Exemplum

Breaking Down Exemplum

Exemplum (pl. “exempla,” etymologically from Latin; also “paradeigma” in Greek, literally signifies “example,” or “specimen.”), is a technique of interpolated anecdoteOpens in new window, fableOpens in new window, parableOpens in new window, proverbOpens in new window, or a brief narration of a character, a ceremony or story of action with an illustrative or emphatical point to it serving as an example or a role modelOpens in new window for imitation.

Martin Luther King as a character of examplary model for imitation.
Martin Luther King, famously regarded as an epitomized character for imitation.

The concept of exemplum as a distinctive, conventional technique of artistry is one of those basic notions first formulated in ancient rhetorics which was valued as a form of persuasive art illustrating some general truth, and then bequeathed to all succeeding periods of Western culture. Exemplary artistry was indeed of wide cultural significance. It was primal in guiding the approach to events and decisions, real or fictional, in schoolrooms, congregations, and almost every sphere of life.

In theatrical performance, the exempla were the key to organizing theatrical experience, to shaping interpretation and response. It presented to the audiences a series of scenes with structured interpretative views: specific ways for them to make sense of what they saw. These scenes could be interepreted to reveal eternal “truths” about the universe, or about social experience or political behavior or any abstract phenomenom. In this way, the exemplum drew upon a shared understanding of basic truth such as: what is “good”; what is “important”; or how someone “ought” to behave.

To quote in verbatim, the author of ‘Placing the Plays of Christopher MarloweOpens in new window: Fresh Cultural Contexts,’ “Exempla might, as with PuttenhamOpens in new window’s ‘deare forefathers,’ offer a positive lesson; more often, perhaps, they provided cautionary tales. In this, they followed the tradition of “mirror” literature, establishing an image of the ideal, of “what should be,” or providing a warning or caution. William BaldwinOpens in new window’s “Dedication” to The Mirror for Magistrates (1559)Opens in new window typifies the point of view: “For here as in a loking glas, you shall see (if any vice be in you) howe the like hath bene punished in other heretofore, whereby admonished, I trust it will be a good occasion to move you to the soner amendment.”

The early play Cambises, which may have been familiar to many in Marlowe’s audience from reprintings in the 1580s, is a collection of such cautionary tales. When the corrupt judge Sisamnes is flayed alive and his skin used as a seat-cover, it is not just an exercise in regal cruelty but also a salutary lesson to future judges. The incident exemplifies proper justice, and even Sisamnes’s own son agrees: “O King, to me this is a glasse, with greef in it I view: / Example that unto your grace, I doo not prove untrue” (469 – 70). When Cambises shoots the son of Praxapes through the heart, or has Murder and Crueltie kill his own brother, the incidents exemplify tyranny. The moralizing comments may be brief but on each occasision, the spectators are left in no doubt of the lessons to be drawn.

Further Readings:
Thomas Cartelli, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Economy of Theatrical Experience (Philadephia: University of Pensylvania Press, 1991 [p. 44 – 64]); Rutherford (1994 [p. 67 – 8]); Wikipedia | ExemplumOpens in new window; ThoughtCo. | ExemplumOpens in new window