The Millions

Notes on the Art of Rhetoric

Sink every impulse like a bolt. Secure
The bastion of sensation. Do not waver
Into language. Do not waver in it.
        —Seamus Heaney, “Lightenings”

1.
For most of us, rhetoric boils down to what you learned in high school when the teacher drew a triangle on the chalkboard and wrote logos, ethos, pathos. “These are the three appeals to the audience,” the teacher said. Reason, character, emotion. “A composition will try to include all three of these for best effect,” you may’ve heard. But these three alone aren’t rhetoric. Instead, consider adding Kenneth Burke’s idea of “identification” from A Rhetoric of Motives, that states “[y]ou persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.”

Prince Hamlet is a prime rhetorician in the Burkean sense. (Actually, , but I’m being generous.) After speaking to his father’s ghost, Hamlet confides to Horatio: “I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on;” antic, as in, grotesque; meaning, Hamlet’s fixing his words and actions to fit the ass-backwards scene in his home. Because “time is out of joint” in Elsinore. And Hamlet, too, will be out of joint if he doesn’t persuade everyone he’s nuts, but it will be against common sense, against prior character, and against what passes for royal emotion among his kin. That is a type of persuasion.

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