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Much Ado About Rhetoric

Whether you are trying to move one person or a nation, how you speak influences how your audience listens. In order to be a persuasive speaker, the Greek philosopher Aristotle highlights three qualities the speaker must have: the speaker must be (or appear to be) believable, must stir your emotions, and the topic must hold at least a grain of truth in order to make sense.


The art of rhetoric was also studied during Shakespeare’s lifetime; classical Greek and Roman literature and history held an attraction for educated people. As a boy, Shakespeare would have studied the speeches of famous rhetoricians, and may even have had to present his own persuasive speeches to his classmates during their 11-hour school day. It could explain why many characters he created, like Othello, are so well-spoken:

William Salter. Othello's Lamentation. Oil on canvas, ca. 1857.

From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,

That I have passed.

I ran it through, even from my boyish days,

To the very moment that he bade me tell it;

Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,

Of moving accidents by flood and field

Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,

Of being taken by the insolent foe

And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence

And portance in my travels’ history:

Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,

Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven

It was my hint to speak,--such was the process;

And of the Cannibals that each other eat,

The Anthropophagi and men whose heads

Do grow beneath their shoulders.This to hear

Would Desdemona seriously incline:

She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,

And I loved her that she did pity them.

This only is the witchcraft I have used: (1.3.151-70, 193-195)


Othello eloquently tells the story of the hardships of his life (truth), which sometimes distresses Desdemona to tears, and Brabantio invites him to tell these stories time and time again because he likes Othello (believable). The Duke sums it up best after Othello defends himself, "I think this tale would win my daughter too." (1.3.197)


Modern rhetoricians have included presidents, lawyers, politicians, and a leader of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr., who was an influential speaker because he shared stories from his own experiences with oppression (truth), which raised passions in his audience on both sides of the movement (emotions), and he spoke with such fervor and emotion that people wanted to hear more (believable). Many of his most inspirational quotes can be found in the new monument honoring him in Washington, DC.


Think about how speech influences your attention as an audience. Are you listening for truth? Does the speaker pique your emotions? Do you believe the speaker, and would you listen to him or her again? Whom have you heard speak that you believe to be a talented rhetorician?

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Notes from Director Robert Richmond

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