Excerpt – “How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education” by Scott Newstok

How to Think Like ShakespeareWhat habits of mind should we seek to cultivate? In his new book How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, Scott Newstok draws on Shakespeare’s plays and common instructional practices of his day to answer this question.

One of these practices is conversation, the subject of the chapter from which the below excerpt is taken. The chapter begins with an epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The Natural Method of Mental Philosophy: “Conversation is the laboratory and workshop of the student.”

Newstok, an English professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee, quotes heavily from a variety of sources throughout, including 1 Henry IV, Hamlet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona — using italics to indicate where he’s borrowing words and phrases.


Kenneth Burke, one of my heroes, dropped out of college to school himself in 1920s Greenwich Village. Over the next seventy years, his roving wit contributed to fields as disparate as sociology, religion, historiography, composition, and even Shakespeare studies. A rhetorician at heart, he had a wordsmith’s knack for an arresting metaphor—as in this one, about how thought unfolds:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.1

Burke dramatizes the unending conversation of intellectual history—how we enter a conceptual debate, stake a claim, and (eventually) depart. Insofar as it starts in the middle of things and has no conclusive ending, it sounds a lot like a Socratic dialogue! Burke’s parlor scenario leans upon the sociable arts of conversation, including both disputation and persuasion, but with more benign, irenic overtones. It covers language not only in the court, the school, the government, or the market, but also in the personal and aesthetic realms.

Shakespeare’s era prized conversation’s capacity to rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others.2 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.3

Religious instruction was often staged in the form of a catechism: Make questions and by them answer.4 Think of Falstaff ’s skeptical turn on “honor,” rephrased here in a Q&A:

q. Can honor set to a leg?
a. No.
q. Or an arm?
a. No.
q. Or take away the grief of a wound?
a. No.
q. Honor hath no skill in surgery then?
a. No.
q. What is honor?
a. A word.
q. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”?
a. Air. A trim reckoning!
q. Who hath it?
a. He that died o’Wednesday.
q. Doth he feel it?
a. No.
q. Doth he hear it?
a. No.
q. ’Tis insensible, then?
a. Yea, to the dead.
q. But will it not live with the living?
a. No.
q. Why?
a. Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.5

Our internal dialogue—our conscience (“thinking with”)—is rhetorical too, according to Isocrates:

The same arguments which we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts; and while we call eloquent those who are able to speak before a crowd, we regard as sage those who most skilfully debate their problems in their own minds.6

A good motto for this period would be Erasmus’s audacious modification of the opening words of the Gospel of John: In principio erat sermo. This is familiar to us in English as In the beginning was the word (travestied by Samuel Beckett: In the beginning was the pun).7 Since Jerome in the fourth century, this phrase had been Latinized as In principio erat verbumverbum as equivalent to the Greek logos, or “word.” Yet logos could also mean “discourse” or “reasoning” (hence “logic”). Erasmus, seeking like Burke to socialize and generalize that logos, instead offered In principio erat sermo—which gives us our word “sermon,” but means something more akin to informal “conversation.”

In the beginning was the conversation. Given this beginning, it’s not surprising that Erasmus held that the skill of flawless speech is best acquired both from the conversation and company of correct speakers and also from incessant reading of eloquent authors. In other words: dialogue with both present and past.8 If through others we become ourselves,9 how might we envision a pedagogy that placed a premium on conversation?

It would be suffused with questions. And not so-called rhetorical questions in the pejorative sense (we all know what those look like, right?). Rather, generative questions, beautiful questions, to catalyze further thought. 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 on both sides (in utramque partem) of the question: on the one hand, this; on the other hand, that. (Even to be or not to bée was one of the “questions” in logic textbooks from the 1570s onward.)10

Many of Shakespeare’s soliloquies are generated by this kind of either/or premise, weighing two courses of action, as are many of Francis Bacon’s essays (To marry or not to marry was another conventional question). The goal of this bi-vocal argumentation was not an equivocating denial of the truth, but a probing, conversational clarification of the truth: The sole object of our discussions is by arguing on both sides to draw out and give shape to some result  that may be either true or the nearest possible approximation to the truth.11

Expansion, unlike narrowness of mind, demands agility. You must occupy (at least) two sides of the question (or dilemma, or paradox) with equal vigor and rigor, inducing a nimble, antidoctrinal equipoise. Erasmus even advised that students compose “recantations” of arguments they had just completed!—a kind of self-debate. Such a system cultivates the kind of ethical, antidogmatic broadmindedness advocated by John Stuart Mill:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.12

Everyone from Greek sophists to the Buddhist nuns illustrating this chapter has always known that one of the best pedagogical tricks is to make students strenuously argue a position—and then force them to argue the opposite. To cultivate conversation at its highest level, you are asked to “stand” in the position of your opponent.

