Radical Shakespeare: Why do we get him so wrong?

By Pauline Kiernan

A timely study which restores the revolutionary message of Shakespeare's art.

Wednesday, 7 June 2023


Shakespeare, seemingly recalling those hours and hours of Latin at school, often had fun sending up the rules of rhetoric.
Because ancient rhetoricians believed that language was a powerful force for persuasion, they urged their students to develop copia in all parts of their art. Copia can be loosely translated from Latin to mean an abundant and ready supply of language—something appropriate to say or write whenever the occasion arises. Ancient teaching about rhetoric is everywhere infused with the notions of expansiveness, amplification, abundance.
In his book, ‘Copia’, the Dutch scholar Erasmus showed students how to write, and presents 150 variations of the sentence 'Tuae literae me magnopere delectarunt' ['Your letter has pleased me greatly']..."
Here’s the playwright having fun, exceeding the limits of Erasmian ‘copia’ with a comparative hyperbole contest in a hilarious send-up of the rhetorical ideal text.
I'll be no longer guilty of this sin; this sanguine
coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker,
this huge hill of flesh,--
'Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried
neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish! O
for breath to utter what is like thee! you
tailor's-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile
Well, breathe awhile, and then to it again: and
when thou hast tired thyself in base comparisons,
hear me speak but this.
- Chimes at Midnight. dir. Orson Welles
Falstaff and Prince Hal: Orson Welles and Keith Baxter.

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