—Aptness, Assessment, Eloquence, or Elegance—is emphasized in that particular play.  In other words, we will not be forced into a comparative critical statement of which is greater and which is lesser.  It will be enough to simply make a positive argument that one of the elements does bear an emphasis.

Though we will only need to show an emphasis to move toward the dynamis conclusions of this study, we will go somewhat beyond that point to suggest a lead pair for each of the Great Tragedies because even in ISST, we had been able to provide synthetic rubrics for these pairs, and establishing a rubric for each play is a way of seeing more clearly that choice of leads from the A2E2 palette does influence the feel of the play.


What then are emphasized A2E2 elements in Macbeth?

A standard procedure from our comedic studies has been to ask instead if there is an A2E2 element which is so strong that we are loath to consider any argument that does not make it a lead element.

Macbeth is a play about a national state in crisis.  It is filled with political characters, who like the characters of Julius Caesar, have all the problems of staying alive as well as the problems of their appropriate responsibilities within the state.  Such people, as we saw amply demonstrated in Julius Caesar, have profound needs, needs to see deeply into things and to make good decisions based on that deep perception of truth.  They need Apt ideas; they need to hit the nail on the head about things.  And more, they should hope to have Assessing thoughts, thoughts that penetrate beneath the surface of things that Aptness covers, finding the deeper and hidden truths that need to be revealed. To that extent, Macbeth’s rhetoric should be a close analog to the rhetoric of Julius Caesar, rhetoric in which Aptness and Assessment prevail, a synthetic combination which in ISST we called Forceful.

But if we treated Macbeth that way, we would be missing the obvious: Macbeth obviously exists on two planes of reality, the secular plane in which we would expect Aptness and Assessment to be emphasized and a supernatural plane of the Weird Sisters.  Once we shift our focus to that supernatural plane, we can quickly recognize that lines from the witches are the remembered lines of the play. And in order to establish the abiding rhetorical feel of the play, we are looking at the rhetorical highlights, not the run-of-the-mill rhetoric of the play.

 In fact, it is one of the Weird Sisters’ speeches that has gotten the world’s attention for 400 years, as well it should if we have ever wondered how to brew a potion to alter the history of nations.  One starts, of course, with a brinded [brindled] cat and a whining hedge-pig. Thereafter:

“First Witch:  Round about the cauldron go;

In the poisoned entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

Swelt’red venom, sleeping got,

Boil thou first i’ the’ charmed pot.” (4, 1, 1 ff.)

 We are into famous words, words that we all know are exactly what sorcery calls for and indeed demands, even though long-sleeping venomous toads can be hard to come by. This is aptness to the nth degree—admittedly imaginative aptness-- all the more for ending

“All: Double, double, toil and trouble,

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.” (4, 1, 10-11)

No one since has been able to conjure without this reminder to the fire and cauldron.

It’s all amazingly Apt, this poison brewing, and we all know it is apt.  And in that sense, this is rhetoric beyond compare, convincing the world of an aptness that is purely imaginary—unless of course someone does deal in sweltered venom of long-sleeping toad under rock.

At the same time, it is all amazingly Elegant, a beautifully in-depth perception of evil intent going to lengths for supernatural effect—all accomplished in the purely imaginative.

Aptness and Elegance are oozing from the caldron speeches. Yet from household phrases alone coming down through the ages and taken directly from the play, we also know what the other high points are by common estimation. (We note that as high points, they somehow manage without resort to high-flown elevated language).

“Things without all remedy

 Should be without regard. What’s done is done.” (3, 2, 13-14) –Aptness


“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well

It were done quickly.” (1, 7, 1-2)—Aptness                                                   


 “Is this a dagger I see before me?” (2, 1, 33)—Aptness                        


 “Out, out damn’d spot.” (5, 1, 26)—Aptness    


 “Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn

The power of man, for none of woman born

Shall harm Macbeth.” (4.1.79-81)—Elegance


“Macbeth shall never vanquished be until

Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinaine hill

Shall come against him.” (4.1.92-4)—Elegance


“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

  Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

  To the last syllable of recorded time.” (5, 3, 19-21)—Eloquence


Shakespeare has no trouble becoming Eloquent, and he does so at the crisis point of the

play with Macbeth’s “Tomorrow” speech.  But by and large, the play thrives on Aptness and moves to Elegance. And we’ve already seen that the Elegance of the Weird Sisters in their deviltry, easily becomes the most memorable rhetoric not just of this play but of all evil recipes in literature, making Aptness and Elegance are quite easily argued to be emphasized rhetorical features of Macbeth

What we can also say immediately from A2E2 theory developed in ISST is that if Macbeth’s lead rhetorical elements are Aptness and Elegance, then its synthetic rhetorical texture is Prophetic (see circle above). And just as immediately, we can say that Prophetic texture is not the texture already established for Julius Caesar in ISST, namely a Forceful texture.  Texture is a matter primarily of feel, and short as our conclusion here is, it articulates a difference in feel between two of Shakespeare’s most produced tragedies, even though both contain a great deal of military fighting and assassination. 

