L'art du débatCours

"He may be a man of his word, but she is never afraid to speak her mind or voice an opinion". The wealth of English expressions referring to the act of speaking attests to its importance in society. Interacting, discussing or arguing are indeed essential to build all kinds of relationships between individuals – citizens and politicians, teachers and students, friends, lovers and family members. Being able to choose the best-suited words in order to adapt to audiences and make one's point clear implies both sophistication and empathy. Language is used to convince and persuade, but also to express feelings, emotions and opinions. The words people choose show or betray who they are, for language gives others access to one's mind and inner world, hence a form of intimacy between speakers and listeners. As men and women's common medium to relate to the world and to one another, language can be a double-edged thing, though. Using the same words doesn't always mean speaking the same language, hence difficulties to communicate and possible misunderstandings. Finally, because speaking is also acting, words make people accountable to others, which involves respect and trust.


Powerful speeches

Speaking and debating are essential in democratic states. Politicians address voters with speeches and get elected – or not – based upon what they promised, while citizens express their discontent with placards, banners and speeches. Thanks to verbal interaction, ideas are spread and opinions voiced.


Convincing political speeches

Whether speakers are addressing audiences or arguing with other people, their main goal is to convince or persuade. Interacting with the public is an essential part of any politician's job, whether they are in office or campaigning. Political speeches must be convincing.

Politicians will debate with fellow politicians and citizens and deliver speeches quite regularly. Some of them, like Churchill, Kennedy or Obama, are remembered for their ability to engage and convince people.

Churchill, who was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1953, was a skillful speaker with a unique way with words. In his enthusing 1940 speech, in which he summoned a whole nation to trust and to stand behind him and fight the Germans with his now celebrated statement: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." What better way to win people over than to show empathy instead of making empty promises no one is likely to believe? Indeed, Churchill didn't mince his words to cover up what awaited Britain and its people. He explained what this war had been waged for and what it would be like for everyone on the battlefield or at home. He used simple but catchy words to depict truthfully people's daily real-life experiences and predicaments in the dark hours to come. Churchill decided against lying to reassure people, proving he understood and felt for them, whilst reminding them that everyone's full commitment to victory was required, cost what may.

"I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, "come then, let us go forward together with our united strength."

Winston Churchill


Churchill's power speech hinges on two main rhetorical strategies – questions and repetitions. He forestalls his government and people's doubts and interrogations by providing accurate and adequate answers ("You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us"). This doing, he showed people he understood them as a stalwart leader is expected to in times of fear and uncertainty. Above all things, he kept repeating the most important words of his speech, so that they would be impressed on everyone's minds ("the British Empire", "wage war"). What people would bear in mind at difficult times was the nation's goal, "victory, victory at all costs." They would remember to fight for their nation to defeat "a monstrous tyranny" and end this "lamentable catalogue of human crime." That's why his speech hit home and convinced people to take part in the war effort.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran for presidency as Democratic candidate in 1960. In his acceptance speech, later entitled "New Frontier", he revisited the national myth of the Frontier, a metaphorical boundary that was to be crossed or removed for the American people to move forward and grow as a nation. He promised Americans he would allow them to improve and get many steps closer to who they want to be as individuals and citizens. The limit that hindered and divided American people back in the 1960s was racial segregation, which he promised he would go out of his way to terminate.

English French
A double-edged thing À double tranchant
Placard Une affiche
To have a way with words Savoir manier les mots
To win someone over Rallier
To mince one's words Mâcher ses mots
Predicament Une difficulté
Ordeal Épreuve
Grievous Éprouvant
To hinge on S'appuyer sur
To forestall Contrecarrer
To hit home Aller droit au but/faire son effet
A boundary Une limite
To hinder Entraver

Engaging and inspiring speeches

There are subjects that are best dealt with resorting to humour and (self-)mockery to engage people and inspire them to take action.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie decided to approach feminism from that angle to explain why "we should all be feminists" in her 2012 TEDx talk. The following extract from her speech exemplifies Adichie's efficient use of derision and self-irony through a series of short anecdotes.

"Now fast forward to some years later, I wrote a novel about a man who among other things beats his wife and whose story doesn't end very well. While I was promoting the novel in Nigeria, a journalist, a nice well-meaning man, told me he wanted to advise me. And for the Nigerians here, I'm sure we're all familiar with how quick our people are to give unsolicited advice. He told me that people were saying that my novel was feminist and his advice to me — and he was shaking his head sadly as he spoke — was that I should never call myself a feminist because feminists are women who are unhappy because they cannot find husbands. So, I decided to call myself "a happy feminist."

