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Seduction or Harassment?

Shakespeare delights in the seduction ceremonies of bright men with even brighter women. These dialogues, whether between adolescents like Romeo and Juliet, more mature characters like Henry V and Princess Katherine, or seasoned adults like the widow Lady Grey and the sexual harasser King Edward, in this scene (3HenryVI 3.2.36), give Shakespeare opportunities to employ dazzling webworks of rhetorical exchanges.

In this passage Lady Grey, who lost husband’s land when he died in battle, petitions King Edward to restore the lands to her so her sons will not be impoverished. He uses his position of power to induce, rather than seduce, her to his desire. In this exchange each character mirrors or in some way echos the other’s lines. This is Shakespeare’s idea of artful verbal seduction. Psychologically, this tactic, whether in a Shakespeare play or a cocktail lounge, draws the two people closer by demonstrating that each is listening carefully to what the other is saying and playfully volleying back the other’s words, with twists. They reflect each other’s intellects through the flirtatious use of rhetorical figures of speech. The following, from the dialogue above, is one of many examples of this playful banter:

King Edward
But stay thee; ’tis the fruits of love I mean.
Lady Grey
The fruits of love I mean, my loving liege.

Here Lady Grey employs anadiplosis in which she starts her sentence with the same phrase Edward ended his, and she simultaneously employs antanaclasis, by altering the meaning of his words “fruits of love.” Then for effect she playfully throws in a some alliteration, “I mean my loving liege.” They then engage in more rhetorical exchange before Edward decides to move from flirtatious banter to explicit exploitation:

King Edward
To tell thee plain, I aim to lie with thee.
Lady Grey
To tell you plain, I had rather lie in prison.

Here Lady Grey employs anaphora in which she begins her sentence with nearly the identical words Edward began his. Then she again uses antanaclasis, altering the meaning of his word “lie.” Finally, midway through her response, she breaks the perfect iambic pentameter of Edward’s line at his “I aim to lie” two iambs, with her “I had rather” two trochees. This shift of inflection is not the product of Shakespeare, the poet-rhetorician, but of Shakespeare, the writer-actor. He would have known from experience that with this abrupt change to a different key a good actor could convey, and the audience would hear, “I’m not playing any more. I’m serious.” Following this, Lady Grey softly criticizes Edward’s and her own wordplay as “this merry inclination,” and a little later he, in frustration, says of her wordplay, “You cavil.” He knows he has met his match, or his better.

Shakespeare’s education in classical literature and rhetorical figures of speech schooled him in the writing of these verbal tennis matches. Many of these rhetorical devices are variations on the craft of repetition, whether they are a scheme like alliteration, anadiplosis, and anaphora, or a trope like antanaclasis and antithesis.

For another scene involving sexual harassment, read the notes on the dialogue between Angelo and Isabella in Measure for Measure.

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