Ethopoeia is a technique used by early students of rhetoric in order to create a successful speech or oration by impersonating a subject or client. It is essential to impersonation, one of the fourteen progymnasmata exercises created for the early schools of rhetoric.
Ethopoeia, derived from the Greek ethos (character) and poeia (representation), is the ability to capture the ideas, words, and style of delivery suited to the person for whom an address is written. It also involves adapting a speech to the exact conditions under which it is to be spoken. Finally, ethopoeia is the art of discovering the exact lines of argument that will turn the case against the opponent. Ethopoeia is largely related to impersonation, a progymnasmata exercise in which early students of rhetoric would compose a dialogue in the style of a person they chose to portray. These dialogues were often dramatic in nature, using description and emotional language where appropriate, fitting the speech to the character of the speaker and the circumstances.
Perhaps one of the most prominent employers of ethopoeia was Lysias, an Ancient Greek logographer (speech writer). In his service to the public, Lysias was known for his ability to assess his client's needs and write a speech as though the words he wrote were those of the client. This was especially important in the case of court appeals. One such court appeal is On the Murder of Eratosthenes, which was written for Euphiletos in his defense. Euphiletos was accused of killing Eratosthenes after catching him in the act of adultery with his wife. In order to convince the jury that Euphiletos was innocent, Lysias familiarized himself with Euphiletos's character and portrayed him as trusting and naive. At the same time, he portrayed Eratosthenes as a notorious adulterer. He further used Euphiletos's character to claim the homicide as justifiable.
In other literature, ethopoeia is used in Homer's epic The Iliad. After losing his son, Hector, at the hands of Achilles, King Priam begs for the return of Hector's body for a proper burial. He asks Achilles for pity, stating that "I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before - I put my lips to the hands of the man who killed my son." and even goes so far as to invoke the memory of Achilles's own father, Peleus. This forces Achilles to put himself in Priam's situation, and he decides to return the body of Hector.
Isocrates has also noted that a speaker's character was essential to the persuasive effect of a speech.
- "The Sophists and Rhetorical Consciousness." A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric. Ed. James J. Murphy. US: Hermagoras, 1983. pp. 49-50. Print.
- Silva Rhetoricae, rhetoric.byu.edu
- Ovidius, Naso Publius, and Peter E. Knox. "Introduction." Ovid, Heroides: Select Epistles. Cambridge Univ. Pr., 2000. 16. Print.
- "The Iliad", Fagles translation. Penguin Books, 1991, p. 605.