Then an academic, a Nigerian woman told me that feminism was not our culture and that feminism wasn't African, and that I was calling myself a feminist because I had been corrupted by "Western books." Which amused me, because a lot of my early readings were decidedly un-feminist. I think I must have read every single Mills & Boon romance published before I was sixteen. And each time I tried to read those books called "the feminist classics" I'd get bored and I really struggled to finish them.

But anyway, since feminism was un-African, I decided that I would now call myself "a happy African feminist." At some point I was a happy African feminist who does not hate men and who likes lip gloss and who wears high heels for herself but not for men. Of course, a lot of these was tongue-in-cheek, but that word feminist is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage. You hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, that sort of thing."

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Adichie sounds more like an entertaining storyteller, which is more engaging than lecturing people on the stakes of feminism. Poking fun at herself and her African background, she comes across as humbler and more relatable. Her audience is more likely to identify with her and listen to what she has to say in defence of feminism. Part of her strategy to convince people is to start from stereotypes about feminism and to debunk them, namely, to throw light on what feminism is not, so that her people may understand what it really is and aims at. She begins with the wide-spread assumption that women become feminists because they are not lucky in love and therefore resentful – "feminists are women who are unhappy because they cannot find husbands." She also ironically underlines that it is a well-known fact that feminists can't stand men, make-up and sexy clothes ("You hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture"), which doesn't fail to make people laugh at bigots' expense. The fact that Adichie's examples correspond to real-life experiences endows her speech with a truthfulness that makes it both very engaging and convincing.

In 1963, Martin Luther King, the pacifist leader of the Civil rights movement, delivered an iconic speech called "I have a dream." Through the description of an idyllic America of equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of skin colour, King demands the end of racial segregation. His plea relies on well-chosen biblical references and the utopian New Jerusalem held so dear by the Founding Fathers. King refers Americans back to the very foundations of their nation to show Americans that racism and segregation go against their ancestors' ideals, on which their nation was founded.

English French
To resort to Avoir recours à
(Self-)mockery L'autodérision
To lecture someone Chapitrer/sermonner
The stakes of Les enjeux de
Poke fun at Se moquer de
To debunk Déboulonner
Widespread Largement répandu
Resentful Rancunier
Bra Un soutien-gorge

A queen's speech: the example of Elizabeth I

In her Tilbury speech to the English people, Elizabeth I demonstrates that, despite being a female, she is as mighty as a king might be.

In 1588, England defeated Spain in a war opposing the two countries over religious rivalry. Indeed, the Catholic Spanish monarch interpreted Queen Elizabeth I's Act of Supremacy, through which she dismissed papal authority, as a provocation and a threat to his territories in the Netherlands, where Protestantism was gaining momentum. That's why Spain waged war on England in 1585.

Tudor England was ruled by a powerful woman whose main weakness lied in her gender. Although considered by her people as the rightful heir to the throne, Elizabeth was not taken as seriously as if she had been a king. Indeed, women were regarded as weaker than men because their bodies were not sealed, unlike men's, and were therefore more vulnerable to sin. 

In her speech, she uses just the right amount of so-called female empathy and male bravery, claiming not to "desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people" and pledging "to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust." Most importantly, she is well aware of not being welcome at the helm of an army of men on the battlefield:

"I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm: to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field."

Queen Elizabeth I

In this passage, she boldly dismisses gender as irrelevant to assess a monarch's strength and ability to lead her country to victory. What matters is to have the courage and determination of a monarch, which Queen Elizabeth I didn't lack. Her speech sounds very modern, even to 21st century audiences, which is why it is often quoted or used in historical drama. As early as 1588, she unwittingly initiated a debate about women's abilities to be heads of states, seeing as they were allegedly too sensitive and emotional – "weak and feeble" – to tackle political, economic and military issues of national importance. Elizabeth is proof a woman can rule over a country with as much power and authority as a man.

English French
To gain momentum Prendre de l'ampleur
Sealed Fermé hermétiquement
Mighty Puissant
To pledge Promettre solennellement
At the helm of À la tête de
Allegedly Prétendument


More often than not, debates and arguments are started by people voicing clashing opinions or defending causes. They are pleading for what they think is fair. 

Whether women should be given more rights and power was at the heart of the suffragettes' fight for the vote in the early 20th century. These women's struggle set both genders against each other, giving way to violent confrontations and hectoring in public spheres. Activists were threatened and jailed by men whose goal and mission were to stop them. They reasoned with them to get them to understand that women didn't need the vote, because they were neither able nor destined to make political decisions. 