So what is the feel of the Prophetic?  Prophetic means “forth-telling.” Biblical prophets are forth tellers of God’s truth and judgments.  A prophet does not speak in his or her own right; advocates speak in their own right.  Prophets traditionally come in two basic forms: true prophets who are true to some original which they have been given to tell forth and false prophets who pretend to tell forth something given to them when in fact they are forging something of their own or something from a different source.  Also, traditionally, prophets are not trivial.  The truths they forth-tell are of great urgency.

Street parlance normally somewhat transforms these observations to focus on not forth-telling but on foretelling. Foretelling is possible within prophesy, but it is a specialized sub-area of prophesy in general.  Generally speaking, most cultures have fairly strong taboos with respect to foretold futures: knowing the future is generally not given to humanity, and when it is given, it is subject both to being its own temptation and to being false as well as tempting.

It is, of course, true that these observations on the idea of the prophetic are in profound relationship to many of the themes of Macbeth.  But it must be kept in mind that we are not dealing with the thematic here. Instead, we are discussing texture and feel.  Macbeth has not only thematic material that is centrally connected to prophesy but also the feel of the prophetic generated by its special language.  At a minimum, our observations about prophesy suggest that there is a gravitas associated with the prophetic and a sense of relevance, of urgency. There is a feel of higher authority and a feel that manipulation of the commonsense world is not sufficient to navigate human existence.  A feel of the prophetic is also a sense that people are not finally in control; sometimes this is discussed as a sense of destiny.

There is no doubt more to say about the Prophetic.  But with these basics in mind and a normal sense of what Forceful means when associated with rhetorical performance, there is much to learn simply from remembering Julius Caesar with its Forceful texture, remembering Macbeth with its Prophetic texture, and recognizing that their textures, their feels moment to moment, are not nearly as similar as we’d like to think.


We have just seen that texture, the synthetic combination of two rhetorical emphases, can be contrastively identified for Shakespeare’s tragedies within the normal application of our theory. As we turn to Othello, we should anticipate that we will be able to identify a different texture from that of Macbeth if it exists.

Othello’s rhetoric shifts markedly after the first act and only resumes its basic flight in late act IV.  But before Act I is finished, we have a remarkable demonstration of Othello’s special rhetorical power.  For our purposes here, we can confine our analysis to the first act.  However, for those interested in the fuller mechanics of tragedic special language in Othello, we provide a more complete analysis in Appendix A.

And, from sensitive criticism over centuries, such a difference almost certainly does exist. Along with King Lear, Othello has claims to being the most poetic of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Its poetic qualities dominate our sense of the play as a whole even years after we have first experienced the play as script or performance.  As such, Othello becomes one of the critical test cases for a quadrilateral sense of Shakespeare’s Special Language, not as “elevated” language as traditionally conceived, but as a palette of Aptness, Assessment, Eloquence, and Elegance.

In Othello, the ordinary language is, of course, still overwhelmingly poetic language, with very little interruption by prose anywhere in the play.  That ordinary poetry leans quite strongly on Apt expression and on Elegant expression.  When we consider that Othello is the story of a high-ranking general of Venice, his military assignment, and his extraordinary aristocratic love affair with Desdemona, these tendencies in the ordinary language of the play should not be surprising.  Men of power and privilege in the state will necessarily need to deal with reality for which the “hitting the nail on the head” quality of Aptness will be of special importance just in moving action forward.  Men and women of power and privilege in the state will also be used to formal training in expression. Formal training in language normally starts with being able to say what we mean (closely related to Aptness) but progressing to saying what we mean in carefully chosen words that are commensurate with the importance of affairs discussed.  Diplomats need to learn elegance. Carefully chosen words—and often like lawyerly talk rather lean, even terse expression so that no unworthy word intrudes—makes language Elegant.

