Antithesis: Playing With Opposites

To be or not to be…

You’ve heard it so many times that you may have forgotten to listen to the significance of these words. In these six words Shakespeare gives us two complete opposites: existing and not existing. This use of a word (or sentence) being placed against another to form a balanced contrast is known in rhetoric as ANTITHESIS.

Antithesis is a huge part of Shakespeare’s language. Nearly ever character uses it. Shakespeare was well educated in the art of rhetoric and forming an argument. Naturally, this is reflected in his character’s speech.

In antithesis you must “set the word itself Against the word” (Richard II, V.v) for a variety of different effects. A comparison of two antithetical or opposite thoughts can show a lot to the actor and audience alike. Two opposing ideas in a line can show a the scope of thought in a characters mind. Hamlet in the above quotation is contemplating two very serious ideas. Antithesis also very clearly and precisely illustrates though words the character’s meaning.

In MacBeth the witches chant “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” And later MacBeth comments on the occasion, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Foul and fair are two opposites and set against each other. What kind of day is it? You’d think this doesn’t make sense, but think to some of your own experiences. Have you said anything like that?

“She’s so mean, but I love her anyway.” “That class is great but I hate going.” “I shouldn’t eat it, but I can’t stop!” These all have antithetical elements in them. Each of these sentences are very dramatic. Explanation can be had for all of these but it isn’t necessary. When you put the two antithetical thoughts together in such a short phrase, you get drama. “I really enjoy our relationship together on occasion because we do fun things together such as swimming, shopping, watching movies and other things but you really have some habits that thoroughly annoy me at time as well and I’m conflicted with how I feel about you.” Where’s the drama there? How about “I love and hate you.” Whoa. NOW I want to know more about this relationship. DRAMA!

Shakespeare is great at crafting these concise and dramatic sentences together to create something the audience and actor alike can really sink their teeth into.

Not all are complete opposites though. “Our father’s love, is to the bastard Edmund / As to th’ legitimate” (King Lear, II.i). The opposite ideas here are the legitimate versus the bastard son. But Edmund us comparing his father’s love between them. One, or the other. When Marc Anthony says “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” (Julius Caesar, III.ii) he is setting bury and praise against one another even though they’re not opposite ideas.

Some acting books could go on for chapters about antithesis and rightly so. It’s pretty darn important for being able to play Shakespeare’s text. It’s a tool that the author has left you to use EVERYWHERE YOU CAN. Don’t neglect it. Antithesis will serve you well.

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  1. literacles Sep 25, 2010

    Another good example, which impresses me very much, is to be found on Julius Caesar Act III Scene III, where, questioning Cinna the Poet, one plebeian asks,
    “As a friend or an enemy?”, which, as you put eloquently, shows us clearly “the scope of thought in a characters mind”; as we can clearly see from his pharase, the scope of the plebeian’s mind ia limited to friends and enemies.

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