Sarah Gavron's 2015 movie Suffragette focuses on a working-class young female who joined the fight for women's suffrage. In a specific scene, after she was caught demonstrating and put in custody, she argues with a police officer, explaining her reasons for fighting and why she will never relent. He tries to dismiss her arguments as ludicrous with threats, proving that men too can grow emotional in their own way when corralled. The following dialogue between Gavron's heroine, Maud Watts, and the helpless police officer, testifies to the gap between women's legitimate claims and men's fears of being overridden by those they had managed to subjugate for so long.


You women clean yourselves up well. Couldn't find a scrap of dynamite on any of you. 

Then, why am I here? 

You'll be charged for illegal meetings afore nothing else. You know there was a housekeeper on her way back when the bomb went off? She forgot her gloves. If she was two minutes later, what would that have done for your cause. Violence doesn't discern. It takes the innocent and the guilty. What gives you the right to put that woman's life at risk?

What gave you the right to stand in the middle of a riot, watch women beaten and do nothing?! You're a hypocrite. 

I apply the law

The law means nothing to me. I've had no say in my life making the law. 

That's an excuse, it's all you have!

We break windows, we burn things. Cause war's the only language men listen to! Cause you've beaten us and betrayed us and there's nothing else left!

And there's nothing left but to stop you.

What you gonna do? Lock us all up? We're in every home, we're half the human race, you can't stop us all.

You might lose your life before this is over.

We will win."

Sarah Gavron



When inspector Steed accuses Maud and the other suffragettes of violence and terrorism, Maud astutely underlines that women are resorting to violence in reaction to men's brutal response to what they demand: "Cause war's the only language men listen to! Cause you've beaten us and betrayed us and there's nothing else left!" Not only are they claiming to be their equals, but they are showing them too, using their means and weapons to solve problems against them. What men don't seem to understand is dialogue and arguments. Indeed, the inspector doesn't have any to defend men's refusal to grant "half the human race" the right to vote. All he can do is threaten and blackmail, whereas Maud puts forward arguments that can hardly be dismissed. Violence is not just men's lawful privilege, it can also be women's only weapon to be heard, all the more so since the law is not on their side. She uses every single argument he puts forward against him, thus skillfully discrediting him.

Playwrights and novelists use dialogues between warring characters to present audiences with different possible approaches to a specific topic or issue and enable them to form their own opinions. Dialogues allow nuanced views and promote both tolerance and open-mindedness, which is why they are an efficient tool to teach people how to relate to others. One may think of Plato's dialogues, in which Socrates makes individual Athenians realise they are prejudiced or biased and therefore unable to think for themselves. 

Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, the most popular of fictional lawyers, teaches his daughter Scout quite a few essential life lessons, among which the importance of free and critical thinking. Harper Lee uses these father-daughter dialogues throughout the novel to educate readers as well.

"Atticus, do you defend niggers?"

"Don't say 'niggers' Scout."

"I didn't say it. Jacob did. That's why I had to fight him!"

"Scout, I don't want you fighting."

"I had to Atticus, he..."

"I don't care what the reasons are, I forbid you to fight."


"Anyway, I'm simply defending a Negro. Tom Robinson. And Scout, there are some things that you are not old enough to understand, just yet. There's been some talk downtown, to the effect that I shouldn't be defending this man."

"If you shouldn't be defending this man, then why are you doing it?"

"For a number of reasons. The main one is, if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jim not to do something again. You're gonna hear some ugly talk about this at school, but I want you to promise me one thing. That you won't get into fight over it, no matter what they say to you."

Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird


A lawyer of few words, Atticus talks to Scout just as he would plead in a courtroom, using a language that is as simple as it is clear to tell his daughter to avoid violence by all means and to think for herself instead of listening to gossip. He also implicitly alludes to the fact that defending Tom Robinson is a matter of personal ethics and self-respect. This resonates with Finch's concluding plea, in which he explains that the defendant is not guilty, but wrongly accused to alleviate the victim's feeling of guilt for having fallen in love with a black man. Defending Robinson, Atticus is also hopelessly pleading for is a fairer society in which both black and white people would be free. He is not only speaking up for the man, he is defending his own idea of what American society should be like and abide by. Atticus isn't just a lawyer dealing with a case, but the humble champion of a just cause who turns the courtroom into a stage.

English French
Plea Un plaidoyer
Hectoring Une invective
To put in custody Mettre en garde à vue
To dismiss something as + adjective Rejeter quelque chose car + adjectif
Corralled Acculé
Overridden Dépassé
To subjugate


Blackmail Le chantage
To alleviate Atténuer/soulager
To abide by Respecter (la loi, un principe moral)
A champion Un défenseur
The courtroom Le tribunal

Language on stage: theatrical dialogues and dramatic speeches in Shakespeare's plays

Shakespeare's plays abound in heated arguments, sophisticated dialogues and highly emotional monologues. Many of his iconic characters such as Shylock, Hamlet or Lady Macbeth are famous for their unique rhetorical abilities and tactical skills.


