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Shakespeare & Beyond

Shakespeare, improvisation, and the art of rhetoric

Ellen Terry as Viola
Ellen Terry as Viola
Michael Witmore

Photo: Chris Hartlove

“Shakespeare knew that you have to improvise to get things done.”

In this excerpt from the 2017 Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture, “The Wisdom of Will,” Folger Director Michael Witmore talks about Shakespeare, improvisation, and the art of rhetoric, using Viola from Twelfth Night and Iago from Othello as examples.

When Shakespeare thought about improvisation, he would have thought about the art of rhetoric. And rhetoric is something that I think a lot about. Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is “the faculty of recognizing the available means of persuasion in any given situation.” Great definition.

Rhetoric is an art of preparedness. It’s a perception. It’s an ability not to just do things, but to scan a situation and figure out, “What is it for? What is its potential? What can be said? What cannot be said?” In the end, it’s an art of recognizing. And since situations change from day to day and moment to moment, it has to also be an art of improvisation.

One of the greatest improvisers in Shakespeare’s plays is Viola, who, as you remember, is washed up on the shores of Illyria after a shipwreck, believing that she has seen the last of her drowned brother. The sea captain tells her about the land where she is, tells her about Olivia, a countess who’s lost her father, lost her brother, and who has become a recluse in mourning. Viola sizes up the situation with her best wits, and she decides at that moment that she’s going to bide her time.


‘Occasio’ was also a circumstantial topic of invention thus a forensic consideration for causality in Cicero’s “De inventione”… Perhaps this informs Hamlet’s forensic consideration: “How all occasions do inform against me / And spur my dull revenge!”

Kirk Dodd — January 31, 2018