At Xerox’s research center, one of the most innovative places in the world in the 1970s (if you’ve ever used a computer mouse, thank them), this kind of structured debate was routine:

Formal discussions [were] designed to train their people on how to fight properly over ideas and not egos Before each meeting, one person, known as “the dealer,” was selected as the speaker. The speaker would present his idea and then try to defend it against a room of engineers and scientists determined to prove him wrong. Such debates helped improve products under development and sometimes resulted in wholly new ideas for future pursuit.13

Civil, productive argument helps you articulate where you stand, and where to go from here. You can see an embodied version of this standing in 1 Henry IV, when Prince Harry directs a mini-play in which Falstaff will stand for my father and examine me upon the particulars of my life. After a bit of mutual ribbing, they swap places; Harry then commands, Do thou stand for me, and I’ll play my father. Falstaff accedes: And here I stand. Judge, my masters.14

As Launce jokes in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Why, “stand-under” and “under-stand” is all one (2.5.28). That is, understanding comes from holding your ground in conversation with others, to look upon the same world from one another’s standpoint, to see the same in very different and frequently opposing aspects. In Frederick Douglass’s words, “To understand . . . a man must stand under.”15

Position taking, position making, position forsaking. In a similar spirit, the Long Now Foundation sponsors debates that mandate this kind under-standing; before you are permitted to present your position, you must first present the best form of the other person’s argument.16 This kind of thinking demands that we suspend our own ego, and be capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.17

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.18

Thinking through questions tempers your thought—that is, both strengthens and moderates it. Hard interrogation is ever more urgent in an age awash in data. As Picasso said about computers, they are useless. They can only give you answers.19

We develop better questions through conversation with the past, and through good teaching, which is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.20


Excerpted from HOW TO THINK LIKE SHAKESPEARE: Lessons from a Renaissance Education by Scott Newstok. Copyright 2020 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.


  1. The Philosophy of Literary Form (Louisiana State University Press, 1941), 110–11. The best introduction to Burke’s quicksilver mind remains “Literature as Equipment for Living,” gathered in this same volume (293–304). I’ve edited Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare (Parlor Press, 2007).
  2. Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children,” in Essays and Selected Writings: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Donald M. Frame (Columbia University Press, 1963), 41.
  3. Francisco de Quevedo, Poem 131, translated by George Mariscal, in Contradictory Subjects (Cornell University Press, 1991), 69.
  4. Othello (3.4.14–15).
  5. 1 Henry IV (5.1.130–39).
  6. Nicocles or the Cyprians (5–8), cited in Celeste Michelle Condit and John Louis Lucaites, Crafting Equality (University of Chicago Press, 1993), xi.
  7. Murphy (Grove Press, 1952), 65.
  8. De rationi studii, cited in Principles of Letter-Writing: A Bilingual Text of Justi Lipsii Epistolica, trans. R. V. Young and M. Thomas Hester (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996), 61.
  9. L. S. Vygotsky, The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, vol. 4 (1931, Plenum Press, 1997), 105.
  10. Hamlet (3.1.55). Cited in Peter Stallybrass, “Against Thinking,” PMLA 122, no. 5 (October 2007): 1580–87.
  11. Cicero, De natura deourum & academica, trans. H. Rackham (Harvard University Press, 1933), 475.
  12. On Liberty (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1867), 21.
  13. David Burkus’s account in The Myths of Creativity ( Jossey-Bass, 2013), 154.
  14. 1 Henry IV (2.4.342–43, 393–94, 399).
  15. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (Penguin, 2006), 51. Autobiographies, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Library of America, 1994), 310.
  16. The phrase is from Chana Messinger, cited in Alan Jacobs’s companionable How to Think (Currency, 2017), 108.
  17. John Keats, to George and Tom Keats, December 21, 1817, in The Letters of John Keats, 1814–1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Harvard University Press, 1958), 1:136.
  18. James Longenbach, “The Sound of Shakespeare Thinking,” in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry, ed. Jonathan Post (Oxford University Press, 2013), 76.
  19. William Fifield, “Pablo Picasso: A Composite Interview,” Paris Review 32 (Summer- Fall 1964): 62.
  20. Joseph Albers, Interaction of Color (1963; Yale University Press, 2006), 70.

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