Verbal fights in Shakespeare's comedies and problem plays

Laughter and humour in Shakespeare often result from the puns and witticisms used by characters who are debating or quarrelling. Language and rhetoric also serve as efficient weapons when more critical issues, like virtue or justice, are at stake. 

Shakespeare often contrasted conventional with non-conventional couples in many of his comedies, often in order to explore the flip side of love. Much Ado about Nothing is one of Shakespeare's most famous and popular plays, at the crossroads of a comedy and a problem play. Indeed, although humorous and light-hearted, the play addresses very serious subjects; love, matrimony, trust and women's virtue. It centres on two couples, Hero and Claudio, who are engaged to be married, and Beatrice and Benedick, who have sworn to remain single to avoid love's quandaries. However, they are in love with each other, and express their feelings fighting each other, as in the following scene.

Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet
food to feed it as Signor Benedick? Courtesy itself must
convert to disdain if you come in her presence

Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of
all ladies, only you excepted. And I would I could find in
my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none.

A dear happiness to women. They would else have been
troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold
blood I am of your humor for that. I had rather hear my dog
bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

God keep your Ladyship still in that mind, so some gentle-
man or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.

Scratching could not make it worse an 'twere such a face as
yours were

Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.

A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.

I would my horse had the speed of your tongue and so good
a continuer. But keep your way, i' God's name. I have done.

You always end with a jade's trick. I know you of old."

William Shakespeare

Much Ado about Nothing

Beatrice and Benedick naughtily provoke each other in this dialogue. Indeed, they make it a point to explain why they can't stand each other. They prove themselves very sharp speakers, answering each other's arguments with matching counter-arguments. Both are adamant they should never be so foolish as to fall in love. However, this doing they ironically show perfect complementarity, despite being relentlessly determined to keep the upper hand. Humour sprouts from the many comparisons, metaphors and hyperboles they use to strengthen their arguments, turning this dialogue into a battle of wits, much to the audience's delight. Beatrice and Benedick's argument is structured in three main parts as follows. First of all, she doesn't love him, as no woman in her mind could, which is all the better for him who can't love anyone. She is relieved because he would make an annoying suitor. Secondly, she is glad that, like him, she can't love anyone either because she'd hate to be courted, which is a good thing for men who would otherwise end up badly injured because she is a violent woman. Beatrice claims that Benedick wouldn't look any uglier with a scratch. Finally, Benedick implies she keeps stealing his cues because she has no real arguments to put forward ("you are a rare parrot-teacher"), which results into an animated exchange of echoing witticisms. Their conversation becomes a language game whose only purpose is to use puns and imagery to snap at the other speaker and have the last word. Showing her wit with her sharp tongue is Beatrice's only concern at this stage. Benedick eventually relents ("I have done") and acknowledges his opponent/beloved's superior speaking skills; he wishes his horse was as quick as her mind and tongue.

Language and rhetoric serve other, less light-hearted purposes, as in Measure for Measure. This problem play can be viewed as a theatrical implementation of Machiavelli's political theory. It is set in Vienna, where uncontrolled promiscuity has led to decadence and corruption. The Duke has decided to restore order by sentencing any person having intercourse outside wedlock to death. To avoid being hated by his own people, he commissions a deputy named Angelo to do it. The first character to fall under this new legislation is Claudio, who impregnated Mariana. His sister Isabella, who has vowed to become a nun, begs Angelo to agree on a lighter sentence. Angelo sees it as an opportunity to persuade her to have sex with him. 

That I do beg his life, if it be sin,
Heaven let me bear it! you granting of my suit,
If that be sin, I'll make it my morn prayer
To have it added to the faults of mine,
And nothing of your answer.


And his offence is so, as it appears,
Accountant to the law upon that pain.


Admit no other way to save his life,–
As I subscribe not that, nor any other,
But in the loss of question,– that you, his sister,
Finding yourself desired of such a person,
Whose credit with the judge, or own great place,
Could fetch your brother from the manacles
Of the all-building law; and that there were
No earthly mean to save him, but that either
You must lay down the treasures of your body
To this supposed, or else to let him suffer;
What would you do?

As much for my poor brother as myself:
That is, were I under the terms of death,
The impression of keen whips I'ld wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death, as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I'ld yield
My body up to shame.

