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Title: Performance rhetoric in Shakespeare and law
Author: Watt, Gary
Awarding Body: University of Warwick
Current Institution: University of Warwick
Date of Award: 2018
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The published works submitted for this PhD demonstrate that attention to the practice of performative rhetoric can produce deep insights into the operation of persuasive arts in society, law courts and the Shakespearean playhouse. The main plank of my submission comprises chapters selected from my book Shakespeare’s Acts of Will: Law, Testament and Properties of Performance (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016). In that book, I demonstrate that since Roman times legal testamentary processes have been theatrically performative and that then, as now, and as in Shakespeare’s day, the testamentary process serves as a productive analogy for theatrical performance. This is because legal processes of testament, executorship and probate have their counterparts in the practices by which theatrical performance engages actors to execute the dramatist’s will and playgoers to witness it, to test it, and hopefully to approve it. Words uttered at thresholds between states of being have a quality that is called in various contexts ‘ceremonial’, ‘ritual’, and even ‘magical’. All liminal language is potent, but none more so than words spoken at the threshold between life and death. Shakespeare acknowledges that ‘the tongues of dying men / Enforce attention like deep harmony’ (RII, 2.1.5-6). In theatre, the language of the play performs a sort of magic as it passes from the world of the stage to the world of the playgoers. In law, so-called ‘operative words’ (such as ‘I agree’, ‘I declare’ and ‘I swear’) have a comparable capacity to move people from one state of social being to another. The words of a last will and testament have a distinctive liminal power to cross the threshold of death itself. Through words of will and the performance of the testamentary document, one acts now to expresses one’s will over the properties of a future world. Pursuing the testamentary trope through Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays, I argue that the performance of will can supply a definitional distinction between tragedy and comedy in human drama. Namely, that tragedy follows where the enactment of free will is frustrated or overborne and comedy flows where will breaks free of traditional hierarchical bonds only to resubmit itself voluntarily to new subjection in an endless cycle of unlearning. I contend that Shakespeare’s dramatic works are especially apt to shed light upon the theatricality of performing testamentary will. This is in part down to Shakespeare’s dramatic genius, flourishing out of an intensely rhetorical school education and playhouse practice, and in part down to the peculiar socio-legal context in which Shakespeare worked as regards the emergence of modern free will. I demonstrate that Shakespeare was born into a new age of will, in which individual intent had the potential to overcome dynastic expectation. Special significance is attached to the 1540 Statute of Wills, which liberated testamentary disposition of land and thus marked a turning point from hierarchical feudal tradition to the modernity of horizontal free trade and democratic self-determination. The other published chapters that complete my submission are taken from books written or co-edited by me. They focus on material aspects of rhetorical performance (synecdoche of material things in The Merchant of Venice and the relationship between dress and proof in Twelfth Night and Othello) they advance my thesis that the meaning and persuasive effects of the play text can only be appreciated in the context of performance, and that this requires us to attend to prosody (including the sound, metre and rhythm of speech) as well as to the performed relationship between words, silence, gesture and movement through space. Speech, silence and movement must also be appreciated in their physical context, which in the playhouse includes the material environment formed of stage structures, fixtures, costume and moveable props.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: P Philology. Linguistics