Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

The Power of Language

Shakespeare’s England was not overseen by a democratic government. Monarchs ruled for life, and successors were chosen based on royal bloodlines or who won which war. Despite this, Shakespeare knew that the public’s perception of a monarch went a long way towards the success of their reign. He gave his characters the power of language to persuade and control others. Many of his characters are gifted rhetoricians – they use language and the power of their words to bring other people around to their side.


Mark Antony – uses the power of rhetoric to turn a huge Roman mob against Brutus and Cassius.

Henry V – uses the power of speech to boost his small English army’s morale as they seige France’s much larger forces.

Richard III – uses the power of words to manipulate his court and to become king.

Iago – uses the power of language to manipulate Othello’s view of his wife and lieutenant Cassio.

Hamlet – uses the power of words to turn right and wrong actions around in his head until he decides what to do.

It’s interesting to see, too, how the Roman elections look in Shakespeare’s plays. Brother is pitted against brother in Act 1 Scene 1 of Titus Andronicus to win the seat of emperor  Coriolanus spends the first half of his play looking to win the popular vote after proving himself in war, and the people’s vote elects the Triumvirate of Marc Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus in the war against Brutus and Cassius following Julius Caesar’s death.

The election lights usually fall on the person best able to win the people with their words in these situations. (Though the people technically elected Titus after his success in war against the Goths and he puts in a good word for the former emperor’s eldest son Saturninus instead of taking seat himself.)

We’ve been sharing lesson plans on the power of persuasive speech on our shiny new Facebook Page today to explore these characters’ impact on popular and singular opinion. As a democratic nation, today eligible voters are using their individual voices to collectively elect the nation’s leader for the next four years. Were we won by words, words, words? How do our nation’s leaders compare to Shakespeare’s (both historical and literary)?

Comment below, or Like us on Facebook to tell us more!


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    Hamlet uses the play to “catch the conscience of the king.” The author’s interest in language extends far beyond commonplaces like using language in a soliloquy to ponder philosophical or political questions. Like the modern linguist interested in “speech acts” he asks us to consider whether speech is ever action, and if so, what kind of action is it? His answer allies him with proponents of those who believe in beneficent magic: “spelling” matters.

    Thus, he rewrites Christ’s admonition “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” as follows:

    “By every syllable, a faithful verity. The Duke comes home tomorrow.”

    “much upon this riddle runs the wisdom of the world.”

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