Then must your brother die.

And 'twere the cheaper way:
Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die for ever.

Were not you then as cruel as the sentence
That you have slander'd so?

Ignominy in ransom and free pardon
Are of two houses: lawful mercy
Is nothing kin to foul redemption."

William Shakespeare

Measure for Measure

Angelo very cleverly explains to Isabella that she can't possibly refuse to give her body up to him while pleading for mercy for her brother who took Mariana's virginity. Trading her chastity for her brother's life seems to be a fair deal for him, whereas her virtue is worth more to Isabella, who values her chastity more than human life. That would be dishonest and unfair, although moral and legal. Angelo and Isabella's argument, which mostly relies on blackmail, reminds us of the play's title. Indeed, the expression "measure for measure" can be understood in many different ways as referring to the law of retaliation, poetic justice or, indeed, bargaining. She is torn apart between her religious vows and moral principles and her sisterly feelings. She would like to save Claudio, but not at her chastity's expense. And yet, she would willingly be guilty of his sin by proxy if that could save his life. With both characters' philosophical conversation, Shakespeare highlights that laws and morals are not the only tools to measure justice or decide on what is good or bad. What is illegal and morally impossible – sleeping with a nun – might be good, as it would save a man's life. Lawful decisions such as executing Claudio can have bad consequences, because Claudio is not one of the prurient young men who have devolved into idle decadence. Through this argument in which both characters stand their grounds, audiences are made to wonder and ponder what justice means and how it can be defined according to the common good – or to suit individual interests.

The Merchant of Venice is another play by Shakespeare that addresses the thorny issue of defining and enforcing justice. Shylock, its protagonist, is a Jewish pawnbroker who lends money to those in need of it, but able to give it back. When one of his borrowers tells him that he won't give him back his due because he is a Jew, Shylock decides to ask for a pound of the man's own flesh. He explains his reason to his friend Salarino in a soliloquy about equity in Act III, scene 1.

Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take
his flesh: what's that good for?

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

 William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice

Whilst eloquently demonstrating that all men are equal, regardless of their religion and origins, Shylock also advocates giving an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. What makes his soliloquy so moving and powerful is the series of rhetorical questions he asks, thus involving the audience and appealing to their conscience: "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions...?" Of course he does, and Jews and Christians feel and suffer the same. Shylock's demonstration relies on reasoning ad absurdo, that is to say, proving the falseness or irrelevance of an opinion, a belief or a statement by showing that they are inconsistent with reality. Indeed, when Shylock asks "if you poison us, do we not die?" he implicitly reasons that if a Jew is different from a Christian, he shouldn't die when poisoned, but he does die when poisoned, so he is not different from a Christian. This leads him to the conclusion justifying his decision to cut out a pound of his borrower's flesh; if Christians and Jews are the same, then Jews are entitled to avenge themselves as Christians would do.

This argument is dismissed as absurd by Portia, the borrower's betrothed, when the matter is taken to court in Act IV, scene 1. Whereas Shylock demands revenge, Portia pleads for mercy, which, she promises, will repay the wronged Jew. She also shows him that what he asks, he can't have. Indeed, flesh comes with blood, which is more than Shylock's due, unless he finds a way of cutting it out without a single drop of blood. Portia's plea shows that retaliating is not the way forward, as it is not fair.

English French


Implementation La mise en application
Promiscuity La luxure
To impregnate Féconder
Nun Une nonne
The law of retaliation La loi du talion (oeil pour oeil, dent pour dent)
By proxy Par procuration
To stand one's grounds Camper sur ses positions/garder sa ligne de conduite
Pun Un jeu de mots
Witticism Un mot d'esprit
Quarrel Une dispute
At stake En jeu
Suitor Un prétendant
Adamant Farouchement déterminé
Foolish Stupide
To keep the upper-hand Garder le dessus
A cue Une réplique
To snap at Répondre sèchement
Thorny Épineux
To enforce Appliquer (la loi)
Pawnbroker Un usurier
Reasoning ad absurdo Un raisonnement par l'absurde
The borrower L'emprunteur
To retaliate Se venger

Women's powerful voices

Shakespeare's most iconic heroines are what we would call power women today. Their influence and authority don't lie in politics or violence, but in their ability to use language to make a significant impact and often change the course of action. Among these skilled female speakers are Kate, Lady Macbeth and Queen Anne.


Kate's speech

Kate is the outspoken wayward heroine of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. She is bent on refusing to get married and will fend off any man wooing her, although this is preventing her meek sister Bianca from marrying the man she loves. 