Superficially, this seems to suggest that there isn’t anything new to say about Othello’s special language. But to make this leap is to refuse to take the difference between ordinary and special language seriously. Othello’s predominant special language character, as we shall see, is established by Othello himself against a contrasting running tenor of speech and even against the impressive counter pattern of Iago’s rhetoric and of the meteoric flashes of rhetorical and poetic brilliance distributed throughout the cast.

 In Othello, there are a total of just over 3300 lines.   In a thorough review, we counted only 192 lines —less than 6% of the total—as special language. In 192 lines, we found a total of thirty special language passages.  Of our thirty select special language passages, 6 are long speeches of Othello himself, totaling 116 lines, better than 60% of the special language. 

Othello is indeed centered in Othello’s personal language. His special-language speeches average almost 20 lines per speech (some of the speeches are actually longer, but we have selected somewhat shorter selections to avoid material which is clearly more like the running speech of the play).  Thus, the play is dominated not only by Othello’s special language but by special language in grand speeches.

The other 24 passages total about 76 lines.  And of these, five by Othello or Iago account for 32 lines and range from 5 to 8 lines apiece.  Thus, there are 19 passages with a total of 44 lines, an average of only slightly more than 2 lines per passage.  These 19 very short special-language passages constitute an entirely separate class of special language running through the play, a class of very short, pithy high moments of language that can almost be described as meteoritic rhetorical shooting stars that punctuate the drama.  These meteoritic lines are often Iago’s or Othello’s, but they are shared with Desdemona and Cassio as well as with minor characters, such as Emilia Roderigo, the Duke of Venice, and the 1st Senator.  These widely-spaced, short rhetorical flourishes, especially because they range widely among minor characters, justify the sense that the play as a whole is poetically powerful.

Let’s remind ourselves of these meteoritic high points and their rhetorical character:

The Duke calling for stronger arguments:

“To vouch this is no proof

Without more wider and more overt test

Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods

Of modern seeming do prefer against him.” (108-111)—Assessment with Elegance

The 1st Senator describing Turkish strategy:

"Tis a pageant

To keep us in false gaze." (1.3.21-22)—Apt but much more Assessing and even Elegant


"For my particular grief

 Is of so flood-gate and o’erbearing in nature

 That it engluts and swallows other sorrows

 And it is still itself." 1,2,55-59—Apt and Eloquent


Iago and Othello share some of these rhetorical flashes in Act 1, Scene 2:

Othello at line 60, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.”

And at line 84, “Were it my cue to fight, I would have known it/ Without a prompter.”   Both primarily Apt but also Elegant

Iago To Cassio about Othello marrying Desdemona,

 “Faith, he tonight hath boarded a land carrack.

 If it prove lawful prize, he’s made forever.”— Assessing and poetically Apt, especially in joining “land” to carrack, a rich sea-trading vessel.

While these rhetorical flourishes from even very minor characters set a tone of high poetry, they also serve as lead acts for the great speeches of Othello. The cadenced flashes lead to this set speech of Othello, certainly special-language itself, but here only preparatory to a much higher rhetorical achievement

“I fetch my life and being

From men of royal siege, and my demerits

May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune

As this that I have reached.  For know, Iago,

But that I love the gentle Desdemona,

I would not my unhoused free condition

Put into circumscription and confine

For the sea’s worth.” (1, 2, 21 ff.)—primarily Eloquent:


Note that “sea’s worth,” “circumscription and confine,” “unhoused free condition” have very limited precise meaning about them but great poetic power of Eloquence, beautiful words to emotive effect.


Thus, in Act I, we have many rhetorical flourishes, often by minor characters typically Apt or Assessing but matched by lyrically Eloquent lines of Othello and Apt Assessments of Iago.  And as nowhere else in Shakespeare or literature, all these are cadenced and working with an even more powerful and Eloquent speech of Othello to prepare us for one of the

immortal speeches of dramatic literature.  Characteristic of Othello in his great speeches, it starts in scene three, softly, much more as straight narrative than as special language:

“Her father loved me, oft invited me,

Still questioned me the story of my life….” (130-131)


It is almost 20 lines into the speech with  

“She’d come again, and with a greedy ear

 Devour up my discourse.” (151-152) 


And almost another ten at

“My story being done,

She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.

