Including Figures of Speech
Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
Absurdist Drama Play that depicts life as meaningless, senseless, uncertain. For example, an absurdist playwright's story generally ends up where it started; nothing has been accomplished and nothing gained. The characters may be uncertain of time and place, and they are virtually the same at the end of the play as they were at the beginning. Here is how the genre came about: A group of dramatists in 1940's Paris believed life is without apparent meaning or purpose; it is, in short, absurd, as French playwright and novelist Albert Camus (1913-1960) wrote in a 1942 essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus." Parodoxically, the only certainty in life is uncertainty, the absurdists believed. For more about absurdist drama, see Waiting for Godot.
Act One of the main divisions of a play. Shakespeare's plays each have five acts. Each act is subdivided into scenes. An act generally focuses on one major aspect of the plot or theme. Between acts, stagehands may change scenery, and the setting may shift to another locale.
Adage Wise saying; proverb; short, memorable saying that expresses a truth and is handed down from one generation to the next; short saying that expresses an observation or experience about life; maxim; aphorism; apothegm. Examples of adages are the following:
Birds of a feather flock together [probably based on an observation of Robert Burton (1577-1640) in The Anatomy of Melancholy: "Birds of a feather will gather together."]
A great dowry is a bed full of brambles.–George Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs, 1640.
Fish and visitors smell in three days.–Benjamin Franklin.
One tongue is enough for a woman.–J. Ray, English Proverbs (1670).
A friend in need is a friend indeed.–Of Latin origin.
A barber learns to shave by shaving fools.–J. Ray, English Proverbs (1670).
Alexandrine Verse form popularized in France in which each line contains twelve syllables (and sometimes thirteen). Major accents occur on the sixth and twelfth syllables; two minor accents occur, one before the sixth syllable and one before the twelfth syllable. A pause (caesura) occurs immediately after the sixth syllable. Generally, there is no enjambment in the French Alexandrine line. However, enjambment does occur in English translations of Alexandrine verse. The name Alexandrine derives from a twelfth-century work about Alexander the Great that was written in this verse format. Jean Baptiste Racine was one of the masters of this format. Some English writers later adapted the format in their poetry.
Allegory Literary work in which characters, events, objects, and ideas have secondary or symbolic meanings. One of the most popular allegories of the twentieth century was George Orwell's Animal Farm, about farm animals vying for power. On the surface, it is an entertaining story that even children can enjoy. Beneath the surface, it is the story of ruthless Soviet totalitarianism. Other famous examples of allegories are John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and the fifteenth-century morality play, Everyman.
Alliteration Repetition of consonant sounds. Examples: (1) But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound into saucy doubts and fears.–Shakespeare. (2) Duncan is in his grave; after life's fitful fever he sleeps well–Shakespeare. (3) When I was one-and- twenty–A.E. Housman. (Note that "one" has a "w" sound. (4) I sent thee late a rosy wreath–Ben Jonson. (Note that "wr" has an "r" sound.)
Allusion Reference to a historical event or to a mythical or literary figure. Examples: (1) Sir Lancelot fought with Herculean strength. (Reference to the mythological hero Hercules). (2) "I have met my Waterloo," the mountain climber said after returning from a failed attempt to conquer Everest. (Reference to the Belgian town where Napoleon lost a make-or-break battle). (3) Since my elementary-school days, math has always been my Achilles heel. (Reference to the weak spot of Achilles, the greatest warrior to fight in the Trojan War. When his mother submersed him in the River Styx after he was born, the magical waters made him invulnerable. His flesh was impervious to all harm–except for the heel of a foot. His mother was grasping the heel when she dipped him into the river. Because the river water did not touch his heel, it was the only part of his body that could suffer harm. He died when a poison-tipped arrow lodged in his heel. Hence, writers over the ages have used the term Achilles heel to refer to a person's most pronounced weakness.
Anachronism: A thing from a different period of history than that which is under discussion; a thing that is out of place historically. Suppose, for example, that a literary work about World War I says that a wounded soldier is treated with penicillin to prevent a bacterial infection. The writer of the work would deserve criticism for committing an anachronism, for penicillin and other antibiotics did not come into use until 1941, twenty-three years after the end of World War I.
