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Summer 2001, pages 53-72

"The Crown of All Our Study": Improvisation in Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria

Abstract: All but ignored by historians of rhetoric, Quintilian's meditations on improvisation not only allow us to situate the Institutio Oratoria more firmly in its historical context but also require us to confront issues of performance, issues which (again) have been largely overlooked in historical studies of rhetoric. Quintilian's many references to extemporaneous speech participate in a broader argument the author advances against what he sees as the unscrupulous activities of the delatores (informers working in the service of the Emperors) and the theory of oratory implicit in their oratorical practices. In particular, Quintilian uses the topic of improvisation as an argumentative vehicle to reject the dependence of the delatores on natural ability, to parody their artless attempts at extemporization, and to promote his own educational program based on study, training, and art. Quintilian's discussion of improvisation also invites consideration of oratorical performance: the occasions upon which an orator should switch from a scripted to an improvised mode of performance, the psychological and affective experience of the orator who speaks extemporaneously, and the response of listeners who (according to Quintilian) regard the extemporized oration as more credible, more engaging, and more authentic than the one prepared in advance. For Quintilian, improvisation is the mode of performance to which all oratory should aspire.

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