Their father Baptista has indeed decided that Bianca shouldn't marry until her sister Kate has, and he is offering a substantial sum of money to any suitor brave and stubborn enough to marry Kate. Petruchio, a young man without a penny, takes up the challenge and eventually wins her over, under certain conditions. Petruchio had bet that Kate would be at his beck and call. Against the odds, he wins the bet by convincing Kate to deliver a speech in which she promotes women's submission to men's will and summons them to be kind, docile, loving, caring and beautiful.

A woman mov'd is like a fountain troubled-
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience-
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am asham'd that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you forward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot;
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.

William Shakespeare

The Taming of the Shrew

Kate shrewdly enumerates all the stereotypes and gender-based assumptions men could think of in Shakespeare's time. She extols men's courage and scolds women for being such proud, ungrateful and grumpy harridans. Women are vulnerable and need men to support and protect them, which is why they must live as husbands and wives. Knowing Kate to be an indomitable woman, the audience can't but suspect she is being ironic to trick Petruchio's male friends into believing he has tamed her, which they do. Kate wields power with her tongue, not Petruchio, who would never have won the wager without her. That both sexes need one another seems to be Shakespeare's conclusion at the end of the play. Kate indeed explains that both wives and husbands have duties to perform. A man can only expect "love, fair looks, and true obedience," if he "commits himself to painful labour" and makes sure his family "lies warm at home, secure and safe." Her monologue also sounds like a warning to men to treat women well, if they want peace at home: "a mov'd woman is like a fountain troubled." Shakespeare's choice of words subtly betrays the irony of Kate's speech. "Painful labour," which refers to men's tiresome work, may also refer to women in labour, i.e. giving birth in pain. Language and double-entendre allow Kate to gain ascendancy over Petruchio and all the men, including her own father, who is taken aback by her daughter's sudden change of heart.

English French
Outspoken Extraverti
Wayward Intenable
To be at one's beck and call Être aux petits soins
To extol Exalter
To scold Chapitrer
Harridan Une harpie
Change of heart Un revirement

Lady Macbeth's deal with the Devil

In Act I, scene 5 from Macbeth, Lady Macbeth receives a letter from her husband informing her of his prompt return and the prophecy voiced by three witches. 

They predicted he would be made Thane of Cawdor, which he was soon after. They also foretold him he "shall be king hereafter," which kindles Lady Macbeth's smouldering ambition. She wants her husband to become king at all cost, so that she may be queen. In her famous monologue, she portrays Macbeth as equally ambitious, but less courageous because "too full of the milk of human kindness." That's why she begs evil supernatural forces to dehumanise her, so that she may be strong enough to force her husband to kill the king and usurp his throne. As soon as she hears news of the latter coming to spend the night at their castle, she unleashes the darkest instincts in her.

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it: what thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win: thou'ldst have, great Glamis,
That which cries 'Thus thou must do, if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone.' Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear;
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown'd withal.

Enter a Messenger

What is your tidings?

The king comes here to-night


Exit Messenger 

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!'

William Shakespeare


Contrary to Kate, Lady Macbeth discards everything that defines a woman as such – pity, tenderness, motherly feelings, weakness and fear. Not only does she reject her femininity, but she also craves being stronger and more powerful than a man. She wishes she was not a human being, but evil incarnate. Her power lies both in the fear her determination and commitment stir up in audiences and in the fascination she inspires. Lady Macbeth is a woman like no other; she wants to become a murderer when she should aspire to give life, which is her biological destiny. She is therefore monstrous in more ways than one. Her words convey her power and authority: "unsex me here,/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood […]/Come to my woman's breasts, And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers." And yet, Lady Macbeth is not as evil and insensitive as she would like to be, as is suggested by the many periphrases and hyperboles of her frightful monologue. For example, she uses "the nearest way" instead of "murder," and exaggerates her evilness when she demands to be "filled with the direst cruelty [emphasis mine]." As one of the epitomes of the murdering female in literature and the arts, Lady Macbeth's violence has become symbolic of women's feeling that they would be better off being sexless and insensitive to achieve their ambitions.


Queen Anne versus Richard III

At the beginning of the play, Richard tauntingly provokes Anne by referring to the godly commandment that one should offer mercy in exchange for offence. Because she is not merciful, she isn't any better than him, whom she vilifies. They render tit for tat through incremental repetitions, i.e. repeating one word of the other's cue to use it against him or her. 