Anadiplosis (an uh dih PLOH sis) Figure of speech in which a word or phrase at the end of a sentence, clause, or line of verse is repeated at or near the beginning of the next sentence, clause, or line of verse. Here are examples:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.–Shakespeare, Richard III.
Analogue: Literary work, film, character, setting, etc. that resembles another literary work, film, character, setting, etc. The film West Side Story is an analogue of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Stephen Spielberg's film Jaws is an analogue of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick.
Anapest and Anapestic See Meter .
Anaphora (uh NAF uh ruh) Repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other. Examples: (1) Give me wine, give me women and give me song. (2) For everything there is a season . . . a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.–Bible, Ecclesiastes. (3) To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream.–Shakespeare, Hamlet. One of the most famous examples of anaphora in Shakespeare occurs in Act II, Scene I, Lines 40-68.
Anastrophe (uh NAS truh fe) Inversion of the normal word order, as in a man forgotten (instead of a forgotten man) or as in the opening lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn": In Xanada did Kubla Kahn / A stately pleasure dome decree (instead of In Xanadu, Kubla Kahn decreed a stately pleasure dome). Here is another example, made up to demonstrate the inverted word order of anastrophe:
A rose I plucked for Huey
Annotation Explanatory note that accompanies text; footnote; comment.
Antagonist Character in a story or poem who opposes the main character (protagonist). Sometimes the antagonist is an animal, an idea, or a thing. Examples of such antagonists might include illness, oppression, or the serpent in the biblical story of Adam and Eve.
Antonomasia (an tihn uh MAY zha) Identification of a person by an appropriate substituted phrase, such as her majesty for a queen or the Bard of Avon for Shakespeare.
Antiphrasis (an TIF ruh sis) See Irony, Definition 1.
Antithesis Placement of contrasting or opposing words, phrases, clauses, or sentences side by side. Following are examples:
The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.–Abraham Lincoln, "Gettysburg Address."
To err is human, to forgive divine.–Alexander Pope, "Essay on Criticism."
Apostrophe Addressing an abstraction or a thing, present or absent; addressing an absent entity or person; addressing a deceased person. Examples: (1) Frailty, thy name is woman.–William Shakespeare. (2) Hail, Holy Light, offspring of heaven firstborn!–John Milton. (3) God in heaven, please help me.
Apprenticeship Novel (Bildungsroman) Novel that centers on the period in which a young person grows up. This type of novel was pioneered by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship). An apprenticeship novel can also be identified by its German name, bildungsroman, meaning novel (roman) of educational development (bildungs).
Archetype (1) Original model or models for persons appearing later in history or characters appearing later in literature; (2) the original model or models for places, things, or ideas appearing later in history or literature; (3) a primordial object, substance, or cycle of nature that always symbolizes or represents the same positive or negative qualities.
Explanation of Definition 1: The mythical Hercules is an original model of a strong man. Consequently, he is an archetype. Exceptionally strong men who appear later in history or literature are said to be archetypical Hercules figures because they resemble the original Hercules. Similarly, the biblical Eve is an original model of a woman who tempts a man to commit sin. Thus, she is an archetype. Temptresses who appear later in history or literature are said to be archetypical Eve figures because they resemble the original Eve. Examples of archetypical Eve figures include the housewife who goads her husband to steal from his employer and the prostitute who tempts a married man to have illicit sex. In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is an archetypical Eve figure because she, like Eve, urges her husband to commit sin–in the case of Macbeth, to commit murder. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus is an archetypical Judas (the apostle who betrayed Christ) because Brutus betrays Caesar.
Explanation of Definition 2: The biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as Babylon, are original examples of cities corrupted by sin. Thus, they are archetypes. Decadent cities–or cities perceived to be decadent–that appear later in history or literature are said to be archetypical sin cities. Hollywood and Las Vegas are examples.
