Sticks, Stones & Shakespeare: Violence as Superior Rhetoric in Theatrical Productions

Both William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Troilus and Cressida share a central theme of the “power struggle”. Efforts to win this power struggle or come out on top are demonstrated in two ways in both the texts and theatrical productions: through classical rhetoric, and through violence. Shakespeare depicts the battle between words and war; war that shocks us the most and leaves the strongest impression in the mind of the audience. Physicality in juxtaposition to rhetoric is traditionally seen as a lesser means of expression. However, both plays demonstrate that through its permanent nature, violence in and of itself can be considered a non- traditional form of rhetoric that, in proper execution, proves itself more powerful than speech. Man’s desire to be superior and dominate over others drives him to the extremes of throwing fists, and sometimes massacre, in instances where words do not come easily and the ownership of authority is in question. King Leontes of The Winter’s Tale and Ajax of Troilus and Cressida both experience situations in which their hierarchal positions are questioned, and so they humor the idea of using force, as opposed words, to secure themselves as higher- ups.

In Act II Scene III of The Winter’s Tale performed by the New York City Pearl Theatre Company, the handmaid of the banished Queen Hermione, Paulina, comes bearing a swaddled baby in her arms with the intentions of presenting it to King Leontes in the hopes that seeing his own likeness in the infant will convince him that his wife has not committed adultery with and given birth to the child of his brother king, Polexinus. She storms onstage, armed with words as she says

“It is an heretic that makes the fire,

Not she which burns in’t. I’ll not call you tyrant;

But this most cruel usage of your queen,

Not able to produce more accusation

Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours

Of tyranny and will ignoble make you,

Yea, scandalous to the world(2. 3. 114- 119).”

Paulina attempts to use her traditional rhetorical skills to cut Leontes down as a king, as she implies he is a cruel abuser and a tyrant. Leontes is not naturally skilled in classical speech as his contemporaries are to begin with, it is simply not who Leontes is. Even if he were, he would not even be able to perform profound rhetoric such as this, as he has been so insanely consumed by his insecurity and loss of power. For someone beneath him(and a woman no less) to express themself towards him in such a treasonous fashion is a grave sign of disrespect and only signals to others that he is not in control. Leontes tries to rely on discourse when he calls her “a mankind witch… a nest of traitors… a callact of boundless tongue” and a “gross hag” and says he’ll have her burnt(210- 213).

A considerable amount of Leontes’ insecurity in The Winter’s Tale stems from his inability to deliver speeches or words of authority and substance in the same way that other characters in both the text and production. These characters overshadow Leontes with they type of words they choose to say and how they say them. He feels this socio- cultural pressure as a leader to be good with only words, when in truth he is not and cannot be. He recognizes this and employs the one thing he knows will put a definitive end to all verbal conversations: violence. The dramatic qualities of violence supersede whatever “wow factor” the presentation of words may have on stage and shocks the audience. Paulina ties to use her language skills to combat Leontes and put him down, but a king uses force to assert his authority and does not try to sugar- coat the subject with words. She can talk and plead as she might, but it guarantees no definitive outcome.

Leontes tells his right hand man Antigonus to seize his own wife Paulina and have her burned at the stake for committing treason against him. If Antigonus goes through with this, even Leontes in his ratty, dirty grey sweater, with greying hair and in a physical and mental condition of disarray will still be more powerful than Paulina or anybody else. What good are your words and your ability to convince other once you are dead? Abilities to speak are gone- you can go back on your words but not on your deeds, and it is often said that actions speak louder than words. Once a person makes up their mind to have someone committed to death or to have violence enacted upon another, they undoubtedly assert their dominance in this language of blows and hits that renders those who are only good with words helpless.

King Leontes does not go through with having Paulina burned at the stake, which allows for the story of The Winter’s Tale to continue, but also leads to the continued diminishing of his position as ruler. The beauty of violence as a superior language is that it is instant action- all of a sudden hands are around throats or swords or stabbed into sides, it only takes a moment of strong conviction not found in speaking, a split second of pure certainty and irreversible action. Imagine if Paulina had died, gone would be the adversaries of Hermione and all that would be left is a unchallengeable strong Leontes flanked by cronies roped into doing his bidding. Leontes’ threats foreshadow this possible retention of lost power, but as Paulina lives, so does his insecurity.

The Winter’s Tale is an indirect example of the superior power of violence as rhetoric, as it is not Leontes who is to deliver this deathly fate, nor is it delivered by Antigonus himself. Yet it is this back and forth, the possible physical power between people that creates this dangerous dialogue that can span anywhere from slaps and punches to the ultimate of death. Scars and wounds heal, but the threat of violence lingers and remains- you touch a bruise and it is tender, it still stings, you feel the rough scab building over and later on notice the discoloration of the skin where the wounds once were. We forget words, but it is often much harder to forget wounds.

The polite, proper upper- class dinner party setting of the Pearl Theater’s Winter’s Tale production is not one that lends itself to the gruesomeness of violence, as violence is suggested but not put forth. The Wooster Group’s “Cry Trojans!” Native American campground however, lends itself to direct action and aggression, especially in Act II Scene I where Ajax is mocked and jeered at in front of Ajax by his slave Thersites. As with Leontes, this is another instance in which those of lesser power attempt to undermine those of a higher authority with words. Except this time, the language of violence is clearly spoken in response and serves to put others in their rightful place as peons.

