About a month ago I had a bit of luck, winning a short subscription to the Church Times in a competition on Twitter. (Yes, I do feel like a character in a Catherine Fox novel, why do you ask?) And, of course, instead of simply enjoying this unexpected treat, I found myself spotting Shakespeare references in the columns, and wondering about the rhetorical work they were doing. One which particularly caught my attention involved a splice between Henry V and Julius Caesar, and I thought I’d unravel it here.
Andrew Watson, the Bishop of Guildford, remarked that when Synod met there would be specific discussions around vocation and training. These would include “review[ing] several of the workstreams in the plans”, discussing “grants by the Church Comissioners to diocese” in provision for “a proposed increase in ordinand numbers”. He noted that “[t]hese subjects seem unlikely to stiffen the sinews or stir the blood”, with a definite gesture in the direction of Shakespeare, before going on to explore the importance of such considerations.
The Shakespeare quotation here apparently brings together two separate speeches. During Henry V’s famously stirring speech to his troops on St Crispin’s Day, the young king declaims
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace, there ’s nothing so becomes a man,
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood
The formulation “stir the blood” seems to be an echo of Mark Antony’s speech to the crowds in Julius Caesar, in which he says:
For I have neither writ, nor words, nor worth,
Action nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on.
The combination of “stiffen the sinews” and “stir the blood”, though the phrases technically come from different plays, appears up several times in recent usage. Sonia Purnell’s Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition notes that Boris Johnson once promised in the Spectator to “‘stir the blood and stiffen the sinews’ of the Tory faithful” (but had apparently failed to do so), whilst Julia Bryant’s WWII novel The Spirit of Nelson Street has a character hearing Churchill’s speech after Dunkirk and wondering “Could this baby-faced toff with his big cigar really stir the blood and stiffen the sinews of the man in the street?”, and Alan Cole and Chris Bunch’s fantasy novel The Warrior’s Tale involves the protagonist preparing her female warband for battle and thinking that the war drums “not only set the rhythm for the rowers, but was meant to stir the blood for the coming battle. It might well stiffen the sinews of Cholla Yi’s seamen and marines on their ships, but my women hardly needed encouragement”.
In all these examples, there is a concern with the effect of rhetoric on others, and an anxiety around its potential uselessness and bluster. This provides striking parallels with the source of the two quotations, in rather different ways. Henry’s eve-of-battle set-piece is a famous example of rhetoric persuading people of the near-impossible: that they will win the war, that everyone will be jealous of the people who fought that day, even that they should be happy they are outnumbered and be glad they don’t have reinforcements. Mark Antony’s style is much more oblique: as in his “but Brutus in an honourable man” speech, he spends time here disclaiming any oratorical skills. That, of course, is an oratorical technique (though I can’t remember the exact term for it, it’s related to apophasis but isn’t the same thing…)
His rhetoric tends to work by disclaiming authority, or disclaiming relevance, a faux-naïve strategy that frames him as simply expressing his own feelings whilst the audience reach “their own” conclusions about the matter. There’s a slight suggestion of this in Henry’s own courtship of the French princess Katherine:
I’ faith, Kate, my wooing is fit for thy understanding: I am glad thou canst speak no better English; for, if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown. I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say ‘I love you:’
Given that he is in (by being a native speaker) more skilled in English rhetoric than Katherine, I always suspect this has something of Mark Antony’s disclaiming about it. The “I’m just a plain fellow but it seems to me…” which surely comes close to being the oldest rhetorical swerve in the manual.
There’s a disclaiming going on in Andrew Watson’s piece as well – not in any sense as calculating and devious as Mark Antony or Henry, nor as politically calculating as Boris or Churchill, nor presumably involving a marauding band of female warriors. But it struck me that Shakespeare entered the article in a gesture of disclaiming an imagined Shakespearean style. Watson suggests that the sorts of discussion he’s involved in will neither involve terribly high-flown rhetoric, nor will they make particularly stirring reporting, but that they are nonetheless essential for the Church. The hovering presence of Shakespeare works as an image of full-throated (even bombastic) oratory, against which the needs of this moment are being defined.
Whenever I find a Shakespeare reference – even an implicit one like this – I always find myself asking “what it is doing?” What is it being used for? What work is Shakespeare carrying out for this writer? In this case I think Shakespeare is being used to exclude and disclaim “Shakespearean” rhetoric, advising the reader that those styles of speech and argument will not be possible, or even desirable, when dealing with the clergy. There will be no marshalling of the Church Militant in astounding terms borrowed from bloodthirsty royal orators.
In performing this gesture, though, the article engages with exactly the sort of rhetorical disclaiming which takes place in one of its sources. Setting aside “Shakespearean” rhetoric is exactly the move which a Shakespeare character is carrying out when we follow up the quotation. In distancing itself from Shakespeare, the article implicates itself in the rhetorical technique deployed within the play. It’s an intriguing twist of Shakespearean usage. And I think we can all be glad that the bishop didn’t follow Mark Antony further, and declare that henceforth he would “only speak right on”.