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style hoskyns’ figures rhetorical

Born near the beginning of Elizabeth I’s* reign, witnessing the reign of James I,* dying eleven years before the beheading of Charles I, John Hoskyns’ life and career can be measured against the spirit of each reign. He was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1593 and thus began his law career; he joined Parliament in 1604 and was elevated to sergeant-at-law in 1624. Having received a thorough rhetorical education, Hoskyns was prepared for public service and exemplifies the function and purpose of a humanist education. Having opposed James I in the second Parliament, he was imprisoned in the Tower for a year. Although Hoskyns was not a radical Puritan, his opposition to the king and advocacy for an independent Parliament anticipate the civil wars that were to divide the country at midcentury.


Hoskyns’ writings include family letters and Latin and English verses, but, most notably, a rhetorical treatise, Directions for Speech and Style , composed sometime between 1598 and 1603. As suggested by Hoskyns’ dedication, the most immediate audience for the Directions was a young man in the temple. He writes, “To the forwardness of many virtuous hopes in a gent of the Temple by the Author.” Hoskyns’ description of his work, “©ontaining all the figures of rhetoric and the art of the best English,” illustrates the age’s fondness for figurative style; however, as Hoskyns indicates, an eloquent style is not to be considered mere ornamentation. Instead, style is an indication of character. “The shame of speaking unskillfully were small if the tongue were only disgraced by it. But as the image of the King in a seal of wax ill represented, is not so much a blemish to the wax or the signet, that seals it, as to the king whom it resembles.” Further, style is not separate from substance: “Careless speech does not only discredit the personage of the speaker, but it discredits the opinion of his reason and judgment. It discredits the truth, force and uniformity of the matter and substance.”

Hoskyns catalogs the figures of speech and illustrates their use with examples drawn from Sidney’s* prose romance Arcadia . As such, Hoskyns emphasizes only one (style) of the five parts of rhetorical art invented by the Greeks and solidified by the Romans: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Since Hoskyns’ treatise concerns the composition of letters, treatment of memory and delivery would not be necessary. Hoskyns handles matters of invention quickly and alludes to arrangement. On invention, he says that the topic depends not only on the circumstances that would occasion a particular letter but also on a practical knowledge of human affairs. In this manner, Hoskyns suggests the Aristotelian idea of invention as finding the available means of persuasion in any situation; however, he does not elaborate on the logical, emotional, or ethical arguments that can be constructed out of any situation. “[F]or the invention that arises upon your business whereof there can be no rules of more certainty or precepts of better direction given you than conjecture can lay down of all the several occasions of all particular men’s lives and vocations.” Concerning the arrangement of parts, Hoskyns offers two guidelines that do suggest ethical, pathetic, and logical persuasion. “One is the understanding of the person to whom you write, the other is the coherence of the sentences for men’s capacity and delight.”

Before Hoskyns proceeds to name, describe, and offer examples of the various figures and tropes, he offers four desired qualities of style: brevity, perspicuity, plainness, and respect. Brevity concerns the length of the letter (“letters must not be treatises”) but also pertains to a fitting of expression to substance. “[B]revity is attained but the matter in avoiding idle complements,… superfluous and wanton circuits of figures and digressions.” Perspicuity is a desired clarity of thought. “[L]et them [thoughts]…come forth to light and judgment of your outward senses, as the censure of other men’s ears.” Hoskyns likens an obfuscating letter writer to a merchant who cannot readily bring forth the goods that are desired. Plainness, far from indicating an unadorned style, indicates the desired effect of unpracticed art, “diligent negligence.” Finally, respect requires that one recognize the full rhetorical context. “Last is respect to discern what fits yourself, him to whom you write and that which you handle.”


Although Hoskyns’ works were not published in his lifetime, they had influence. Grund notes that with the discovery in 1930 by Louise Osborn that passages of Ben Jonson’s* commonplace book, Discoveries , were indebted to Hoskyns’ Directions , scholars began to explore Hoskyns’ influence on the development of English prose. Hoskyns may now be seen as a rhetorician who helped direct the move to a simpler, less artificial style. Although Hoskyns’ own style and his extensive treatment of the figures and tropes may appear to us ornamental and superfluous, we should position him against the excesses of a euphuistic prose style. As Grund notes, Hoskyns, in his description of the figures, incorporates warnings against excessive or inappropriate use. Rather than see style as an end in itself, Hoskyns always sets it within the larger rhetorical framework, which must account not only for audience but for substance as well.

Recent scholarship has shown an increasing interest in all aspects of rhetoric: its history, its theoretical foundations, and its applications. The publication of scholarship such as Renaissance Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric indicates a renewed interest in this subject and its influence on poetic and prose composition. Certainly, Hoskyns’ treatise has a place within this tradition. Moreover, the treatise gives insight into the social/linguistic world of men trained to use language persuasively in the public realm.

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