Civic voice in Elizabethan parliamentary oratory: the rhetoric and composition of speeches delivered at Westminister in 1566
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The revival of classical rhetoric has come to be seen as a defining feature of the Renaissance, one manifest in a vast body of educational literature and cultural commentary. This discourse borrows and reshapes principles of Greek and Roman rhetoricians for contemporary social purposes. Much of the early scholarship on this cultural trend emphasizes the connection between the revived classical rhetoric and the self-conscious civic humanism apparent in school curricula and learned culture. The figure of the orator played an especially important role in this movement. Scholars have pointed out that the orator was presented by many educators and social critics as a noble vir civilis, one learned in literature, articulate in speech, and active in civil society. While Renaissance reformulations of classical oratory and emphases on the figure of the orator have been studied quite extensively as they appear in written works of the period, much less attention has been given to civic orations actually delivered. This study attempts to redress that gap in our understanding of early modern civic discourse, especially by investigating the triangulated relationship between humanist rhetorical education, Renaissance concepts of the power of eloquence, and civic speech as an institutionalized rhetorical practice. Parliament, often compared by Tudor writers to the Greek Areopagus and Roman Senate, provides an ideal locus of investigation, since the speeches delivered there were categorically civic in nature and regularly addressed the traditional subjects of classical deliberative oratory. Yet close analyses of speeches from Elizabeth I's 1566 session reveal that the common Renaissance images of the orator are unsuitable for characterizing the expressions of civic voice exhibited in actual public speaking, just as the classical codification of civic speech provides an insufficient hermeneutic tool for understanding the rhetorical purposes of orations delivered in Tudor institutions. Parliamentary orators did not see the revived classical rhetoric as the only, or even the primary, tool for composing orations in civic venues, but rather drew significantly upon institutional customs, procedural gestures, and alternative language arts, such as dialectic and sermonic prophesying, in order to establish finely nuanced stances within the rhetorical situation.