She swore in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange,

‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful.” (160-163)


And quickening a little to

“She loved me for the dangers I had passed,

 And I loved her that she did pity them.” (169-170)


What is remarkable throughout is the extraordinarily common language.  We don’t find much metaphor as we did in the Duke’s “thin habits and poor likelihoods.”  And yet the speech is overwhelmingly powerful as cadenced poetry. By the time it is concluded, we feel that we know both the soul of Othello and the character of his and Desdemona’s shared love.  And that shared love is soft, known in the most realistic particulars and in the seeming inconsequence of particular reactions, caressed in its cadences of beloved memory.

The Duke immediately certifies as much: “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (174).

 Othello’s underlying aptness and elegance provides a foundation for the soaring passages which impress us as the play itself.  Iago’s and Desdemona’s and other characters’ passages emphasize Aptness and Assessment (Forceful language) providing stark contrast to Othello’s soft Eloquence. Aptness and Eloquence, then, have contrastive centers in Othello, which is most pointed in contrasting Othello as the center of Eloquence, Iago the center of Aptness.  Much as they are contrasted and related to the fundamental struggle for dominance in Othello’s soul, together, eloquence and Aptness are the touchstones of tragedic special language in Othello throughout.  And by our quadrilateral analysis as already explicated, that makes the special language tone of the play Enchanting.

We can remember that this Enchanting texture needs to assert itself against a lesser but impressive Forceful, (Apt and Assessing,) texture, particularly Iago’s diabolically Forceful texture.

Once we arrive at this rhetorical conclusion, we can easily remember that thematically enchantment runs throughout the play: Brabantio accused Othello of enchanting his daughter, the handkerchief was enchanted, Othello was enchanted by Iago, Desdemona was enchanted by Othello.  Everyone lived in an enchanted time when all the Venetians were saved and all of the Turks were drowned.

Even more importantly, we were enchanted.  We were enchanted by the supreme inter-racial love affair between an aging general and a little-above-adolescent, which despite every character’s opinion on stage, we accepted as totally natural.


Throughout the history of literary criticism, critics have routinely noticed a very unusual feel about King Lear that separates it not only from other dramatists’ tragedies but also forcefully separates it in feel and tone from the other Great Tragedies of Shakespeare himself.  Moreover, this sense of a unique feel is centrally felt in the language and highly incorporated into that over-all, abiding sense of the play that can legitimately be called the dynamis, dynamic, or power of King Lear over its audience.

King Lear opens prosaically, that is with a good deal of prose in the first two acts.  We should sense that we are being set up by contrast. Nevertheless, note this curious exchange between Kent and Lear as Lear is imparting his coronet to his sons in law:

"Kent:      Royal Lear,

Whom I have ever honour’d as my king,

Loved as a father, as my master follow’d,

As my great patron thought on in my prayers.

Lear: The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft." (1,1,141ff.)

Kent’s lines are high Eloquence, almost the stuff of Greek tragedy.  Lear’s response is not Eloquent, but rather Elegant, using a strong picture to beautifully state a concept: The rhetorical switch is foreshadowing:  When the play hits poetic stride, it will be these two, Eloquence and Elegance which will contest for dominance.

And it has certainly hit that stride by Act III, the prosaic shunted aside in favor of long poetic set speeches, admittedly punctuated by prose Aptness of the fool like

"He that has a house to put’s head in has a good head piece." (3, 1, 25)

The fool’s comment is anticipated by two long speeches of Lear taking 20 of the 24 previous lines, the first speech beginning “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” (Lear’s high emotion Eloquence) and the second picking up in the same vein, “Rumble thy bellyful!  Spit, fire! spout, rain!”

But the speech continues:

“I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;

I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,

You owe me no subscription {allegiance}: then let fall    

Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,

A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:

But yet I call you servile ministers,

That have with two pernicious daughters join’d

Your high engender’d battles [heavenly battalions] ‘gainst a head

So old and white as this.” (3, 2, 16-23)

Let this speech stand for all the high poetry of the later acts. It is such words that have made the role of Lear so much the ultimate goal of actors for now 400 years.  And what such words show over and over is a profound pictorial sense of humanity’s small insignificance against hurricane forces standing against it, forces allied to all the human weaknesses of the individual and race, and yet forces finally confronted with the simple fact that the slave to all these forces can still, in the image of God, stand amidst the hurricane.

And that picture is ultimately beautiful rather than truthful and deep rather than superficial. In the Aptness, Assessment, Eloquence, Elegance quadrilateral, that places us definitely and definitively in the Elegant quadrant.

We place King Lear on our rhetorical circle, then, as emphasizing Eloquence and even more Elegance.  We recognize that in the Fool the play often moves suddenly and jarringly over to Aptness, and that there is a good deal of Assessment in those who minister to Lear in his madness.  But these are supportive contrasts.  The center of the play is always decisively a center of Eloquence and Elegance in Lear himself.

