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“She Must Be a Rare One”: Aspasia, Corinne, and the Improvisatrice Tradition

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Improvisation was long the apex of the arts of eloquence, yet modern scholars ignore its importance as a rhetorical and literary genre, thereby severing a long-enduring connection between rhetorical and literary history. This essay reads Plato's Menexenus to formulate a theory of improvisational rhetoric around the cultural position of Aspasia, a foreign woman renowned for eloquence in Periclean Athens. It then places this construction of improvisation alongside Germaine de Staël's early-nineteenth-century novel Corinne to demonstrate the endurance and evolution of improvisational rhetoric. Doing so not only illustrates the long-standing—and long-neglected—influence of improvisation on both rhetorical theory and literary production but also challenges present-day disciplinary prejudice by revealing the permeable boundary between imaginative works and those that provide rhetorical instruction.

Research Article
Copyright © 2008 by The Modern Language Association of America

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