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"The Popularization of Shakespeare in Nineteenth-Century American Rhetorical Education"

Nan Johnson

Department of English

Ohio State University


Nineteenth-century rhetorical education in America, both academic and popular, was dedicated to fostering eloquence in speaking and writing and to developing critical standards of taste in the American public in general. Within the rhetorical curriculum of both classroom and parlor, “taste” implied intellectual and moral virtues that could be obtained by any serious student of rhetoric and careful reader of the exemplars of English literature and oratorical performance. The study of Shakespeare as a master of eloquence was popularized in two major textbook traditions in the rhetorical curriculum of the late nineteenth-century: (1) the rhetorical treatise that outlined how the writer and speaker could communicate persuasively through the command of the principles of invention, arrangement, and style; and (2) the rhetoric anthology that offered the opportunity to study and read aloud excerpts from the best prose, poetry, oratory, and drama that the Anglo-American tradition had to offer. Works of Shakespeare figured prominently in both these textbook traditions and in popular rhetorical education after the Civil War that extended the study of rhetoric to the general public. Shakespeare’s plays were studied as models and performed repeatedly under the assumption that such imitative practices and dramatic readings would encourage students to develop the powers of eloquence and quality of mind that Shakespeare’s dialogue and characters displayed. Shakespeare’s popularity was affirmed in popular rhetoric manuals that promoted the choice of Shakespearean plays as subjects for public recitations and community events. The study of Shakespeare was also a standard feature in the rhetoric curriculum at many of the “Schools of Expression” and “Schools of Oratory” that developed as options for professional education in America in the late nineteenth-century.



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