We have chosen for a rubric of the Elegance-Eloquence section of our circle.  “Ethereal.”  Eloquence and Elegance are both based in Beauty rather than Truth.  Eloquence is Beauty in language; Elegance is Beauty in concept.  Eloquence by itself is fascinating; Elegance by itself is mysterious. Mystery and Fascination together lift us off the ground of the mundane. 

We have chosen to call this lifting off the ground Ethereal, into the air. We might want to note for the speech just considered, however, that it also has some Assessing quality about it, especially as Lear moves on to assess the elements as servile ministers.  If we consider the speech to move from Eloquence to Elegance and then to Elegance matched with Assessment, the last phase of the speech becomes not Ethereal but Transcendent.  Lear is Ethereal in that his feet are no longer on the ground of mundane sanity.  But by the end of the speech, at least for the moment, he is Transcendent, having gone beyond a simple consideration of his abject but standing state, and has moved on and beyond to something of an intellectual dominance over the brute forces launched in battalion strength against him.

We highly recommend then a full study of rhetoric of Lear within the special language quadrilateral we have proposed for all Shakespearean tragedy.  For our purposes here, however, it is enough that Eloquence and Elegance, resulting in the Ethereal, combine in Lear as nowhere else in the Great tragedies or perhaps in all of literature.


In Hamlet, high points are normally flashes, short emphatic poetic moments. “To be or not to be” is typical except that it begins a fairly long speech (‘whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows….’)  It is ‘To be or not to be’ which is best remembered: 6 syllables, 6 words, utterly Apt, entirely unpretentious. Lengthening out the moment—To be or not to be: that is the question—only gets us up to 11 syllables, 10 words, and a deep Assessment linked to the Apt short form.

With this central clue, we can also remember:

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” (1, 4, 90) –Apt and Assessing;

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (3, 2, 240)—Apt but also ironically Assessing

“The play’s the thing.” (3, 2, 604)—Apt and Assessing

“Good night, sweet Prince;

and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” (5, 2, 369)—Apt and Assessing the whole


“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” (1, 3, 75)—pretentiously Apt and Assessing like the rest of the speech


“For five marks, five, I would not farm it.” (4, 4, 20) —tersely apt condemnation of war greed, also Assessing

“Alas poor Yorrick.  I knew him” (5, 1, 292)—Apt for a graveyard in a tight community

 “Words, words, words” (2, 2, 210)—Apt in answer to what one is reading.

Hamlet is an ugly play about ugly realities.  Its rhetoric doesn’t soar.  But its rhetoric can etch its way into the vocabulary of nations, as most of the above lines attest.  And they etch themselves because they are exceedingly Apt and adaptable to an infinity of real-world settings in which artificial poetry would make little sense.  And they turn out to be Assessing in themselves and in being quoted, for example when someone exclaims, “Methinks she doth protest too much!”

Aptness and Assessment then are the hallmarks of Hamlet. They are minimally poetic, the Yorrick instance even being in prose.  Among other things, this makes Hamlet’s rhetoric the opposite of King Lear’s rhetoric of Eloquence and Elegance.  In that opposition, Shakespeare’s full command of his palette of special language is dramatically proven for all time.

Aptness and Assessment synthetically are Forceful language and together also are the language of Julius Caesar.  This is the language of “men of affairs” as Hardin Craig phrased it in his introduction to the play[i], primarily interested in doing rather than saying, interested in staying alive and making the right decision through careful thought.

In summary, then, the special language of Macbeth is Prophetic, of Othello is Enchanting, of King Lear is Ethereal, of Hamlet is Forceful. This language is not interchangeable.  Think how inappropriate the language of Othello would be if it turned out to be Forceful or if the language of Hamlet turned out to be Enchanting.

And this not-interchangeable language mediates, mediates between the characters, situation and action, actions, or portrayal on the one side and, on the other, the dynamis, dynamic or power the play as a whole has over us after we have forgotten almost all the lines and perhaps very prominent parts of the action.  By the last chapter of the present study, we intend to show how at the least, one of the analytic rhetorical, i.e.. special language, emphases of each play powerfully works toward a variant of general Shakespearean tragedic dynamis.


[i] The Complete Works of Shakespeare, (Glenview, IL.: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1961)    p 772.


ITCHS Home                        Next Chapter                    Contents