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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt - "How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education" by Scott Newstok

How to Think Like Shakespeare
How to Think Like Shakespeare

How to Think Like ShakespeareWhat habits of mind should we seek to cultivate? In his new book How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, Scott Newstok draws on Shakespeare’s plays and common instructional practices of his day to answer this question.

One of these practices is conversation, the subject of the chapter from which the below excerpt is taken. The chapter begins with an epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The Natural Method of Mental Philosophy: “Conversation is the laboratory and workshop of the student.”

Newstok, an English professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee, quotes heavily from a variety of sources throughout, including 1 Henry IV, Hamlet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona — using italics to indicate where he’s borrowing words and phrases.

Kenneth Burke, one of my heroes, dropped out of college to school himself in 1920s Greenwich Village. Over the next seventy years, his roving wit contributed to fields as disparate as sociology, religion, historiography, composition, and even Shakespeare studies. A rhetorician at heart, he had a wordsmith’s knack for an arresting metaphor—as in this one, about how thought unfolds:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.1

Burke dramatizes the unending conversation of intellectual history—how we enter a conceptual debate, stake a claim, and (eventually) depart. Insofar as it starts in the middle of things and has no conclusive ending, it sounds a lot like a Socratic dialogue! Burke’s parlor scenario leans upon the sociable arts of conversation, including both disputation and persuasion, but with more benign, irenic overtones. It covers language not only in the court, the school, the government, or the market, but also in the personal and aesthetic realms.

Shakespeare’s era prized conversation’s capacity to rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others.2 Elaborating on medieval and classical genres, dialogue prevailed in philosophical discourse, political treatises, protoscientific tracts, scholarly apparatuses (with marginal glosses and footnotes in dialogue with the main text), practical manuals for anything from “how to learn a language” to “how to die.” Even reading a book on your own was figured as a conversation with the deceased, where you listen to the dead with your eyes.3

Religious instruction was often staged in the form of a catechism: Make questions and by them answer.4 Think of Falstaff ’s skeptical turn on “honor,” rephrased here in a Q&A:

q. Can honor set to a leg?
a. No.
q. Or an arm?
a. No.
q. Or take away the grief of a wound?
a. No.
q. Honor hath no skill in surgery then?
a. No.
q. What is honor?
a. A word.
q. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”?
a. Air. A trim reckoning!
q. Who hath it?
a. He that died o’Wednesday.
q. Doth he feel it?
a. No.
q. Doth he hear it?
a. No.
q. ’Tis insensible, then?
a. Yea, to the dead.
q. But will it not live with the living?
a. No.
q. Why?
a. Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.5

  1. The Philosophy of Literary Form (Louisiana State University Press, 1941), 110–11. The best introduction to Burke’s quicksilver mind remains “Literature as Equipment for Living,” gathered in this same volume (293–304). I’ve edited Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare (Parlor Press, 2007).
  2. Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children,” in Essays and Selected Writings: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Donald M. Frame (Columbia University Press, 1963), 41.
  3. Francisco de Quevedo, Poem 131, translated by George Mariscal, in Contradictory Subjects (Cornell University Press, 1991), 69.
  4. Othello (3.4.14–15).
  5. 1 Henry IV (5.1.130–39).
  6. Nicocles or the Cyprians (5–8), cited in Celeste Michelle Condit and John Louis Lucaites, Crafting Equality (University of Chicago Press, 1993), xi.
  7. Murphy (Grove Press, 1952), 65.
  8. De rationi studii, cited in Principles of Letter-Writing: A Bilingual Text of Justi Lipsii Epistolica, trans. R. V. Young and M. Thomas Hester (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996), 61.
  9. L. S. Vygotsky, The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, vol. 4 (1931, Plenum Press, 1997), 105.
  10. Hamlet (3.1.55). Cited in Peter Stallybrass, “Against Thinking,” PMLA 122, no. 5 (October 2007): 1580–87.
  11. Cicero, De natura deourum & academica, trans. H. Rackham (Harvard University Press, 1933), 475.
  12. On Liberty (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1867), 21.
  13. David Burkus’s account in The Myths of Creativity ( Jossey-Bass, 2013), 154.
  14. 1 Henry IV (2.4.342–43, 393–94, 399).
  15. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (Penguin, 2006), 51. Autobiographies, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Library of America, 1994), 310.
  16. The phrase is from Chana Messinger, cited in Alan Jacobs’s companionable How to Think (Currency, 2017), 108.
  17. John Keats, to George and Tom Keats, December 21, 1817, in The Letters of John Keats, 1814–1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Harvard University Press, 1958), 1:136.
  18. James Longenbach, “The Sound of Shakespeare Thinking,” in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry, ed. Jonathan Post (Oxford University Press, 2013), 76.
  19. William Fifield, “Pablo Picasso: A Composite Interview,” Paris Review 32 (Summer- Fall 1964): 62.
  20. Joseph Albers, Interaction of Color (1963; Yale University Press, 2006), 70.


Funny and interesting

Rosa — April 30, 2020