Explanation of Definition 3: Rivers, sunlight, serpents, the color red and green, and winter are examples of primordial things (existing since the beginning of time) that are archetypes because they always symbolize the same positive or negative qualities, according to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Rivers represent the passage of time or life; sunlight represents happiness, a new beginning, glory, truth, goodness, or God; the color red represents passion, anger, blood, or war; the color green represents new life, a new beginning, or hope; winter represents death, dormancy, or atrophy.
Arras Tapestry hung on the stage to conceal scenery until the right moment. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, an arras played a crucial role. Polonius hid behind one to eavesdrop on a conversation between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. When Hamlet saw the tapestry move, he stabbed at it, thinking King Claudius was behind it, and killed Polonius.
Arthurian Romance Literary work in which a knight in the age of the legendary King Arthur goes on a quest.
Aside Words an actor speaks to the audience which other actors on the stage cannot hear. Sometimes the actor cups his mouth toward the audience or turns away from the other actors. An aside serves to reveal a character's thoughts or concerns to the audience without revealing them to other characters in a play. Near the end of Hamlet, Queen Gertrude raises a cup of wine to her lips during the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes. King Claudius had poisoned the wine and intended it for Hamlet. In an aside, Claudius–unwilling to warn Gertrude in an effort to preserve his innocence–says, "It is the poison'd cup: it is too late."
Assonance Repetition of vowel sounds preceded and followed by different consonant sounds. Use of "bite" and "like" in a line of poetry would constitute assonance. Examples: (1) There are no tricks in plain and simple faith.–Shakespeare. (2) But I am pigeon-livered, and lack gall to make oppression bitter. (3) John met his fate by the lake.
Asyndeton Use of words or phrases in a series without connectives such as and or so. Examples (1) One cause, one country, one heart.–Daniel Webster. (2) Veni, vidi, vici (Latin: I came, I saw, I conquered).–Julius Caesar.
Attica Peninsula in southeastern Greece that included Athens. According to legend, the King of Athens, Theseus, unified 12 states in Attica into a single state dominated by Athenian leadership and the Athenian dialect of the Greek language. The adjective Attic has long been associated with the culture, language and art of Athens. The great period of Greek drama, between the Sixth and Fourth Centuries, B.C., is known as the Attic Period. Drama itself was invented by an Attic actor, Thespis, who introduced speaking parts to accompany choral odes.
Aubade [oh BAHD] Joyful song about dawn and its beauty; morning serenade. One of the finest aubades in literature occurs in Act II, Scene III, of Shakespeare's play Cymbeline. It begins with the the famous words "Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings" (Line 22).
Ballad, Folk Poem that tells a story that centers on a theme popular with the common people of a particular culture or place. Generally of unknown authorship, a folk ballad passes by word of mouth from one generation to the next. One of its key characteristics is a candence that makes the poem easy to set to mustic and sing.
Ballad, Literary Ballad that imitates a folk ballad. But unlike the folk ballad, the literary ballad has a known author who composes the poem with careful deliberation according to sophisticated conventions. Like the folk ballad, it tells a story with a popular theme.
Ballade Lyric poem of French origin usually made up of three eight-line stanzas and a concluding four-line stanza called an envoi that offers parting advice or a summation. At the end of each stanza is a refrain. Each line of the poem contains about eight syllables. The rhyme scheme of the eight-line stanza is ababbcbc. The rhyme scheme of the envoi is bcbc. "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" is an excellent example of the genre.
Bard Originally, a Celtic poet who sang epic poems while playing a harp. In time, bard was used to refer to any poet. Today, it is often used to refer to William Shakespeare (the Bard of Avon).
Beast Fable See Fable.
Bildungsroman: See Apprenticeship Novel.
Bombast Inflated, pretentious speech or writing that sounds important but is generally balderdash.
Breton Lay Fourteenth Century English narrative poem in rhyme about courtly love. The poem contains elements of the supernatural. The English borrowed the Breton-lay format from storytellers in Brittany, France. A lay is a medieval narrative poem originally intended to be sung. Breton is an adjective describing anyone or anything from Brittany. "The Franklin's Tale," a story in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, is an example of a Breton lay.
