Top positive review
Reviewed in the United States on May 3, 2020
In chapter one “Of Thinking” (pages 1-11), Scott Newstok says,“Shakespeare earned his place in our pantheon of minds by staging thought in action [in his plays]. . . . When staging thinking, Shakespeare adopts images from a craft workshop” (page 3).
But Shakespeare’s “Stratford grammar school was conducted in Latin. And his regimented Latin curriculum proved to be the crucible for his creative achievement – in English” (page 4).
“Let’s return now to seven-year-old Shakespeare. . . . Yet Shakespeare was once seven years old; he did have teachers; and they taught him something about thinking” (pages 7 and 8).
“By compiling commonplace thoughts of others, we can better shape our own words to become, well, less commonplace. . . . I’m suggesting that to think like Shakespeare, we need to reconsider the habits that shaped his mind, including practices as simple as transcribing quotations, or working with a tradition. . . . But Shakespearean thinking does demand a deliberate engagement with the past to help you make up your mind in the present” (pages 10 and 11).
In chapter two “Of Ends” (pages 13-23), Scott Newstok says that “you must find a way to become immersed in activity for its own sake, in the company of skilled practitioners” (page 16).
“When Shakespeare was born, there wasn’t yet a professional theater in London. His ‘useless’ Latin drills prepared him for a job that didn’t yet exist” (page 21).
“For Aristotle, the end of study (long-term utility) was to develop citizens who would flourish in a democracy [in Athens]. Education cultivated habits for the end of becoming a good [person], skilled in speaking, with an eye toward action. To be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds” (page 22; his italics).
“The method for training this complete citizen was rhetoric – a term we now either consign to tedious catalogs of literary terms or, worse, identify with empty promises, things politicians say but don’t mean. But in Shakespeare’s era, rhetoric was nothing less than the fabric of thought itself. Rhetoric wasn't just part of the curriculum; it was the curriculum. Because thinking and speaking well form the basis of existence in a community, rhetoric prepares you for any occasion that requires words – it’s the craft of future discourse.
“That’s why students devoted endless hours to its full arsenal of strategies for encompassing a situation: imitating vivid models, exercising elaborate verbal patterning, practicing imaginative writing, and building up an enormous inventory of reading. Fierce attention to clear and precise writing is the essential tool to foster independent judgment; indeed, precision of thought is essential to every aspect and walk of life. That’s rhetoric” (page 23).
In chapter three “Of Craft” (pages 25-35), Scott Newstok says that in Shakespeare’s world “craft was not merely a mechanical process, but also a communal, intellectual, physical, emotional. Craft required discipline, enforced by people as well as by the object itself. Its practitioners habituated themselves into ever-evolving patterns. While play-making [i.e., making plays] was never formalized as a recognized London guild, key features of the theater aligned with craft’s dynamic thinking practices” (page 27).
“Doing and thinking are reciprocal practices” (page 28; his italics).
“In short, making is thinking. Or, as the editors of the 1623 Folio praised Shakespeare, His mind and hand went together” (page 29; his italics).
“The etymology of ‘craft’ reveals that centuries before it becomes a trade or profession (defended by associated guilds, companies, and unions), it was first a strength, a power, a force. That is, craft meant a physical transformation of some material, as in the earliest instances of resourceful toolmaking. Soon, this capacity to transform becomes isolated as a skill or art [e.g., as in the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (also known as dialectic)], a dexterous ingenuity” (page 29).
“Over time, these [craft] skills become consolidated as a kind of ‘grammar’ of strategies, shared within a community, communicated across generations. When someone is undertaking meaningful work, the thoughts of the men of past ages guide [their] hands. Experienced members initiate novices” (page 32; the first bracketed material is my addition; his italics; the second bracketed material is his).
“Real apprenticeship takes time. . . . You learn why your models make certain kinds of moves, so that you can emulate them, and eventually surpass them” (page 32; his italics).
