Shakespeare: An Unrivalled Genius In The Use Of Figures Of Speech

Shakespeare: An Unrivalled Genius In The Use Of Figures Of SpeechWilliam Shakespeare (Wikimedia Commons)
  • William Shakespeare could almost deploy a figure of speech at will. His mastery of them remains unsurpassed.

One unique skill of Shakespeare was his extraordinary ability to use various figures of speech such as irony, metaphor, simili, Caesura, riposia, epimone, ploce, anadiplosis, aposiopesis, anaconosis polyptoton, litotes, pun, and circumlocution, to name just a few, to embellish his dramatic technique. It is estimated that he knew about fifty figures of speech. No other poet has crossed even 10 or 15 at the most.

Some of these figures of speech are so obscure, that they are beyond the comprehension of even poets like Milton and Keats. It is only now that eminent linguists and grammarians are racking their brains over these complex figures of speech. Such feats of human intellect make us wonder whether Shakespeare was a mere mortal.

In Julius Caesar, Mark Antony's funeral oration alone contains all the figures of speech mentioned in the above paragraph.

Any analysis of Antony's speech must involve an analysis of the speech of Brutus also. Following the assassination of Caesar, Brutus addresses the citizens as:

"Romans, countrymen and lovers". The word" Romans" has an element of formality.

"As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice in it. As he was valiant, I honour him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love, joy for his fortune, honour for his valour and death for his ambition".

The speech is delivered in dull prose. He appeals to reason, not very convincingly. Cassius, who knows Antony's oratorical skill, tries to persuade Brutus not to permit Antony to speak lest the crowd should turn against them. Brutus turns down his request saying that he will make it clear to the crowd that Antony is speaking only with their permission. He also warns Antony against talking ill of the conspirators.

Antony begins his speech saying

"Friends Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears.

I come to bury Caesar not to praise him"

(By addressing the citizens as "friends" Antony immediately establishes an emotional rapport with the crowd. In contrast to the prose of Brutus, Antony's speech is in poetry)

He continues:

"The evil that men do lives after them,

The good is oft interred with their bones.

So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.

If it were so it was a grievous fault

And grievously has Caesar answered it

Here under leave of Brutus and the rest

For Brutus is an honourable man

And so they are all all honourable men--

Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.

He was my friend, faithful and just to me

But Brutus says he was ambitious

And Brutus is an honourable man"

Antony thus begins his speech with his clever use of the two words "ambitious" and "honourable" while referring to Brutus and the other conspirators, the finest example of irony in literature.

The repetition "all all" with a caesura ( a pause near the middle of a line) gives Antony a naturally stressed inflection that reflects Antony’s underlying scorn.

He refers to some virtue of Caesar and then asks the crowd whether it signifies" ambition" implying it is not, thereby commencing the process of demolishing Brutus's justification for slaying Caesar.

He says that it was Brutus who had said Caesar was ambitious--hence it was upto Brutus to prove it. If what Brutus said was true, it was a grievous fault and should attract censure and punishment. But Caesar has answered it (atoned it) grievously, i.e a criminal fault that was to be dealt with criminally. The manner in which Antony exploits the subtle difference between the two words, grievous and grievously is a figure of speech known as polyptoton (in which the same root word is repeated for inflection).

Antony then pleads that,

"He (Caesar) hath brought many captives home to Rome,

Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill."

"General coffers" refers to the public treasury of Rome, and Antony uses Brutus's logic about acting for the good of Rome to show that Caesar was also acting for the good of Rome. Antony also displays the mark of a true politician: he appeals to their wallets, reminding the crowd that what was good for the economy was good for them.

Antony asks,

"Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?"

The question is rhetorical, and the term for the tactic of posing a such a question for dramatic effect is a figure of speech known as" anaconosis"

He goes on to say,

"When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff"

Antony knows his audience well. Patricians and the upper crust of Roman society that comprised the Senate were known to be indifferent, even callous, to the suffering of the lower classes. To portray Caesar as sympathetically weeping for their plight is fanning the flames, although Antony is saving his proof (Caesar's will) as a trump card for later.

The word "stern" hiding in the phrase "sterner stuff" denotes "pitiless; cruel or unkind". (Antony uses circumlocution to call Brutus's account into question without saying bluntly that Brutus is a liar).

After the words" sterner stuff" Antony says,

"Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;

And Brutus is an honourable man."

Antony utters this refrain. Every time he says this, it draws Brutus in an increasingly harsher light. The repetition amplifies the question in the mind of the audience. Use of the same phrase with minor variations in tone, diction, or style, demonstrates qualities of two figures of speech, ploce (repetition of a single word—ambitious—for rhetorical emphasis) and epimone (persistent repetition of the same plea in much the same words)

He says further,

"You all did see on the Lupercal

I thrice presented him a kingly crown

Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?

"Yet Brutus says he was ambitious

And sure. he is an honourable man"

Antony shatters the theory that Caesar was ambitious. The crowd gets increasingly convinced that Brutus was indeed not honourable.

Antony continues:

" You all did love him once, not without cause

What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?

"Not without cause" (unlike "with good cause" is a figure of speech known as "litotes" a form of rhetorical understatement that the speaker uses to affirm or accentuate an idea by denying its opposite (such as saying that something is "not bad" to mean that it is, in fact, quite good). This illustrates an obscure figure of speech anadiplosis with the use of the word “cause” both to end this phrase and begin the next.

He further says, to create dramatic effect,

"My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,

And I must pause till it come back to me".

