The Origins of Sycorax


"you taught me language and my profit on't is..."

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A BIT OF HISTORY... Late in August 2003, I was in my hotel room at the Benbow Inn in Northern California surrounded by redwoods and blessed silence. At the time, I was working on three different projects; a new article for the LA Times about the transcendental effects of driving too fast (published 1/18/04), the rewrites of a play of mine that had just had one production, was a finalist in the 2003 San Francisco Playwrights Festival, and was slated, imminently, to have a couple of other productions ("Quartet #1 for Three Characters and Cello"), and the details for an essay writing workshop I was developing. This latter task had me reading all sorts of books and articles on "essays" -- the writing of, the grading of, the importance of, and the history of. While reading a surprisingly interesting and well-written book by Erika Lindemann entitled "A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers", I read on page 37, "The history of rhetoric covers almost 2500 years, beginning with the work of Corax of Syracuse in the fifth century B. C. E...." This was news -- albeit ancient news -- to me. In order to remember this fun little fact, I re-read the name "Corax of Syracuse", thought about it for a moment, and all of a sudden, I was struck by a bit of epiphanic wordplay. I had just taught "The Tempest" as a text-in-depth for my International Baccalaueate class at the International High School in San Francisco. The characters' names were still fresh in my mind and so, as I allowed the syllables of that ancient rhetorician to tumble in mind, they began to resonate with the syllables of another name that was surprisingly similar, a name I'd been dealing with recently, namely, Sycorax. While teaching the play, I had given the typical explanation of the origin of this neologism -- it's hopelessly obscure though probably Greek for "pig" and "raven". Ahhh, but when I heard Corax of Syracuse in my mind's ear, I couldn't help wondering, particularly given the rhetoric-rich context within which Sycorax functions in the play; could it be that simple -- Corax of Syracuse = Sycorax? I wrote a couple of notes in the margins of Ms. Lindemann's book, told my wife about my Sycorax epiphany when I called her later that night, then let it go for a few weeks. A month or so later in a call to Ann Herold, my editor at the LA Times, I proposed writing a kind of funny "what if" article for the Times on this Corax/Sycorax connection. Though suitably intrigued, she couldn't quite see either the newsworthiness or the West Coast relevance of the idea. I don't blame her. Still, I just couldn't drop the idea. It was just too intriguing. In September, 2003, I also made preliminary contact with various librarians and through one of them, David Sullivan at the UC Berkeley Classics Library, was put in touch with his friend Stephen Orgel and the Shakespeare Quarterly (Folger Library  -- associated, interestingly enough, with a few universities around the world).  They, too, were intrigued.  By December, 2004, I had gathered sufficient evidence to believe, honestly, that Shakespeare would not only have known his name but that that name was by far the most likely source for the name Sycorax. (The actual essay follows in which I lay out my case completely in two versions, a long first version and a shorter, somewhat revised version.). Well before finishing that long 12/14/04 version (in some cases, more than 15 months before), I had called, e-mailed, and/or met many scholars who were familiar with the territory - either in terms of Shakespeare scholarship or in the field of rhetoric and classical philology - namely, Stephen Orgel, David Sullivan, Curtis Dozier, George Kennedy, Keith Sagar (in England), Jim Ryan, and others. As well, previous to sending out my 12/14/04 version for "peer review", I sent queries about my idea to a few "Shakespeare" sites in ENGLAND, among them "Shakesper", Hardy M. Cook (twice), Early Modern English Studies, and Oxford Journals. What follows are two versions of the essay - the original 12/14/04 which was sent to Orgel, Dozier, Sullivan, Sagar, and a few friends of mine. The second version is a much cut version sent in June of 2006 to the American Journal of Philology which sent a copy to George Kennedy, with whom I'd spoken about my idea over a year previously, and in July of 2006 to Gail Paster of the Shakespeare Quarterly to whom I had also sent the longer, earlier version in early 2005 after a telephone query to SQ in late 2004. On this sites page "links, postings" is some correspondence in response to my ideas - notably from George Kennedy, Keith Sagar, Curtis Dozier, and others -- all with clear dates of the email correspondences. These dates are important -- for me, at least. Obviously, by putting this idea on the internet, it can become "common" knowledge. And why not? I believe we have become a bit too proprietary about everything; who owns the phrase "Summer of Love" (a real subject of heated AND legal debate here in San Francisco a couple of years ago!), "the real thing" (Coca Cola's vicious -- and vigorously guarded -- ontology), etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum. When they are truly "valuable", ideas and the arts transcend ownership - they become shared inspirations, owned, in a sense, by everyone who thinks them or is moved by them. However, it's not a bad idea to at least remember who did/thought/created what - if for no other reason than without proper attribution, there would be far less incentive to create - or at least share what we've created. If we're going to spend as much time as we must in an effort to build, discover, and create something of communal value, we like to at least get the credit for putting in the work and making the "discovery". A bit of ego..? Yes. An almost silly attempt to cheat mortality...? Yes. But proper attribution seems a small price for others to pay. So, if you do "use" this idea, I ask simply that you acknowledge its origins. Having shared my idea with numerous scholars and publications starting in 2003, the idea is beginning to 'leak out'. It is a small world of people who are at all interested in such arcane philological details. If such a community is truly interested in finding and disseminating "historical facts" or at least "historically valid possibilities", then it should acknowledge the fact of my having first posited this notion. I am, however, somewhat surprised that we hadn't thought of it before. Then again, at about the time that "The Tempest" was being written, the Anti-Ciceronean movement was getting under way, a movement that, for better or worse, wanted to move the mechanics of writing and its thereby constrained content away from the rhetoric-rich structures of the Renaissance and towards a more personal, direct, less embellished style and content. See Montaigne, Machiavelli, Vives, Ramus, et al. Whether we, the stylistic inheritors of this less-precious and less-educated approach to writing, can actually get closer to 'the truth' I don't know. (All style "constrains" content in some way.) However, if we compare the mechanics of our writing to those of the Renaissance in England, it seems we are often less able to make language perform with as much 'magic' as those for whom the name Corax of Syracuse was well known. I encourage any and all feedback on any aspect of this presentation (the actual essays, this text, whatever). Write to me at and I will post on the page "links and postings" the interesting, intelligently provocative, even the intelligently combative responses. After all, even Stephen Orgel said when I first mentioned the idea to him in September of 2003, "It's an interesting idea, but I prefer my own." His may, in fact, be "preferable", but the Corax of Syracuse/Sycorax connection is at least worthy of consideration and further study. (copyright 2006 Dan Harder This text may be quoted with due acknowledgment.) revised 8/15/06 Dan Harder my webpageVisit this site if you'd like to read more of (and about) my work.