Their words echo one another, all the more so as the number of accented syllables and metric patterns are exactly the same: "Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman, […] to give me leave,/By circumstance, but to acquit myself." // "Vouchsafe, defused infection of a man […] to give me leave,/By circumstance, to curse thy cursed self." Their parallel replies create a symmetry implying that both speakers are on an equal footing and that Anne will not yield to Richard's wish to marry her. Thanks to astute rhetoric, Richard goes as far as proving Anne that he did her husband a great favour by killing him. Although his conclusions sound outrageously absurd, his demonstration makes perfect sense. If Anne's husband was such a righteous man, then he belongs in Heaven, not on earth:

He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.

RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
Let him thank me, that help to send him thither;
For he was fitter for that place than earth."

Moreover, both characters boast an excellent command of language and repartee, hence the numerous puns and syllogisms, as in this example:

Villain, thou know'st no law of God nor man:
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.

RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
But I know none, and therefore am no beast."

Queen Anne is as good at sarcasm as Richard is at irony, as is evidenced by the following excerpt from Act I, scene 2: 

"RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
Lady, you know no rules of charity,
Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses.

Villain, thou know'st no law of God nor man:
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.

RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
But I know none, and therefore am no beast.

O wonderful, when devils tell the truth!

RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
More wonderful, when angels are so angry.
Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,
Of these supposed-evils, to give me leave,
By circumstance, but to acquit myself.

Vouchsafe, defused infection of a man,
For these known evils, but to give me leave,
By circumstance, to curse thy cursed self.


RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
I know so. But, gentle Lady Anne,
To leave this keen encounter of our wits,
And fall somewhat into a slower method,
Is not the causer of the timeless deaths
Of these Plantagenets, Henry and Edward,
As blameful as the executioner?

Thou art the cause, and most accursed effect.

RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
Your beauty was the cause of that effect;
Your beauty: which did haunt me in my sleep
To undertake the death of all the world,
So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.

If I thought that, I tell thee, homicide,
These nails should rend that beauty from my cheeks.

RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
These eyes could never endure sweet beauty's wreck;
You should not blemish it, if I stood by:
As all the world is cheered by the sun,
So I by that; it is my day, my life.

Black night o'ershade thy day, and death thy life!

RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
Curse not thyself, fair creature thou art both.

I would I were, to be revenged on thee.

RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
It is a quarrel most unnatural,
To be revenged on him that loveth you.

It is a quarrel just and reasonable,
To be revenged on him that slew my husband.

RICHARD III (Duke of Gloucester).
He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband,
Did it to help thee to a better husband"

William Shakespeare


Throughout their argument, Queen Anne is proving more violent and aggressive than Richard, who reveals his true sensitivity to her. He might have killed her husband in cold blood, but he is not the monster she describes so angrily by dint of a very graphic imagery and associations with wild animals. Her arguments all hinge on the assumption that there isn't a trace of humanity in Richard, which he disclaims by declaring his love to her and explaining that she prompted him to have her husband killed. Their quarrel doesn't so much rely on solid and rational arguments as on pure emotion. There is nothing rational either about Anne's cues, which she throws at Richard with heart-felt fury and hatred, or about Richard's justification of the murders by his love for Anne.

English French
To yield to Céder à
To be on an equal footing Être sur un pied d'égalité
To render tit for tat Répondre du tac au tac
To vilify



 Visual conversations and debates

Debates and arguments often begin when people are discussing thorny issues or controversial subjects. These may also be tackled using visual media such as photography, street art or cinema to reach out to wider audiences and raise awareness at a larger scale.



Committed photographers such as Barbara Kruger use photography in order to denunciate a situation.

Kruger is an American photographer at war with the tyranny of the consumer society. Her conceptual photomontages that combine pictures and words are designed to get people to think and question their daily, almost automated, habits. Kruger's art pieces can be viewed as parodied adverts that subvert the codes of advertising against the values promoted by the consumer society. Her catchy slogans in red punch the viewer into consciousness, as in the following selection.

You are not yourself, Barbara Kruger, 1981

You are not yourself, Barbara Kruger, 1981

© Wikipédia

Kruger sets great store by the powerful influence of images on people's minds and beliefs. Indeed, they tend to be even more easily manipulated by what they see than what they listen to, which is why she has chosen to borrow the tools and strategies of her opponents and enemies. Capitalism is not her only target, for Kruger also seeks to debunk racial and gender-based stereotypes. Her art is highly political and sarcastic. Indeed, her montages rely on an ironic discrepancy between what is shown and what is written, which throws light on the hypocrisy and falsehood of commercial and social injunctions. In the picture here, she suggests that women's identity is violently shattered by the many social and commercials injunctions forcing them to be and look what they are not – beautiful, motherly and career-driven all at the same time. 


Street art

Some street artists appropriate public buildings in order to launch debates and discussions about political or controversial subjects. Their aim is to engage as many people as possible and get them to interact about these subjects. 

