Rhetorical Analysis of “Braveheart” Speech

Braveheart is an epic film from 1995. If you haven’t watched it or heard of it before, I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of epic war movies (think Gladiator, 300, Troy, etc.). It tells the story of the true events of William Wallace, a Scottish warrior who led his country in the first war of Scottish independence from England. Though the film has received criticism for its historical inaccuracies, William Wallace is not a fictional character, and one could imagine the heroics demonstrated in the film as actions he very well could have enacted in that time. Throughout the film William motivates his conspirators and army men with wise sayings that eventually inspire them to act to culminate in these heroics. Right before the climatic battle between the Scottish and the English for Wallace’s countrymen’s freedom, he gives a speech to them that ultimately inspires them to go into the battle not knowing whether they would live or die.

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This speech will now be broken down by rhetorical analysis—specifically, the ethos (what kind of image the character projects to his audience) and pathos (how the character moves the emotions of his audience) of the movie’s speech will be examined, as well as the tropes (figurative uses of words through various expressive devices) and schemes (how words are arranged in a sentence) interwoven together that helps make this speech rhetorically significant. Before I continue, it is also worth mentioning what kind of style this speech is given in. Roman rhetorician Cicero distinguished three levels of style a speaker can choose to speak in: a low style (used for teaching), a middle style (used for entertainment), and a high style (used to move an audience). For obvious reasons, the speech delivered by William Wallace is observed to be given in the high style, because, as a result of his speech, his audience was moved to action. The speech will now be broken down line by line with an analysis of each item mentioned before (ethos, pathos, tropes, schemes).


 

“I am William Wallace.”

It is worth noting that prior to William giving his speech, most of the Scottish army had never seen him before. In the film, many of the warriors in the crowd speculated and discussed who he was and how he looked before he even revealed himself. When William finally does, he says it in the most matter-of-fact way. In this simple sentence, he made his ethos known. As this average heighted person galloping about the crowd on his horse, he simply introduces himself. He doesn’t do it in a very majestic way, eliciting from the crowd some sort of reverence he deserves. He simply makes the statement. In this way, he projects an image to his audience, the Scottish army, as one who is just like them, one who isn’t a seven foot tall monster, as some in the crowd had speculated, but one who looked as Scottish as they did

“And I see a whole army of my countrymen, here in defiance of tyranny!”

A trope can be observed in this sentence. The use of a metonymic device (substituting a thing with a closely associated thing) is used in this exclamatory sentence. William states that he sees his Scottish people assembled in an army and they are assembled here in defiance to tyranny, which actually is a cruel and oppressive government. Tyranny substitutes what they are actually defying against—the English. The English have been ruling over the Scottish during this time period as depicted in the movie, and the way in which they ruled, the Scottish saw it as tyranny. William Wallace had just echoed what his countrymen have been sensing from their ruler. In this way, supporting the high style that Cicero defines, William Wallace moves his peoples’ oppressed hearts. On that note, the pathos in this statement can be observed. A term like tyranny has a negative connotation associated, therefore Wallace’s usage of the term as something they are going up against creates a sense of justification in their emotions, riling them up to take action for a “just” cause. After all, defiance against tyranny means righteousness.

“You have come to fight as free men. And free men you are!”

The scheme observed in this sentence is an antimetabole (a sentence arrangement in which items are repeated in reverse order). The sentences are essentially reversed. The object “free men” in the first sentence is seen as the subject in the second sentence. William, in phrasing it this way, tells the audience that they have come to fight as ones who are free, free from the tyranny mentioned earlier, free from the English, no longer under their rule, and repeating, in an unexpected manner, that they are in fact free. This adds onto the pathos, how the audience feels, because the meaning is conveyed that they are free men, not meant to be under the oppressive rule of the English. This also adds to William’s ethos, because he speaks as one who has seen this truth and declares this truth over his people. Most of his countrymen see that he speaks from his heart, speaking honesty.

“What will you do without freedom? Will you fight?”

After having built his audience up by declaring those last couple statements, William elicits this rhetorical question—“What will you do without freedom?” Essentially, what would they do if they were not free people? Would they fight for their freedom? By asking these questions, William gauges his countrymen’s commitment and willingness to act for their country.

“Two thousand against ten?” –a warrior in the crowd shouted, “No! We will run – and live!”

A hyperbolic (intentionally overstated) question made by one of the audience members that summarizes the situation at hand. There are not literally two thousand of the English opposition, neither are there only ten Scottish warriors, but the exaggeration is made to emphasize their fear, their lack of faith.

“Yes!” Wallace shouted back.

William shouts back an affirmative response immediately to the question raised by one of the warriors in the audience. This response of his also adds onto his ethos, that he is no coward, and that he is a man of faith. A man who believes that their “ten” are able to go up against the English’s “two thousand.”

“Fight and you may die. Run and you will live at least awhile.”

William answers the second part to that statement made by the warrior in the crowd. He tells the audience honestly what might happen if they fight, as well as what truthfully might happen if they don’t fight and run away. They would live, but not for long, but a while. An antithesis (contrasting items side by side) is observed in these sentences. Two options that contrast—fight or run—but both show essentially the same outcome—death. William conveys the meaning that would they rather die fighting for something of great weight, or run away and die later for something lacking in weight.

“And dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here as young men and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom!”

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In William’s concluding statement before the audience is literally moved to action in battle, he makes one last emotional appeal. First, he creates an image in the minds of his listeners, an image of death on a bed. Then he offers up a trade. This trade includes all the days in between that day of death on the bed and the day they could face their enemies and tell it to their face what they really want to say. “You can take our lives, but you will never take our freedom.” This last emotional appeal (pathos) stirs up the audience to cheer and move into battle in a unified spirit.

William Wallace’s purpose in delivering this speech was to give his audience the truth, that they are free men, that they are doing something right (opposing tyranny), and that they might die doing it. Granted it is a movie speech and was scripted, it is well executed in the context it’s given (Scottish independence) and does a good job depicting how warriors ought to be moved prior to giving their lives for the ideals of freedom. William’s ethos is clearly established, the pathos observed in his speech emotionally drew in his audience, and the stylistic devices (tropes and schemes) helped to tightly wrap up his message to be delivered rightfully.

Here’s the clip of the speech from the movie (start from 1:35):

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2 thoughts on “Rhetorical Analysis of “Braveheart” Speech

  1. To me, your analysis was both interesting and thorough – nice job! I haven’t previously seen the movie, but I think I’ll give it a go.

  2. This choice of speech for your rhetorical analysis took me by surprise. I never would have thought of such a speech like this one from the Mel Gibson film, probably since I was thinking it had to be historical but if it is to be studied, then it must hold significant value to whomever chooses to figure it out.

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