In chapter four “Of Fit” (pages 37-45), Scott Newstok says, “Cicero nailed it: nothing is more difficult than to see what is fit, in both life and words. . . . [A] deft awareness [is needed] of ever-evolving circumstances: audience, place, resources, occasion (what the Greeks termed Kairos – which could also mean mark, or target)” (page 37).
“As Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay on Criticism (1711), True wit is nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed (97-98)” (pages 37-38; his italics).
“The rhetorical analogue to this [craft] fitness between subject and object was decorum, determining the level of style apt and agreeable to the person, place, and moment” (page 42; his italics).
“I’ve found the part-to-whole notion one of the most evasive, yet essential aspects of teaching reading” (page 42; his italics).
“There’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ in the craft of thinking. . . . Even acting should be aptly fitted: suit the action to the word, the word to the action” (page 43; his italics).
“True tailoring comes from teachers who know the needs and potential and aspirations of their students – and who have the time to adjust, to fit the task to the student, the student to the task” (page 43).
In chapter five “Of Place” (pages 47-53), Scott Newstok says, “Shakespeare’s school was a place. It was a place where he studied with other people, of different ages. These people studied in the same place, at the same time” (page 47).
“At its best, education is a dynamic and interactive conversation between a student motivated to think harder and a demanding teacher – they fit together in that same place” (page 49).
“Mere data transmission doesn’t induce deep learning. It’s the ability to interact, to think hard thoughts in the presence of other people” (page 49).
“To state the obvious: there’s a human aspect to education . . . . This isn’t distance learning; it’s close learning: the laborious, time-consuming, and irreplaceable proximity between teacher and student” (page 50; his italics).
“Our word ‘school’ derives from the Greek skhole – ‘leisure.’ Skhole, in turn, goes back to the Indo-European root segh: seize, hold, pause. Both ‘pause’ and ‘leisure’ sound a bit odd to us; we tend to associate school with work. But ‘school’ was a particular kind of activity, one that demanded a respite from physical necessity, in order to pursue thoughts in common – a freedom to think and act alongside other human beings” (page 50).
In chapter six “Of Attention” (pages 55-61), Scott Newstok says, “The root of attention means to stretch toward something. It’s both a physical and a mental effort – one yearns to become one with the object, the slender tendrils of the mind curling around it. We attend to it, just as a servant must attend to a ruler – with all the docility and contortion that implies. When Shakespeare speaks of a character here attend[ing] you, it doesn’t mean being merely present, but something more akin to readiness for command; an expectant waiting; intensive listening. Minding. The opposite is when your mind is tossing on the ocean – your mind’s there, not here” (page 56).
In chapter seven “Of Technology” (pages 63-71), Scott Newstok says, “Being skeptical about the forces promoting techno-utopianism doesn’t make you against technology. (The original Luddites wanted machines that made high-quality goods, run by trained workers who were compensated fairly.) But naïve enthusiasm for digital technology often derives from unspoken hostility toward teachers – a hostility that seeks to eliminate the human element from education by automating it” (page 64).
“If people were content with just ‘content delivery,’ libraries and textbooks would have made schools defunct. People (and institutions) help guide us (and chide us) to confront demanding material. Teachers have always employed ‘technology’ – including the book, one of the most flexible and dynamic learning technologies ever created. But it’s technology in the guiding hands of the learned teacher that helps situate us toward an end” (page 65).
In chapter eight “Of Imitation” (pages 73-83), Scott Newstok says that “modern legal copyright didn’t exist until 1710” (page 75) – roughly a century after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.
“‘Imitation’ sounds pejorative to us; a fake, a knockoff, a mere copy; at best, derivative drudge work. As a result, there’s an indifference to the still-valid practices of emulation (and repetition, and memorization), which are purported to quash independent thought” (page 75).
