The Rhetoric of Dance in The Winter’s Tale (abstract)

by Melissa Hudler

[Abstract provided by the author. The full article is published in The Ben Jonson Journal 27, no. 1 (2020), pp. 61-83 and is available here.]

In The Muses’ Concord, James H. Jensen observes that rhetorical theory and practice ground all the arts of the Renaissance era (47). This connection is evident in the discourse of rhetorical and dance performance shared between classical rhetoric treatises and Renaissance dance manuals. This shared discourse leads one to understand both arts equally as forms of ordered and measured language, indeed as arts equally capable of “expressing some pleasaunt or profitable affectes or motions of the mynde” (Elyot 231). Renaissance (and classical) recognition and perspectives of dance as a form of rhetoric contribute much to our understanding of the culture’s awareness and economy of nonverbal communication. To be sure, cultural and critical attention to these arts—consideration of them individually and mutually—ground a considerable portion of the Renaissance studies landscape. These arts come together in much of the drama of the period, offering the modern reader an additional means by which to formulate meaning from and engage as an observer of the interaction between and among characters.

A play that has garnered much rhetorical scholarship, The Winter’s Tale offers a particularly useful example of the classical and Renaissance notion of dance as rhetoric and for the above-mentioned interpretive opportunity. Specifically, a rhetorical reading of the sheep shearing festival conveys the communicative quality and dramaturgical function of dance. Framing this reading is a cultural and historical context that delineates the association between dance and rhetoric as it was understood by Quintilian, Sir Thomas Elyot, and Ben Jonson. Jonson’s theory that spectacle can “penetrate the inmost affection” (Timber 34) is well-served in the festival scene, as Florizel, Camillo, and Polixenes are awestruck by the spectacle of Perdita’s dancing. Indeed, Perdita’s corporeal eloquence communicates an air of nobility out of place in this rustic environment and misplaced within this assumed peasant. Because Perdita’s true identity is discovered soon after (5.2), this scene, with its covert commingling of peasants and aristocrats and its graceful spectacle, can be understood as a pivotal moment that moves the play from its discordant and tragic beginning to its harmonious and joyful end. Ultimately, therefore, Perdita’s dancing serves not only as a form of rhetoric that bodies forth her true identity but also functions as a dramaturgical device that presages the harmony and coupling that close the play.

Works Cited

Elyot, Sir Thomas. The Boke Named the Governour. Edited by Henry Herbert Stephen Croft. Vol. 1. London: Kegan Paul, 1883. Originally published in 1531.

Jensen, H. James. The Muses’ Concord: Literature, Music, and the Visual Arts in the Baroque Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Jonson, Ben. Timber, Or Discoveries. Edited by Ralph Walker. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1953.

Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria. Translated by H. E. Butler. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1920.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Edited by Frank Kermode. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

Hudler, Melissa. “Shakespeare and Physical Theatre.” The Shakespeare and Dance Project, edited by Linda McJannet, Amy Rodgers, and Emily Winerock, November 16, 2019. Accessed [date].

Updated May 9, 2022.