Rhetoric, thy name is woman

Miscellaneous Dec 30, 2017

Discussing the eloquence of women

By Suriya Narayanan D (B.E. Mechanical, 2017-2021)

Death and life are in the power of the tongue: The Bible

‘In the beginning was the Word, the word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Words are powerful, aren’t they? Take History, for instance. Sharp words and thoughtfully rendered speeches have moved the hearts of the people and stirred them to revolt and mutiny. The carefully crafted orations of legendary speakers have inspired men, instilled hope and paved way for the world we know today. In his lecture notes Rhetoric, Aristotle calls rhetorical style the art of persuasion. His strategy for persuasion is trifold – ethical appeal, logical appeal and emotional appeal. Contemporary rhetoric might have become interdisciplinary, but a proper argumentation is always a conjugation of the mentioned three.

While we discuss the power of words, not many speeches delivered by women make it to the favourite list. The common opinion is women are not good players in the field of oration. Certainly, it is no true. You’ll agree by the end of this read.

Neither literature nor reality has failed to demonstrate the eloquence of women. There are several references to support the claim, but let me cite a couple of examples that are well-known to everybody.

1. Portia’s iconic courtroom speech in the Shakespearean comedy The Merchant of Venice  The Quality of Mercy (Act IV, Scene 1)

Be it Romeo-Juliet’s No Fear, Macbeth’s monologue at the loss of his lady, or Mark Antony’s funeral oration, Shakespearean plays stand testimony to his fascination towards oratory skills. In a story set in the Elizabethan era when men were significantly dominant in the society, Portia, with her wisdom, bravery, and arrogance stole the thunder multiple times throughout the play.

Background: Antonio and Bassanio have failed to repay their debt to Shylock within the spared time. Despite Bassanio offering 6,000 ducats (twice the loaned amount), Shylock refuses to budge and alleges his entitlement to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. While Antonio helplessly prepares his chest for the callous penalty, Bassanio’s belle Portia, in the guise of a young male lawyer named ‘Balthazaar’, gains the court with her wit and saves Antonio from the clutches of death.

The Trial Scene (Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company)

The Quality of Mercy would have been yet another courtroom speech, had she stressed on Justice and not Mercy. Her argument is not monotonous; by contrasting mercy and justice she insists on the prevalence of equity and not law. However, she was smart enough not to take sides and convince (to an extent) Shylock of her ‘neutral’ stand. Throughout her speech, Portia constantly stresses on the word ‘justice’. Oh, Portia’s ‘justice’ and Antony’s ‘honourable’!  Finally, reminding Shylock of the Venetian law, she tells him to lay hold of the flesh without a drop of blood, marking the defeat of Shylock’s preceding dramatic rhetoric.

Be it at Venice or at Belmont, Portia’s rhetorics have been suave, even if questionable. Her arguments might have been from under the robes of a man; but if changing the fate with wit were merchandise, then, undoubtedly, Portia would be the Merchant of Venice.

2. Kannagi’s famous court speech from the Tamil literature Silapathikaram (Vazhakurai Kaadhai) by poet Ilangovadigal’

Background: Kannagi and her mate Kovalan, migrate to Pandya land for a living where the latter was allegedly accused of stealing the queen’s ornament and executed by the King’s soldiers without a fair trial. Kannagi, with anger and grief, approaches the King Pandya Neduncheziyan himself and accuses him in front of the court of scholars.

The epic courtroom scene (Source : silapathikaram.com )

From fearlessly calling the emperor the ‘unenlightened king’, daring to mention the greatness of her own dynasty to shaming the king’s flaws – Kannagi did them all, right at the king’s court! While the actions of every character are debatable, the poet beautifully brings the evolution of a common woman to a powerful orator at the first glimpse of an authoritative gesture.

The biggest fact that supports her power of speech perhaps has to be her disclosure of her identity. When asked who she was, she asserted a simple text of 13 precise lines that contained her whole history contradicting the belief that women are long-tongued creatures. Brevity is indeed a charm of eloquence!

Both examples cited above fall under literature. Is reality any different? Certainly not; for literature often reflect the culture of their origin and happenings of their times. The world has witnessed great orations- Hypatia of Alexandria’s eloquent lectures, Queen Elizabeth-I’s military address at Tilbury, Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ against gender inequality, to name a few. Leaders like Hillary Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi are hailed as one of the most eloquent orators today. Polemicist, John Milton said ‘One tongue is enough for a woman’. Not to refute!

(Featured image source : Huffington Post )

 SURIYA NARAYANAN D (B.E.MECHANICAL, 2017-2021) is an art wizard finessing pencil sketches and crayon arts. He is fond of books dealing with science and religion. He is conscientious about his chores and has a dream to work on drone technology.

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