One of my favorite critical insights to introduce into British Literature surveys comes from Richard Lanham’s The Motives of Eloquence. I will quote Lanham here as he is discussed in Stanley Fish’s Doing What Comes Naturally – where I first learned of Lanham’s work. Basically, in the opening pages, Lanham describes early modern disagreements between foundational/orthodox thinking and what he calls “rhetorical” revision. From this, there are two archetypes – the serious man and the rhetorical man. Here’s the serious man:
In other words, the serious man is firmly bound to an orthodox tradition. He believes in a single reality that is realized in a cultural vision. Reality is “out there,” and everything we create and do should accurately, almost mimetically honor that reality. When I teach early English literature, the ultimate serious man is Gawaine: fiercely bound to a rigid code of honor that he can’t keep, even as he continues to pursue a heroic quest despite his failures. (I’d love to hear an argument against this). By contrast, here is the rhetorical man:
A much more complicated figure, and one who challenges the stability that the “Serious” man claims he lives by. You could argue that Shakespeare’s Henry V rejects the rhetorical in the form of Falstaff to become serious, or you could contend that the very act of becoming a serious man is rhetorical. But a more obvious example of the rhetorical man is Iago: gifted in manipulating social scenarios to “what is useful.” The rhetorical man is Machiavellian, and not in the sense that he likes to poison rivers. The rhetorical man is Machiavellian in that he resists the governance of “fortune” and seeks to create his own through virtu.
For GAME OF THRONES fans, the comparison is obvious. The Starks are serious while the Lannisters are rhetorical. In last week’s stunning episode, the Starks depend on and constantly invoke a stable order that the Lannisters use only to their advantage. It’s why Robb Stark is so boring – even when he defies a command, he does it for the right reason. But Tyrion Lannister is rhetorical to the core – it’s what makes he’s still alive. Where that puts everyone else (Jon Snow? Bram? Arya? Joffrey? All of the other people whose names I can’t remember) . . . I’ll leave up to you.