Descanting on Deformity: The Irregularities in Shakespeare's Large Chiasms

TitleDescanting on Deformity: The Irregularities in Shakespeare's Large Chiasms
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsRamirez, Matthew E.
JournalText and Performance Quarterly
Start Page37
Date Published2011

In this essay I investigate Shakespeare's complex use of chiasmus, a rhetorical scheme in which the order of words is reversed. In its simplest form, in which only two terms are reversed, this scheme was widely used throughout the literature of antiquity and the Renaissance. In this study I analyze more complex forms of this figure from the Bible, Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, and Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew. Only in Shakespeare, however, have I discovered irregularities that seemingly disturb the harmony of the Biblical and Marlovian models that preceded it. Critics have overlooked the irregularities within Shakespeare's use of the scheme and, as a consequence, they have erroneously tried to fit his chiasms into harmonious models. What these irregularities show, however, is not disjunction, but intricate chains of interwoven chiasms, each of which has a crucial function within a monologue or dialogue. Among the benefits of studying these irregularities are: a fuller understanding of Renaissance wit games and wordplay, suggestions for how to play certain dialogues and monologues, and insights into Shakespeare's compositional method.