Burlesque Literary work, film, or stage production that mocks a person, a place, a thing, or an idea by using wit, irony, hyperbole, sarcasm, and/or understatement. For example, a burlesque may turn a supposedly distinguished person into a buffoon or a supposedly lofty subject into a trivial one. A hallmark of burlesque is its thoroughgoing exaggeration, often to the point of the absurd. Cervantes used burlesque in Don Quixote to poke fun at chivalry and other outdated romantic ideals. Among English writers who used burlesque were Samuel Butler (Hudibras) and John Gay (The Beggar’s Opera). Burlesque is a close kin of parody. The latter usually ridicules a specific literary work or artistic production.
Caesura Pause in a line of verse shown in scansion by two vertical lines ( || ).
Canon Complete works of an author. When reasonable doubt exists that an author wrote a work attributed to him, scholars generally exclude it from the author’s canon. Such doubt sometimes arises when a centuries-old work–for example, a play, poem, or novel–has survived intact to the present day without an author’s byline or other documentation proving that a particular author wrote it.
Canto Major division division of an epic poem, such as Dante's Divine Comedy. The word is derived from the Latin cantus (song).
Caricature Literary work or cartoon that exaggerates the physical features, dress, or mannerisms of an individual or derides the ideas and actions of an organization, institution, movement, etc. The word is derived from the Italian caricare, meaning load, exaggerate, surcharge, fill to excess. In literature, caricature is a form of burlesque.
Carpe Diem Latin expression meaning seize the day. Literary works with a carpe diem theme tell readers to enjoy life while they can. In other words, they should eat, drink and be merry and not worry about dying. Sir John Falstaff, the fun-loving and hard-drinking knight in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor believed in carpe diem. An example of a poem with a carpe diem theme is Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress."
Catalexis See Meter.
Catastasis Climax of a stage play.
Catastrophe (1) Denouement, or conclusion, of a stage tragedy; (2) denouement of any literary work.
Catchword In published Shakespeare plays in earlier times, a single word on the bottom of the right side of every page. This word was the first word appearing on the next page.
Catharsis In literature and art, a purification of emotions. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) used the term to describe the effect on the audience of a tragedy acted out on a theater stage. This effect consists in cleansing the audience of disturbing emotions, such as fear and pity, thereby releasing tension. This purgation occurs as a result of either of the following reactions: (1) Audience members resolve to avoid conflicts of the main character–for example, Oedipus in Oedipus Rex and Creon in Antigone–that arouse fear or pity or (2) audience members transfer their own pity and fear to the main character, thereby emptying themselves of these disquieting emotions. In either case, the audience members leave the theater as better persons intellectually, morally, or socially. They have either been cleansed of fear of pity or have vowed to avoid situations that arouse fear and pity. In modern usage, catharsis may refer to any experience, real or imagined, that purges a person of negative emotions.
Chalmys In the drama of ancient Greece, sleeveless outer garment, or cloak, worn by some actors.
Chantey (pronounced SHAN te; alternate spellings: chantey, shantey, shanty) In earlier times, a song sung by sailors that kept time with the work they were doing, such as tugging on a rope to hoist a sail. The length of chanteys varied in relation to the length of the tasks being performed.
Character, Flat Character in story who has only one prominent trait, such as greed or cruelty.
Character, Round Character in a story who has many aspects to his or her personality. The character may have a good side and a bad side; he or she may be unpredictable.
Character, Static Character in a literary work who does not change his or her outlook in response to events taking place.
Chivalric Romance Tale of courtly love. In such tales, nights exhibit nobility, courage, and respect for their ladies fair, and the ladies exhibit elegance, modesty, and fidelity. Although knights and ladies may fall passionately in love, they eschew immoral behavior. In conflicts between good and evil, justice prevails. Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale," the first story in The Canterbury Tales, is an example of a chivalric romance.