There is actually a rhetorical term for this dramatic pause -aposiopesis (from Greek, literally meaning "becoming silent"). This figure of speech refers to a point where the speaker abruptly stops, and is most often employed to depict the speaker as being overwhelmed by emotion. (The regular iambic rhythm of the line and the feminine ending both help soften this line's tone, which contrasts the high fervour of "O judgment ! thou art fled to Brutish beasts."

You can scan the "O" as unstressed, but because the beginning of the line is an interjection—and a somewhat melodramatic one at that—it reads better with the marked stress. Antony risks alienating the crowd by shaming them (or at least suggesting that they're suffering a lapse in reason) for believing Caesar to be a tyrant in the making. Shakespeare also risks the redundancy of "brutish beasts" (which literally translates to "bestial beasts") to make the deliberate pun upon Brutus's name.

Towards the end of his oration, Antony does not use the two words "honourable" and "ambition" which had dominated his speech till then. Instead, he relies on dramatic action. Antony uses the corpse of Caesar as a prop. He invites the attention of the crowd to the wounds on different parts of Caesar's body.

How could Antony identify the exact spot on Caesar's body where Cassius or Casca or Brutus, stabbed - which even a modern forensic expert cannot. This is dramatic action at its best.

A little later he again stages another drama, by requesting the crowd to make a ring about Caesar's corpse saying, "Let me show you him that made the will".

He reads out Caesar's will containing the benefits Caesar has given them, seventy-five drachmas, to each Roman citizen, all his walkways, his private gardens, and new-planted orchards, and to them and their heirs, common pleasures to walk abroad and recreate themselves. Then he delivers his final verdict, using a fantastic hyperbole.

"Here was a Caesar. When comes such another."

With this last line he turns the fury of the citizens completely against the conspirators.

Juliet's description of Romeo is the best example of oxymoron in all literature.

Oxymoron is a figure of speech, that is used in order to prove a point by using words that are completely the opposite of what they mean. This literary device is normally used in order to provide more drama to the reader. Juliet states that the Romeo whom she loves had killed her cousin Tybalt. Even though she is unhappy, she cannot give up her love for Romeo? Juliet says,

"O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!

Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?

Beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical!

Dove-feathered raven! wolvish-ravening lamb!

Despised substance of divinest show!

Just opposite to what thou justly seemest,

A damned saint, an honorable villain!

O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell,

When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend

In moral paradise of such sweet flesh?

Was ever book containing such vile matter

So fairly bound? O that deceit should dwell

In such a gorgeous palace!"

Personification is another figure of speech usefully employed by Shakespeare.

In King John, Constance thinking that her son Arthur is dead says,

“Grief fills the room of my absent child

Lies on his bed walks up and down with me

Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words”

Many scholars are of the view that Shakespeare must have been thinking about his son Hamnet, whose early death had affected him badly (It is believed that Shakespeare had named him after his favourite play Hamlet).

Perhaps the greatest example of situational sarcasm, and pun, is in Henry V.

The French Ambassador brings a gift (tennis balls) to Henry from the Dauphin of France to indicate that Henry V was a playboy given to sport, much pleasure and so incapable of achieving military triumphs. Henry takes note of the insult and tells the Ambassador:

"We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us

His present and your pains we thank you for"

He then deliberately uses expressions from military combat, the tennis court, and the royal court—racquets, balls, gun-stones, hazard, wrangler and chases.

"When we have matched our rackets to these balls

We will in France by God’s grace play a set

Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard

Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler

That all the courts of France will be disturbed with chases"

And further,

"And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his

Hath turned his balls to gun-stones and his soul

Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance"

That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows

Shall this his mock, mock out of their dear husbands"

‘Hazard’ means not only a source of danger but also refers to an aperture in the back wall of a tennis court. A ball struck into it becomes unplayable. ‘Wrangler’ means quarrelsome, noisy and angry. The word "Chases" can refer to military pursuit or the second impact of a ball which the opponent has failed or declined to return. ‘Court’ could mean the royal court or the tennis court! The king is saying that when he matches his racquet (gun) to the balls (bullets) they will knock the crown off the Dauphin's head, and militarily subjugate him.

Now the method of scoring in "royal tennis" (real tennis) is apparently from betting on the game. The normal stake was a crown (the crown of the dauphin in this context).

Shakespeare has thus combined images in tennis, the royal court and military combat and used expressions from all the three. In the political context he is asking the French ambassador to convey to the Dauphin he is prepared to conquer the Royal Court of France i .e militarily by knocking the crown off the head of the Dauphin. This is magic-sheer poetic genius.

This discussion will be incomplete without making a mention of the conversation in Twelfth between Duke Orsino and Viola, who is dressed as a man. When the Duke asks her about her sister, Viola who is in love with him answers

"she never told her love,

But let concealment like a worm in the bud

Feed on her damask cheek; she pined in thought,

And with a green and yellow melancholy

She sat like Patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief"

Shakespeare makes Viola use three figures of speech simile, metaphor, and personification to tell a cleverly disguised truth about herself, and her love for him, as the Duke doesn't know that Viola dressed as a page is a lady.

When the Duke asks Viola whether her sister died of her love, Viola who herself is in love with the Duke says,

“I am all the daughters of my father’s house,

And all the brothers too."

There was no cleverer way for Viola to convey her love for the Duke, having regard to the circumstances in which she had found herself.

According to the great Shakespeare scholar, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, this last sentence of Viola defines poetry.

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.


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