Understanding the Rhetorical Situation

By reading and answering the questions about the writer's purpose and audience, you have begun an analysis of the rhetorical situation. The term "rhetorical situation" refers to the context of the communication, which consists of the writer/speaker (rhetor), the subject (purpose), and the audience. Using Aristotle's rhetorical triangle, the following diagram lays out the parts visually:

Rhetorical Triangle

To be able to fill in a description of each element on the rhetorical triangle, you must answer the following questions:

  • Who is the writer? What makes the writer credible to speak on the subject?
  • Who is the writer's intended audience?
  • What is the writer's intended purpose?
  • What is the broader context for this subject or issue? For example, is it part of a larger debate or discussion?

Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.

Because this letter was written more than 50 years ago, we cannot fully appreciate the context of those events without doing research.

Understanding Context

All rhetorical situations occur within a specific context. The context includes both time and place of both the sender and the receiver. We are not part of Dr. King's original intended audience; we read his work within the context of our particular time and place. In addition, we read his work within the context of this particular assignment. Others might read Dr. King for a history or philosophy class, or they may read King outside of an academic setting.

We can say that the receiver's prior ideas or attitude (or lack thereof) in receiving the message is also part of the context. For instance, we are likely to be more open-minded and eager to agree with a message that comes from someone we already tend to agree with – a member of our own political party, for example – than a message that comes from a sender we tend to disagree with.

What happens when an author and his or her audience are separated by time and/or location? We read Galileo's or Einstein's work differently than those who read it when their ideas were new. We read Shakespeare's MacBeth differently from those who saw it in the Globe Theatre during his lifetime. We are also likely to read a work like Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses differently from most readers in India or Pakistan. Because cultural norms vary across time and place, these variables shape the way messages are received.