Rhetorical devices


In “I Have a Dream”, Martin Luther King Jr. extensively uses repetitions, metaphors, and allusions. Other rhetorical devices that you should note are antithesis, direct address, and enumeration.

Rhetorical devices are language tools used to make speakers’ arguments both appealing and memorable. Note that there is often an overlap between devices labelled as rhetorical and devices labelled as stylistic. Imagery is just one example - in this guide, we have decided to place imagery under rhetorical de…



MLK’s speech includes several historical, religious, and cultural allusions. An allusion is a reference to an event, a person, media, or literature outside of the text that the speaker finds relevant for the topic and purpose of his speech.

For example, King alludes to Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation which officially ended slavery: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”. Note that this allusion is further emphasized by the setting of Martin Luther King’s speech, which is made outside the Capitol (the seat of American government). The building contains a large statue of Abraham Lincoln, which can be seen in the video.

Furthermore, the speaker also alludes to the rights guaranteed by the US Constitution and Declaration of Ind…


Direct address

The speaker addresses his audience directly several times with the purpose of motivating them and inspiring them to take positive actions to promote equal rights in American society: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freed…



Throughout his speech, Martin Luther King constructs imagery (figurative language) using numerous metaphors and a few similes. As mentioned in the section on antithesis above, he often uses these images to create contrasts between opposites. 

The use of imagery is one of the most powerful ways in which King conveys his message.

Using a simile, he compares the Emancipation Proclamation with light to suggest the wisdom of the act that ended slavery: “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope…”. Another simile continues the comparison, and the speaker ends with a metaphor of slavery as a night: “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”

The speaker then constructs another contrast by using two metaphors which describe isolation and poverty …

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