Game of Rhetoric: A rhetorical commentary on Cersei Lannister’s speech

This rhetorical commentary of Cersei Lannister’s speech is written purely as an exercise for identifying uses of classical rhetoric in modern popular culture. Rhetoric is used in discourse all the time; it is used in speeches, movies, books, articles and even TV shows about dragons!

If you haven’t watched Game of Thrones, it will still make sense as I have quoted the script and you don’t need much context. If you are currently watching Game of Thrones and haven’t watched up to Season 7 Episode 2 then I suggest you stop reading now (spoiler alert)!

This speech is an example of a philippic which is an aggressive attack on someone’s ethos (this is also known as ad hominem).

“The Mad King’s[1] daughter[2] has ferried an army of savages to our shores[3], mindless unsullied soldiers[4] who would destroy your castles and your holdfasts[5], Dothraki heathens[6] who will burn your villages to the ground[7], rape and enslave[8] your women, and butcher your children[9] without a second thought[10]… You remember the mad king[11], you remember[12] the horrors he inflicted on his people[13]. His daughter is no different.[14] In Essos her brutality is already legendary.[15] She crucified hundreds of noblemen in Slavers Bay[16]. And when she got bored of that, she fed them to her dragons.[17] It is my solemn duty[18] to protect the people[19] and I will, but I need your help[20] my lords[21]. We must stand together, all of us[22], if we hope to stop her.[23]

[1] In the first three words, we already have an ancient Greek trope; antonomasia. Antonomasia is when you refer to a person by a characteristic or epitaph. Antonomasia is a form of metonymy. Antonomasia is not necessarily a hostile way of portraying someone, however, in this particular instance, it is also used as a form of ad hominem designed to demonise Aerys Targaryen. Ad hominem is when you attempt to attack your opponent’s ethos.

[2] Quite often when trying to damage someone else’s credibility a speaker will avoid using their opponent’s name.

[3] Alliteration isn’t a traditional rhetorical trope and wasn’t actually recognised in ancient times, however, nowadays it is considered to be quite eloquent if used correctly.

[4] By calling the unsullied ‘mindless’ she is characterising the army (which is ethos) and stirring fear amongst her audience (which is pathos).

[5] “Your castles and your holdfasts” can be seen as a use of isocolon (using numerous clauses of a similar length). It is also an attempt to scare her audience and can, therefore, be seen as a use of pathos. As well as this, castles and holdfasts are synonymous making this a use of tauntologia or synonymia.

[6] Again, the use of the adjective characterises the Dothraki in a negative light. The demonization of the Dothraki and the unsullied automatically reflects negatively upon Daenerys as their leader thus emphasising the ad hominem nature of the speech which attacks her ethos.

[7] “… burn your villages to the ground” is a use of pleonasm as buildings always burn to the ground. She could have just said ‘burn your villages’ but adding ‘to the ground’ makes it much more rhetorically emotive.

[8] ‘rape and enslave’ is another example of tauntologia as one implies the other in this situation, however, by listing them both Cersei is emphasising the reality and enhancing her own use of pathos.

[9] Talking about women and children is almost always considered a use of pathos. The speech could have said ‘they will kill your women and children’ however, by spelling out that they will enslave and rape your women, and butcher your children’ she is drawing more attention to her message. This can be seen as periphrasis.

It is also worth noting that she has just used an ascending tricolon. This is when you have a list of three (a tricolon) which escalates with every step. It starts with homes, then escalates to women, and finally to children.

[10] This final ‘without a second thought…’ adds to the shock of what will happen. They are not going to butcher your children with a heavy heart but rather without a second thought. This characterisation is a further use of ad hominem.

[11] By saying ‘you remember the mad king’ Cersei is actively reminding them. Enargia is when a speaker paints an image or scenario for the audience. There would be ground for arguing that recalling the horrors of the past is a form of enargia.

[12] The repetition of ‘you remember’ at the beginning of a clause is a use of anaphora.

[13] Mentioning the ‘people’ is often an effective use of pathos. In this situation, it implies his assault was an indiscriminate assault on a larger community rather than a select few – which emphasises the foul character of the aggressor.

[14] This is a logical argument to link Daenerys to her father. This is ad hominem through logos which has been used often throughout history to demonise people. It was even used against George Bush Jr. when people compared him to the failings of his father.

[15] This is arguing that she already has a bad ethos. It is also a case of ‘it’s not just me who thinks this’ which is an example of argumentum ad populum and also a use of logos.

[16] This is a use of evidence which is called testimony which is part of the logos used throughout the speech (the greater logical argument).

Mentioning that they were noblemen would probably strike fear into the heart of her own audience (who are also all noblemen). This is a further use of pathos.

[17] This is an escalation from the previous point. This also makes her executions seem arbitrary which strengthens Cersei’s argument that Daenerys is like her father ‘the Mad King’ (which is the crux of her argument).

[18] This is a use of ethos as Cersei is portraying herself as the dutiful solemn character which acts as an antithesis to how she characterising Daenerys. Antithesis is always effective at drawing comparisons and enhancing stereotypes.

[19] This is another use of alliteration (see fig.3).

[20] This is a condition to her success. It is also a hypothetical syllogism: If X then Y.

[21] Cersei is complimenting her audience by readdressing them mid-speech (there is no need to call them ‘my lords’ at the stage of the speech other than to butter them up). Complimenting your audience to strategically improve your own goals is known as comprabatio.

[22] This is another example of tauntologia (see fig.5). She wouldn’t say ‘we must stand together, although not necessarily all of us’. But by saying ‘we must stand together, all of us’ she is repeating and thus emphasising the need for unity.

[23] The ending is another use of logos through presenting a logical syllogism.

Hopefully this commentary has offered some form of insight into the application of classical rhetoric in speeches (even though the subject was a fantasy example).  As you can see, classical rhetoric is quite commonplace, more so than most people realise. You’ve also got to remember that these are only the ones I have managed to identify; there may be many more that are beyond my rhetorical comprehension…

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