Shakespeare, improvisation, and the art of rhetoric

Michael Witmore
Photo: Chris Hartlove

“Shakespeare knew that you have to improvise to get things done.”

In this excerpt from the 2017 Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture, “The Wisdom of Will,” Folger Director Michael Witmore talks about Shakespeare, improvisation, and the art of rhetoric, using Viola from Twelfth Night and Iago from Othello as examples.


When Shakespeare thought about improvisation, he would have thought about the art of rhetoric. And rhetoric is something that I think a lot about. Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is “the faculty of recognizing the available means of persuasion in any given situation.” Great definition.

Rhetoric is an art of preparedness. It’s a perception. It’s an ability not to just do things, but to scan a situation and figure out, “What is it for? What is its potential? What can be said? What cannot be said?” In the end, it’s an art of recognizing. And since situations change from day to day and moment to moment, it has to also be an art of improvisation.

One of the greatest improvisers in Shakespeare’s plays is Viola, who, as you remember, is washed up on the shores of Illyria after a shipwreck, believing that she has seen the last of her drowned brother. The sea captain tells her about the land where she is, tells her about Olivia, a countess who’s lost her father, lost her brother, and who has become a recluse in mourning. Viola sizes up the situation with her best wits, and she decides at that moment that she’s going to bide her time.

Here’s what she says.

Viola:                            O, that I served that lady,
And might not be delivered to the world
Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,
What my estate is.
(Twelfth Night, 1.2.43–46)

“Made my occasion mellow”—”mellow,” as in ripeness of a piece of fruit. She knows that she can’t act yet, she needs to wait.

Later, when she’s been mistaken for a man and is now the object of Olivia’s advances, she throws her hands up and she says:

Viola: How will this fadge?

(Great verb, “fadge”)

O Time, thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie.
(Twelfth Night, 2.2.33,40–41)

Someone who was watching this action, and thinking about the word “occasion,” would have brought to mind an emblem—which is one of those beautiful allegorical pictures that were created in the Renaissance, glossed by proverbs—the emblem of Occasio.

Occasio is a goddess who stands on a sphere. She is able to adjust her actions and her weight instantaneously to every change. She’s the perfection of the instantaneous correction. She’s also depicted as being bald, with a single forelock here, kind of like a forward ponytail. And if you look at one of these emblems, it takes a while to figure it out, but the idea is that when opportunity, or occasion, or chance, gives you something, as it comes toward you, you have the opportunity to grasp it; as it passes you by, there’s nothing to hold onto. Chances missed are chances lost.

Viola is someone who knows how to wait for the moment to act, and it’s something that a great director knows how to do. It’s something that a great rhetorician knows how to do. But Shakespeare liked to show things in opposites, and so, let’s consider someone else who’s a virtuoso improviser.

This time, it’s Iago, when he tries to frame his rival, Cassio, who has been promoted to lieutenant, as they arrive at Cyprus. Cassio has embarrassed himself by fighting while drunk when he was supposed to be holding military watch at night. Iago has framed him with a man named Roderigo. Cassio decides to try to win himself back in the graces of the general, Othello. And as Iago and Othello are walking up, they see Desdemona having a conference with Cassio. And Cassio turns to leave and walks away, and Iago says:

Iago: Ha, I like not that.
Othello:                           What dost thou say?
Iago: Nothing, my lord; or if—I know not what.
(Othello, 3.3.37–39)

There’s an art in the Renaissance called sprezzatura. What it means is practiced ease, practiced casualness. You’re pretending to do something by accident, but in fact you’ve been rehearsing it already. You can see how this applies to politics. What he does is, he seizes that opportunity, the forelock he sees. This is the point at which I’m going to frame Cassio, I’ve got the set set up, I’ve got my actors, and now I need to call attention to it. I’ll pretend like I’m noticing it. “Ha, I like not that.” And then he feels like he said too much.

The danger of being around a great improviser is if you don’t know if they are trusting to chance. You don’t know whether they are making their own fortunes or whether they are seizing on a misperception.


Read the full transcript on the Folger website. | Listen to or watch a full recording of this lecture.

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