Chiasmus (pronounced ki AZ mis) Words in a second clause or phrase that invert or transpose the order of the first clause or phrase. Here are examples:
John is a good worker, and a bright student is Mary.
A fop their passion, but their prize a sot.–Alexander Pope.
Flowers are lovely, love is flowerlike–Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Chronicler [KRON ih kler]: recorder of medieval events; historian
Chronique Scandaleuse [kron EEK skan duH LOOZ]: Literary work centering on gossip and intrigue at the court of a king.
Classicism In literature, a tradition espousing the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome: objectivity, emotional restraint, systematic thinking, simplicity, clarity, universality, dignity, acceptance of established social standards, promotion of the general welfare, and strict adherence to formal rules of composition. A classical writer typically restrained his emotions and his ego while writing in clear, dignified language; he also presented stories in carefully structured plots. Classicism remained a guiding force in literature down through the ages. Writers in the 15th,
Cliché Overused expression. Examples: raining cats and dogs, snug as a bug in a rug, chills running up and down my spine, warm as toast, short and sweet. Writers should avoid using clichés whenever possible.
Climax High point in a story. In Hamlet, this point occurs when Hamlet and Laertes duel with swords and mortally wound each other. In classic detective stories, this point usually occurs when Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Hercules Poirot, etc., lay out the evidence and finger the killer.
Closet Drama A drama written to be read rather than acted on a stage. An example is Samson Agonistes, by John Milton, a 1671 tragedy about the final days of the biblical hero Samson.
Comedy (Stage) Play with a happy ending. The stage comedies in ancient and Renaissance times did not always contain humor, the staple of the modern stage and film comedy, but they did end happily. By contrast, a stage tragedy always ends unhappily.
Comedy of Manners Comedy that ridicules the manners (way of life, social customs, etc.) of the privileged and fashionable segment of society. An example is Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, in which Goldsmith pokes fun at the English upper class. The play uses farce (including many mix-ups) to ridicule the class-consciousness of 18th Century Englishmen.
Coming-of-Age Novel See Apprenticeship novel.
Concrete Poetry Poetry with lines arranged to resemble a familiar object, such as a Christmas tree. Concrete poetry is also called shaped verse.
Conflict The struggle in a work of literature. This struggle may be between one person and another person or between a person and an animal, an idea or a thing. It may also be between a person and himself or herself (internal conflict). In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the conflict is manifold. Hamlet struggles against the villain Claudius, against the unbecoming conduct of his mother, and against his conscience and indecision.
Conte Philosophique Philosophical novel or philosophical story, a genre Voltaire is credited with inventing. His contes philosophiques (which include Micromégas and Zadig) are characterized by a “swift-moving adventure story in which characterization [counts] for little and the moral (or sometimes immoral) lesson for much” (Brumfitt, J.H. Voltaire: Candide. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1968, Page 9.)
Coronach Funeral song (dirge) in Scotland and Ireland. In addition to being sung, it was sometimes played on bagpipes.
Cothurni.(singular, cothurnus): Boots worn by actors in ancient Greece to increase their height and, thus, visibility to theater audiences. Singular: cothurnus.
Couplet Two successive lines of poetry with end rhyme.
Coup de Théâtre (pronounced KOO duh tay AH truh) (1) Startling development in a drama that is unforeseen and unmotivated; (2) a cheap plot development intended solely to create a sensation.
Couplet, Heroic Two successive end-rhyming lines in iambic pentameter. Following is an example:
What mighty contests rise from trivial things
(Lines 1 and 2, The Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope)
Denouement The outcome or resolution of the plot, occurring after the climax. In a murder mystery, the denouement may outline the clues that led to the capture of a murderer. In a drama about family discord, it may depict the reconciliation of family members after a period of estrangment–or the permanent dissolution of family ties if the drama reaches a climax in which the discord worsens.
Deus Ex Machina See Machine.
Deuteragonist In Greek drama, the character second in importance to the main character, or protagonist.
Dialogue Conversation in a play, short story, or novel. A literary work on a single topic presented in the form of a conversation. Plato's Republic, Symposium, and Phaedo are examples of literary works that are dialogues.