“When I read Shakespeare’s early plays, I get the feeling of an ambitious writer striving, through competitive imitation, to out-twin Plautus, to out-blood Seneca, to out-bombast Marlowe, to out-history Holinshed. At a certain point, he starts sounding . . . more himself – or more than himself” (page 83; his italics). Scott Newstok mentions Virginia Woolf (page 75). But it would be nice to know about other women writers as well.
In chapter nine “Of Exercises” (pages 85-95), Scott Newstok says, “You exercise your mind at the gym – in the progymnasmata, a regimen of mental gymnastics. This was a fourteen-step rhetorical plan, which proceeded in sequenced complexity, from retelling Aesopian fables to arguing for or against a legislative proposal. Compiled in the first century CE, elaborated by Aphthonius in the fourth century, translated into Latin in the early sixteenth century (even humanist schoolmasters had trouble with Greek!), and paraphrased into English in 1563 by Richard Rainolde (an edition brought by colonists to New England), Progymnasmata was an enduring handbook for rhetorical study for nearly two millennia” (page 86).
“It was a comprehensive system that forced students to imitate models; expand as well as contract narratives; become familiar with genres and media; internalize a magnificent array of formulas; compose with vivacity; rehearse disputation – overall hone their style. It was ambitious, but it provided students the infrastructure to achieve those ambitions – what Winston Churchill termed the scaffolding of rhetoric” (pages 86-87).
“This was not just ‘writing across the curriculum’; this was writing as the curriculum” (page 87).
“Erasmus insisted that pleasure can – indeed ought to – emerge from disciplined exercise: If a gentle method of instruction is used, the process of education will resemble play more than work” (page 90).
“Such playful exuberance was achieved through the Progymnasmata’s fourteen steps of fable, narrative, saying, maxim, refutation, confirmation, commonplace, encomium, invective, comparison, characterization, description, thesis, and law. What an inspiring variety, in contrast to the weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable ‘five-paragraph essay’ into which the AP exam has contorted expository writing” (page 91; his italics).
“Exercises in ethopoeia encouraged a rural English schoolboy to envisage what it might be like to occupy a different gender, in a different nation, observing a different religion, within a different era, under duress of different events. What we now call ‘empathy,’ or feeling with another, would have been been more familiar to Shakespeare as ‘fellowship’ – making other copartners, whether in pain or pleasure” (page 92).
In chapter ten “Of Conversation” (pages 97-105), Scott Newstok says, “Shakespeare’s era prized conversation’s capacity to rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others. 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” (page 98; his italics).
“Our internal dialogue – our conscience (‘thinking with’) – is rhetorical too, according to Isocrates” (page 99; his italics).
“When Hamlet launches into To be or not to be: that is the question, he’s alluding to the pedagogical practice of setting up ‘To X or not to X’ disputes, then arguing both sides (in utramque partem) of the question: on the one hand, this; on the other hand, that” (page 100; his italics and underlining).
“Once you are familiar with Shakespeare’s training in thinking through many sides of any question, you can see how conducive such a mind-set would be to the verbal give-and-take that constitutes the heart of drama. Characters themselves embody questioning, posed in tension with one another – as if we were watching a mind in motion” (page 103; his italics).
In chapter eleven “Of Stock” (pages 107-117), Scott Newstok seems to be playing on his family name, or at least on part of it.
“A sense of ‘common stock’ was long considered a communal property: something from which you have a right to draw. Stock was also something to which you could contribute. . . . ‘Stock’ evolves from the material sense of ‘stores’ or ‘stuff’ (as in ‘livestock’ or even ‘wordstock’) to the more metaphorical sense of a stock of concepts or knowledge, held in common” (page 109; his italics).
“The secret of stock is that it gives you the base to make something else. . . . Knowledge matters. It provides scaffolding for future inquiry. In the most extreme example, if you knew no words in a language, having a dictionary wouldn’t help you in the least, since every definition would lead you to more words you didn’t know. The best predictor for success in reading comprehension is . . . vocabulary” (page 110; his italics).