Thersites uses his classical rhetoric to tease and taunt his master in their dialogue. Ajax is depicted in Troilus and Cressida as a “mongrel beef-witted lord” and no expert of rhetoric(2.1.11-12). Told by Thersites “I shall sooner rail thee into wit and holiness: but, I think, thy horse will sooner con an oration than thou learn a prayer without book”; he threatens to beat Thersites so hard that though ugly, he’ll become handsome(2.1.15-17, 14). He also calls him a “dog” and a “bitch- wolf’s son”(2.1.7,10). Not only does Thersites attempt to highlight Ajax’s supposed stupidity, but he also tries to call Ajax’s bluff and say that when it comes times to fight, he is not as big and brawny as he seems.

Those words are weak in comparison- Ajax’s strength does not lie in his words, but in his fists. He, like Leontes, is unskilled in language as a form of rhetoric and is led to believe that he is unintelligent or unable to be a proper leader. Yet, when it comes time to war, others will look to people like Ajax to fight, and not someone who can give a resounding speech on the battlefield. Shakespeare’s stage direction for Ajax and Thersites during this part of the scene has Ajax beat him(2.1.39). The Wooster Group performance was pieced together so hectic and chaotically that we struggle to follow this exchange in the performance. Albeit, the physical tension that would exist given the stage direction is implied throughout the production by the way that characters are dressed in their amour throughout the play and how the loud, bass- heavy sound system shakes the seats and becomes more prominent in instances where actors collide onstage or get physical.

Thersites, thinking he can get away with his cheeky, meaningless words continues his taunting believes Ajax to be “proclaimed a fool”, to which Ajax responds that his “fingers itch” and he is just about ready to beat him again(2.1.23-24). Thersites retorts by doing what we in the modern world call “talking trash” as he tells his master

“I would thou didst itch from head to foot and I had

the scratching of thee; I would make thee the

loathsomest scab in Greece. When thou art forth in

the incursions, thou strikest as slow as another”(2.1.25-28).

Basically, Thersites makes a lot of empty threats as to what he would do provided Ajax step to him and beat him again. On top of that, Thersites also tries to say that although Ajax is quick to talk, he will “strike” just as slowly or with as much hesitance as the next guy. Being that Ajax has already beaten on his servant once in this scene, it is very unlikely that he will hesitate to do so a second time. Ajax has already proven himself fully capable of putting his money where his mouth is and incapable of letting his authority be questioned, so Thersites offers empty language where violence and action are the primary method of discourse. Even after calling Thersites a girl, mere words are not enough in this scene and Ajax beats him once again.

The difference between Ajax and Thersites is that even though Thersites tries to use his words to do damage and inverse the role servant and master play, it is the forcefulness and assertiveness behind Ajax’s strength that makes his assertion of dominance so definitive. According to these works of Shakespeare, words never really will hurt as much as sticks and stones- or whatever else you may choose as your weaponry. Words are so situational, and their meanings and value change over time- yet over the course of history, the same violent actions have been yielding the same tough, rough and tumble results. Not matter how well- versed a person is, their words will not protect them when they deserve a beating.

A characteristic unique to urban areas is the existence of street culture and what we know as “street cred”. Especially in New York City, one of the birthplaces of Hip- Hop, gangs, graffiti and other aesthetics that lend themselves to inner- city culture, having “street cred” is absolutely necessary to survive life in the streets. “Street cred” is a mix of two things: rhetoric and physicality. Having quick quips and comebacks, sassy disses at others and a mouth that can spit out mad rhymes is only part of what solidifies a person’s urban street credentials. However, having a way with words is not enough; whether you’re talking smack about your homie on the basketball court, shutting someone else down in a rap battle, or talking B.S. before a fistfight, you need to be able to make good on your words.

Being able to “throw hands” or use your strength to back up your words and assert your dominance is what will solidify your superiority over others in your crew. If all you do is talk and don’t come through, you’re known as a wimp, a loser. No matter how slick you are with your mouth, once somebody jumps you, they own you. Violence is the ultimate form of rhetoric and the deciding factor between being respected and being a getover. You can walk down the streets of NYC and just by looking at somebody, know whether or not they’re somebody you’ll want to “step to”, or even try approaching because they are so physically intimidating. In the time of Shakespeare, kings and leaders were concerned about being a getover or somebody else’s underling when they were not the best speakers, and so they made violence an undisputable, irreversible language that you do not need to know words to understand. Although it is often seen as a lesser form of communication, when violence happens, it leaves no doubt in the mind of the aggressed and the aggressor as to who is in charge- and in the end that is exactly what those who use violence as rhetoric want: for everyone to know that they are the boss.

Works Cited

“Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida) | The Wooster Group.” Cry, Trojans!

(Troilus & Cressida) | The Wooster Group. Wooster Group. Web. 28 Apr.

  1. <;.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Ed. John Pitcher. London: Arden Shakespeare,

210-214. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Troilus and Cressida. Ed. David Bevington. London: Arden

Shakespeare, 2006. 181-184. Print.

“The Pearl Theatre Company.” The Pearl Theatre Company. Pearl Theatre Company.

Web. 28 Apr. 2015. <;.




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