Teach Like an Elizabethan Champion Part 2

In the first post in this mini-series, I outlined my current knowledge about the process used for teaching rhetoric in Elizabethan schools.

This second post looks at the process of producing an overall rhetorical composition in terms of structure and style. I must confess here that the bulk of my learning has come from ‘Are you talking to me?‘ by Sam Leith and ‘The Elements of Eloquence‘ by Mark Forsyth. However, I should also credit Martin Robinson for his book Trivium 21stC and this blog as well as Joe Kirby’s Pragmatic Reform blog and James Theobald’s Othmars Trombone for pointing me in the direction of the two books.

The reason I wished to explore these two areas was to examine what might be lacking, if anything, in our own teaching of reading and writing. I’ll explore this further in the final post of the series.

In ‘Are you talking to me?’ Leith outlines three branches of oratory,  three principles of rhetoric and five stages in the composition of a rhetorical text. All of this would be substantially easier, I would think, if students had been taught in the manner described in part one.

The three branches Leith discusses are:

  1. Deliberative: Texts which attempt to make the audience believe something or do something.
  2. Judicial: Texts which attempt to establish what happened, how it happened and whether the people involved were at fault in terms of the moral or legal law.
  3. Epideictic: Texts which attempt to praise or blame somebody.

The process of creating one of these texts, according to Leith, takes place over five stages.

Stage 1: Invention

This stage involves establishing your arguments and predicting or figuring out the arguments of your opponents. It’s essentially a planning process.

It requires knowledge of the field which is being written or spoken about as well as knowledge of the kinds of moral sentence and model texts mentioned in my previous post. In planning or inventing, rhetoricians need to also consider these three principles of rhetorical influence.

Ethos – Influence through status

Effective ethos requires consideration of your own status and that of the audience.

Logos – Influence through reason

In rhetorical oratory and writing, you need to sound reasonable to your audience. This doesn’t necessarily mean using reasoned argument though many audiences will consider you more reasonable if you do use reasoning.

Pathos – Influence through emotion

This could be an appeal to a wide range of emotions: excitement, fear, love, patriotism, amusement, sadness, pity or hope.

The invention process also requires writers and orators to consider the path of their argument. Leith provides the following forms of argument or topic:

  • Syllogisms – the combining two premises to draw a fresh conclusion.
  • Analogies – a comparison used to prove a point.
  • If something is true of a genus, it is true of a species.
  • If something can be stated of one thing, the opposite can be stated of its opposite.
  • If something has happened, then its antecedent must also have happened.
  • The Law of Induction – if something has always happened a particular way, then it always will.
  • The Law of Averages– if something has always happened a particular way, it is likely to occur a different way the next time.
  • Commonplaces – assumed wisdoms which are culturally specific.

Stage 2: Arrangement

A typical structure of a rhetorical theme (an early form of essay) was as follows:

  1. Exordium – Establish your status/expertise; grab the audience’s attention and hope to keep it. Discuss yourself, your opponents and your audience.
  2. Narration (diegesis, prothesis or narratio) – Establish the area/boundaries of the argument and set out the facts of the case as generally understood. This is where you are likely to use spin to bias the facts to your advantage.
  3. Division (divisio, propositio or partitio) – Set out the areas of agreement and disagreement between you and your opponents. Leith argues it’s best not to state more than three points of division at this point, though you can cover more later on.
  4. Proof (pistis, confirmatio, probatio)  – Set out your arguments.
  5. Refutation (confutatio, reprehensio) – Pull your opponents’ arguments apart.
  6. Peroration (epilogos, conclusio) – Sum up what has gone before, reiterate your strongest arguments, drive to your conclusion.

Stage 3: Style 

Leith’s book approaches style by exploring high, medium and plain style, arguing that great orators are able to move between the three. He also explores jokes, tenses then comes on to figures. At this point, I could quite happily real off a range of rhetorical figures which students of rhetoric should practice using until they’re fluent. However, Mark Forsyth does this far better than I could, so go and read his book or, for a summary, have a look at Joe Kirby’s aforementioned blog here.

Stage 4: Memory

At this stage, Leith explores the concept of the memory palace or the use of an imagined, physical space in your memory in which to hang key ideas. He looks at the ways in which classical orators would use it in order to speak at great length. He also, towards the end of the chapter, examines how the method has been abandoned, to a certain extent, in modern times in favour of notes or an auto-cue.

Stage 5: Delivery

Here, Leith discusses the importance of a speakers ability to read and adapt to the mood or actions and reactions of an audience. He focuses on tone, clarity, volume, diction as well as physical gestures and mannerisms.

What I hope has become  clear to you, as it has to me over the last two posts, is that there is so much more exciting material to be covered in terms of rhetorical writing and speech than is covered within the ridiculous process of AFOREST writing which, if we’re honest, is more like a couple of twigs. In the final post in this series, I intend to outline a possible way forwards for teaching rhetoric, drawing on what I’ve explored so far.


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