The Guerrilla Girls use their art pieces in order to denounce sexism and consumerism. The Guerrilla Girls are a collective of American activist artists whose body of work aims to raise awareness about the lack of visibility and recognition of female artists in museums. These feminist artists like to play around stereotypes, as when they appear in public wearing apes' masks to ridicule machismo. They point out that art by women is underrated and underpaid through very provocative pictures targeting patriarchy. Their weapons of choice are irony and sarcasm.


© Wikimedia Commons

The advantages of being a female artist & You're seeing less than half the picture

The Girls parody patriarchal and chauvinist discourses to discredit them, hoping to engage the public in discussions about the gendered and racial biases that keep half the art world in the shade. What is presented as the perks of being a female artist is a list of drawbacks women pursuing artistic careers must face. These self-mocking ironic statements aim to flag up the discrimination against women artists with humour. Making people laugh is a better strategy to win them over to a cause than being openly aggressive. The pun on the second picture is aimed at critics and curators who only take art by white male artists into consideration, thereby promoting a one-sided vision of the world. By favouring western world views, values and representations, they are narrowing down artistic possibilities. The Girls' huge posters read like invitations to be more open-minded and change the way people usually look at art. One feels urged to react and start a discussion in the museums that have agreed to host exhibitions of the Girls' artwork.

Anonymous street artist Banksy is known and yet unknown by everyone around the world. His humorous and irreverent wall paintings, which always appear overnight on selected buildings in big cities, can be interpreted as visual comments on the latest political crisis, economic disaster or social scandal. Whether he intends to give hope or denounce something, Banksy has a unique way of showing the public what they would rather not see or talk about – poverty, homosexuality, violence against children and discriminations among many other controversial subjects. His symbol is the rat, which represents transgression, because it is disliked and feared by most people. Just like the issues he forces people to face, the rat is unwanted and best got rid of. It is little wonder that Banksy chose street art as his medium, because it is transgressive. Here is one of his most famous murals.

Girl with Balloon, South Bank, London, 2002

Girl with Balloon, South Bank, London, 2002

© Wikipédia

Although very popular and potentially worth millions, Banksy's works of art are not for sale, since the anti-capitalist artist refuses to make a profit out of his art which is for everyone to enjoy for free. When he announced he would sell a painted copy of Girl with a Balloon by his own hand, auctioneers and collectors went frenzied. The copy was sold for £1,042,000 at Sotheby's but was destroyed live right after the sale by Banksy himself, who activated a shredder remotely. Banksy's prank can be interpreted as a condemnation of wealthy people investing in art and privatizing art pieces that should belong to everyone. His provocation raised the question of whether individual should be allowed to possess art and whether art could have a commercial value like any other manufactured object. The answer for Bansky is clearly that art can be appropriated.

English French
To set great store by Accorder une grande importance à
A target → to target Une cible/viser
To trick someone into + V-ing Leurrer qqn pour lui faire faire qqch
Assumption Un présupposé
To fend for oneself Se débrouiller seul.e
Ape Un primate


The perks of Les avantages de
Drawback Un désavantage
To flag up Mettre en avant
Curator Un conservateur de musée
To narrow down Réduire/limiter
Prank Une blague/une farce

Les enchères

Auctioneer Un commissaire-priseur


Some film directors appropriate public spaces such as billboards to launch debates and discussions about political or controversial subjects.

It is the case with Three billboards by Martin McDonagh.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Martin McDonagh, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Martin McDonagh, 2017

© Wikipédia

This movie, set in the conservative Deep South in the United States, is based upon the true story of a hopeless but no less angry mother who decides to draw attention to the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter. Mildred Hayes is furious the police stopped investigating because the offender was too hard to find and plans to rely on her community and the media to assist her in finding him herself. Mildred rents out three billboards on which three different messages are written, asking anyone who happens to drive past the following questions: "Raped While Dying", "And Still No Arrests?", and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?" Needless to say, this causes a stir in the town where she lives. The police feel offended and wrongly accused of incompetence, while the town dwellers disapprove of Mildred's taking justice into her own hands. What she wants them all to understand and denounce is that rape is never dealt with as a serious enough crime. Not only does she urge the local law enforcement to do their job and find the rapist, but she also seems willing to force people to talk about rape and violence against women. According to some people, women who get raped have been asking for it because of their clothes or flirtatious attitude. Three Billboards is not only about a mother seeking justice for her daughter, it's a woman's struggle against chauvinism and male domination.

English French
Billboard Un panneau publicitaire
Chauvinism Le conservatisme machiste