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ClassicsOnline Home » Great Speeches in History
From Socrates to Charles I, Danton to Lincoln—here are some of history’s most significant figures with their most important speeches. Fighting for justice, for freedom of speech, and sometimes even for their own lives, these orators demonstrate the finest resources of language in the service of the most dramatic issues of their day.
Great Speeches in History
In the age of the nine-second sound bite — reportedly now
the average length of time a US Presidential candidate has to present his or
her views on a particular issue via a television broadcast — it may seem
to offer a selection of great speeches, some of which lasted
in their original format. Do we still have subjects that
stir the emotions as powerfully as those which gave rise to the speeches
It might be equally argued, however, that the preservation
of some of the finest forms of argument ever made is a moral duty, for without
knowing our past we are condemned to repeat its errors. What matter that
today’s speeches are, by and large, poor shadows of those of former times?
Occasionally we are startled from complacency, and are moved by a politician
doing his or her best.
The speeches selected here are all, in a broad sense,
politically motivated, in that they were given in circumstances in which the
orator found him or herself pressed to speak in the hope of bringing about
change in the public world. This is perhaps as it should be; the speech is by
definition a public performance, an attempt to persuade the audience of the
orator’s point of view, having gained their attention in the first place.
If there is a unifying theme to this selection, then it is
the suggestion that each of these speeches was given at a crossroads in
history. Sir Thomas More’s speech might be said to have put the final touch to
the end of the supremacy of Rome over the Church of England. It is perhaps less
evident with some of the other speeches that any turning point was being marked
by their particular words on that especial occasion; but turning points of
history can be moments when opportunities for change for the better are lost,
as well as grasped. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the 19th century writer and
politician, and no mean speechmaker himself, said, “the object of oratory alone
is not truth but persuasion.” It is not for me to judge the truth or otherwise
of the speeches here, but each of them, in different ways, demonstrates the
truthfulness of Macaulay’s assertion. Even Charles I, moments before his
execution, is determined to persuade his listeners of the validity of his own
position. “Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in few words,” is the
exhortation in Ecclesiastes. No more then, except to hope that more of our
contemporary orators might argue a little more, and assert a little less.
Notes by Gary Mead
About the Readers
Norman Rodway is an Associate Artist of the RSC, where his
many roles have included Richard III, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and
Gloucester in King Lear. He has also worked for the Royal National Theatre in
The Seagull and Hedda Gabler, and other major theaters throughout Britain. His
TV credits include Rumpole of the Bailey, A Month in the Country and The Young
Indiana Jones Chronicles.
Samuel West has been widely praised for his performance as
Leonard Bast in the Merchant Ivory film, Howard’s End. His other film credits
include Carrington and Reunion, and he has been seen on UK TV in Persuasion,
Heavy Weather and The Vacillations of Poppy Carew. Theatrical roles have
included Valentine in Arcadia and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Elizabeth Bell’s vast stage experience includes the roles of
Donna Elvira in Don Juan and Julie Danton in Danton’s Death at the Royal
National Theatre. She has also toured extensively with the RSC as Gertrude in
Hamlet. She has worked for the Royal Court, Almeida, Bush and Stephen Joseph
theaters and her many TV credits include Hedda Gabler, The Diary of Anne Frank
and Unfinished Business.
Peter Marinker has worked extensively in theater throughout
the UK and in the USA, including leading roles in Lancelot and Guinevere and
The Merchant of Venice at the Old Vic, and the title role in Macbeth for the
Open Space Theatre. His TV work includes numerous roles for the BBC, and his
film credits include The Russia House and Emerald Forest.
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