On her excellent blog, Gwynn Dujardin considers what it means when white people call blacks “articulate” (referring to Lynette Clemetson’s Times piece, in light of Joe Biden’s description of Barack Obama). She makes a number of excellent points, and then launches into a fascinating study of language in Shakespeare. Noting that “Shakespeare himself was famously damned with faint praise when fellow playwright Ben Jonson praised him in spite of his ‘small Latine and Lesse Greeke.'”, she explains:
Shakespeare’s debts to the “white rhetorical tradition” he studied at his Stratford Grammar School are nonetheless evident in other forms of verbal dexterity. Students in humanist grammar schools would learn to write, and then orate, by imitating the style of their classical exemplars. In particular, students were taught to cultivate their own rhetorical style by putting the ancients’ ideas in their own words; the more copious – which is to say, the more faithful and prolific — the imitation, the more distinctive the student. When we laud Shakespeare for his ability to “see all sides” of an issue, we are marking his skill in “varying the phrase,” his ability to articulate any given idea in other (indeed many other) words.
In fact, I (personally) believe Shakespeare has endured as an icon because we cannot pin him down, with exact certainty, to any one position. Where Ben Jonson is relentlessly didactic, to the point of closing off discussion, “ambiguity” in Shakespeare enables us to keep talking about him, and to continue to discover contrasting points of view. Harold Bloom has thus described, and lauded, Shakespeare as “bottomless.” For a U.S. Presidential candidate, however, it’s known as “wishy-washy,” or “flip-flopping” (Slick Willie indeed).