Essays

Quentin Skinner and the history of speechwriting
Quentin Skinner

During my speechwriting career, I’ve come across the names of Cicero, Quintilian and Aristotle and thought I ought to find out a bit more about these characters.

And I’ve heard terms like topics, enargeaia and enthymemes and thought maybe I should get to know a bit more about what these words mean, because they’re supposedly part of my job.

But like 99% of other speechwriters, I worked intuitively.

Basically a speech needs a beginning, a middle and an end and I wrote and rewrote my speeches until the client was happy with them.

Who needs to get to know about the obscure, jargon-rich, old stuff?

Then one day I discovered a video on YouTube featuring the historian Quentin Skinner talking about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

In his introductory remarks, he observes that speechwriting was the first vocational degree offered by schools. 

That surprised me.

And anyone who attended a grammar school had to study it. 

That really surprised me.

I never knew that.

The reason was because public speaking was the skill that clergy, lawyers and politicians (and indeed dramatists) needed for their future career.

Skinner’s lecture is about how the Merchant of Venice was written.

Which is a bit surprising, because we see Shakespeare as a creative genius who read a few histories and fables and then rehashed them as brilliant dramas.

Actually Skinner is claiming that Shakespeare sat at his desk with copies of the Renaissance equivalent of popular screenwriting guides like Story by Robert McKee or Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. 

The sort of thing any aspiring writer would get from Amazon today.

And Shakespeare followed the instructions to the letter.

Skinner proves this by going through the text line by line.

It took me several months to digest these valuable insights.

Then I spotted that Quentin Skinner had published a book called From Humanism to Hobbes.

A thick book, with densely printed text, written by an academic.

Hmm.

Now I think, as speechwriters, it’s our job to be intellectual pond skaters, not deep sea whales.

We translate stuff into a language that everyone understands.

But the opening pages of From Humanism to Hobbes, got me hooked.

Skinner went into more detail about how Renaissance schoolboys studied speechwriting.

You went to school to learn how to read and write Latin and then compose in that language - and by the time we get to Shakespeare, it was respectable to do the same in English.

Classical forensic rhetoric is what you learn when you have a ‘humanist’ education and a ‘humanist’ education is about learning to be a good speechwriter.

I followed up From Humanism to Hobbes, with Skinner’s book Forensic Shakespeare, and then I read his book Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes.

These books are not hard to read.

They explain, what they learnt, and how characters like Thomas Hobbes, Shakespeare and Machiavelli applied their training in their literary works.

The English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, turned against his teachers.

He decided that rhetoric was a dangerous subject that promoted revolution within the kingdom.

Cicero was a Republican.

Whereas the English people were not citizens they were subjects.

The fact that the theories of rhetoric dictated that there were two sides to every argument meant that the grammar school boys went round challenging everything.

And that, according to Hobbes, led to civil war in England in the 1640s.

He thought the anti-Royalist side were using emotional arguments that bore no resemblance to the truth.

Bizarrely the same sort of things were said during the Brexit debate.

So Hobbes turned against his university education and announced that in the scientific era truth and reason were perfectly capable of making their points on their own. 

And he went on to write a couple of dull books.

Then Hobbes recanted, and wrote his famous political treatise Leviathan.

He goes back to using similes and metaphors, bigging up his own credentials and dishing out insults to those who didn’t agree with him. 

The kind of things that you find in Shakespeare’s plays. 

The kind of thing that Cicero, Quintilian and Aristotle say you must do to teach, delight and move an audience.

Skinner says imagine Leviathan as a speech that is being delivered in the House of Commons.

And he makes similar arguments about Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Unless you know your Cicero, you can’t really understand what Machiavelli is talking about. 

You don’t get the satirical elements or the challenges to the original theory.

This knowledge upended my view of Classical education. 

I thought Classics was a fancy degree that aristocrats did because it gave them some polish. 

Actually Classics gives you the tools to be effective in public life. 

Training young people how to speak eloquently and write well was the way our elite Western culture was passed down the generations.

Skinner’s detective work made me see Shakespeare in a fresh light.

Iago’s use of the handkerchief, Cordelia’s unembellished response to Lear’s demands, Hamlet’s time in Wittenberg.

The plays take on new depths when I understand the theories behind them. 

Learning about the Classical speechwriting process inventio, dispositio, elecutio, memoria and pronuntiato,  the five canons of rhetoric, opened new doors.

Take inventio - it can mean to ‘invent’ ideas, but there’s also the word ‘inventory’. 

Inventories are lists of things. 

Making inventories is tool, that has many applications - you’ll find them in self-help books.

But you may not be aware of how psychologically powerful they are, and how far back they go.

Writing speeches is something I’ve always enjoyed doing but most people seem to think is a bit odd.

I’d never realised how much I had in common with 12th century monks who had to find inspiration for their sermons.

The fact that schools and universities don’t focus on these skills at the moment, is perhaps a problem for them, not for us.