“Without a stock of knowledge, it’s difficult to process (much less gather and build) more knowledge. It’s called the ‘Matthew Effect’: the perverse way in which those who have, shall receive even more in abundance; those who have less, shall receive less” (page 110).
“Without a structured and graduated curriculum, the gap in vocabulary between poor students and wealthy students not only persists, but widens. The principal yet wrongheaded antipathy to intellectual stock reinforces socioeconomic inequality; we neglect stock at our peril” (page 111; his italics).
“When rhetoricians spoke of inventio, they meant the first step in constructing an argument: making an inventory of your mind’s stock of knowledge – your treasury of thoughts, your database of reading, which you can accumulate only through slow, deliberate study. You cannot transformation tradition (a creative ideal) without first knowing it (a conserving ideal). Making an inventory must precede making an invention. Shakespeare’s education furnished him with a stock of words, concepts, names, and plots that he would reinvent throughout his career” (page 114; his italics).
“Many have tried to describe how to move from the gathering of fragments into an assembled, new whole – that imperceptible transition from a latent state to an aha moment, when you refashion . . . material already at hand, so that the relics of other[s] . . . are incorporated” (pages 114-115; his italics; his ellipses; his bracketed material).
In chapter twelve “Of Constraint” (pages 119-129), Scott Newstok begins with some reflections on the constraints of certain poetic forms such as the sonnet, but then he switches to telling us about teaching sonnets to in the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, as part of a faculty cohort to teach humanities seminars to incarcerated women – which I am not going to discuss in detail.
“We work by having something to push off of, not by eliminating all friction. . . . There’s an artistry in ‘making do’ with what we’re allotted. Creators work within, against, and through constraints” (page 120; his italics).
“How well can you play within the frame [e.g., of the sonnet]? That’s the game” (page 123; his italics).
In chapter thirteen “Of Making” (pages 131-139), Scott Newstok says “Today’s burgeoning creative writing programs found their genesis not with the goal of publishing in mind, but rather a deeper appreciation of the architecture of writing from the inside” (page 132).
“Tudor educators relied on what they called ‘unmaking’: breaking down passages and word in order to see how they were assembled. We unmake in order to remake, and make something our own” (page 133).
“Writer as architect, writer as carpenter, sculptor, weaver, gardener, builder – these are recurrent figures of the making embraced in verbal creation. . . . And our word ‘fiction’ derives from the Latin for shaping, devising, in tern going back to Proto-Indo-European roots like dheigh ‘to form, build’; dhe ‘to set, put’; and dhabh- ‘to fit together” (page 134; his italics).
“It’s telling that the Greek verb for ‘making’ or ‘doing’ was poiein – the same word that gives us ‘poet.’ Aristotle discussed poesis in both his treatise on ethics and his treatise on drama; both probe the appropriate forms of making” (page 135; his italics).
“My students’ papers often describe Shakespeare as a play-write: they hear the homophone for what they presume a playwright does: write. But it’s spelled w-r-i-g-h-t, from the Anglo-Saxon wryhta, glossed in 1567 by Laurence Nowell’s Saxon dictionary as ‘A workman, a wright, a common name of all artificers . . . a poet’ – like a cartwright, who crafts carts, or a shipwright, who crafts ships. There were arkwrights, battle-wrights, boatwrights, bread-wrights, butterwrights, candlewrights, millwrights, wainwrights. A playwright crafts plays. They are wrought – designed, molded, fabricated, formed, contorted, sharpened, bent, formed, polished” (pages 136-137; his italics).
In chapter fourteen “Of Freedom” (pages 141-151), Scott Newstok reflects on the lives of Bob Dylan and James Baldwin – both in connection with Shakespeare.
“This sense of earning our – your common cultural stock goes back through Seneca (The best ideas are common property . . . whatever is well said by anyone is mine) to Isocrates (The Deeds of the past are . . . an inheritance common to us all). You belong here: you can sit with Shakespeare and he winces not” (page 146; his italics).