Verbal jousting as an art form

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If speeches and debates are part of history, these forms of verbal exchanges are also central to art. From trials becoming movie plots to novels revolving around the exchanges between characters, how can verbal exchanges become a form of art?

I. The theatricality of debates and speeches

1) Rhetoric in art

In language, rhetoric aims at convicing an audience through the use of figures of speech and other methods. A known example of rhetoric in art is Mark Antony’s funeral oration in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Although he does not directly denounce Caesar’s murderers, he skilfully praises Caesar as a great leader and mourns his loss which he presents as detrimental for the Roman people. By doing so, he appeals to the crowd’s emotions and turns people against Brutus and the conspirators. He therefore never explicitly states his opinion but indirectly leads his audience to agree with him.

2) Putting society on trial

Award-winning courtroom dramas such as 12 Angry Men (1957), Mississippi Burning (1988) and Philadelphia (1993) became popular thanks to their striking and compelling use of language.


A courtroom drama is a film or television genre in which the plot revolves around a real or fictional legal case and the justice system.

Philadelphia’s main character, Andy, is a homosexual man living with AIDS. When Andy’s bosses discover he is an AIDS patient, they fire him, which leads Andy to sue his former employers for discrimination. With popular actors such as Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, as well as the courtroom setting, Philadelphia can be considered as a public trial of homophobic behaviours. The movie thus contributed to increase understanding and empathy for AIDS patient, who were at the time still often discriminated against.

II. Debate as an art

1) Traditional and codified exchanges

Verbal jousting is also a type of art with specific rules to follow. One can find an example of this in the British Parliament. Since the 1980s, the Queen’s speech that opens parliamentary sessions was met by a jibe (raillerie) from Dennis Skinner, a Member of Parliament. This gradually became a tradition and the joke is now expected by politicians and the media every year.

One can also think of highly codified rap battles. The movie 8 Mile (2003), starring rapper Eminem, contributed to elevate rap battles to the rank of art. A rap battle is an unprepared verbal fight in which rappers have to prove their talents. The movie shows how the main character first stuggles to win the battles and then how he goes on to defeat other rappers. What is also interesting in the movie is that real rappers were asked to participate in the filming and most of the rappers Eminem faces are Detroit-based artists.

2) Learning the art of debate

With so many examples of great public speakers, one must not forget that delivering speeches and participating in debates require practise. The King’s Speech (2010) retraces King George VI’s language therapy to overcome his stammer. This was of the highest importance as the King often needed to publicly address the British people.

Speeches and debates are however not reserved to kings. Debate clubs and debate teams are highly popular in the Anglosphere, especially in schools and universities. The movie The Great Debaters (2007) is an example of the importance of debate teams in the United States: the entire movie revolves around an African-American team and how they fight to be allowed to participate in debate competitions. They eventually face Harvard University, whose debate team is internationally recognised.