Diction Word choice; the quality of the sound of a speaker or singer. Good diction means that a writer pleases the eye of a reader or the ear of a listener.
Didactic Adjective describing a literary work intended to teach a lesson or a moral principle.
Dimeter See Meter.
Dionysia, Greater See Dionysus.
Dionysia, Rural See Dionysus.
Dionysus Patron god of Greek drama; god of wine and vegetation. Dionysus, called Bacchus by the Romans, was the son of Zeus and one of the most important of the Greek gods. Dionysus died each winter and was reborn each spring, a cycle his Greek devotees identified with the death and rebirth of nature. He thus symbolized renewal and rejuvenation, and each spring the Greeks celebrated his resurrection with ceremonies that eventually included drama contests. The most prestigious of these festivals was the Greater Dionysia, held in Athens for five days and participated in by playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Euripides. Festivals held in villages and small towns were called the Rural Dionysia.
Dithyramb In the drama of ancient Greece, a choral hymn that praised Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, and sometimes told a story. In his great workPoetics, Aristotle wrote that dithyrambs inspired the development of Greek tragic plays, such as those of Sophocles. The first "play" supposedly took place in the 6th Century B.C. when Thespis, a member of a chorus, took the part of a character in a dithyramb. The action shifted back and forth between him and the chorus. See also Thespian.
Doggerel Trivial or bad poetry.
Domesday Book [DOOMS day book] official census of the English people and their possessions, notably land, which was completed in 1086 at the behest of King William I (William the Conqueror).
Doppelgänger(pronounced DOP l gayng er) In folklore, the spirit double of a living person. Among well-known writers who have used doppelgängers in their works are Fyodor Dostoevski and E.T.A. Hoffman. A doppelgänger is not the same as a ghost; the latter is an apparition of a dead person.
Drama Literary work with dialogue written in verse and/or prose and spoken by actors playing characters experiencing conflict and tension. The English word drama comes from the Greek word "dran," meaning "to do."
Dramatic Irony Failure of a character to see or understand what is obvious to the audience. The most notable example of dramatic irony in all of literature occurs in Oedipux Rex, by Sophocles, when Oedipus fails to realize what the audience knows–that he married his own mother.
Dramatic Monologue: Poem that presents a moment in which a narrator/speaker discusses a topic and, in so doing, reveals his feelings and state of mind to a listener or the reader. Only the speaker, talks–hence the term monologue, meaning "single (mono) discourse (logue)." During his discourse, the speaker intentionally and unintentionally reveals information about himself. The main focus of a dramatic monologue is this personal information, not the speaker's topic. A dramatic monologue is a type of character study. Perhaps the most famous dramatic monologue in English literature is Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess."
Dramatis Personae List of the characters in a play. Such a list is found at the beginning of each Shakespeare play, as well as the plays of other dramatists.
Dumb Show Part of play performed in gestures, without speech; pantomime. In Shakespeare's plays, "dumb show" appears as a stage direction.
Edition and Issue: Terms describing published versions of newspapers and magazines. A newspaper printed on a specific date, such as August 22, is an issue. However, the August 22 issue of the newspaper may go through several printings: one at 6 a.m., for example, and one at 2 p.m. and one at 10 p.m. The 2 p.m. version would update or revise news in the 6 a.m. version--or add new stories; the 10 p.m. version would update or revise news in the 2 p.m. version--or add new stories. The newspapers printed at 6 a.m., 2 p.m., and 10 p.m. would all be editions of the August 22 issue.
Egoism, Rational: Acting in oneself’s best interests (that is, acting selfishly) by selecting what appears to be the most beneficial of all the choices available. Russian writer Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) centered various writings on this subject. His great contemporary, Fyodor Mikhailovitch Dostoevsky (1821-1881), attacked rational egoism in his novel Notes From the Underground. There are two types of rational egoism, which are as follows:
Psychological Egoism: Belief that a person’s nature, or biological makeup, will always cause him to act in his own self-interest. In other words, a person has no free will; he will always end up choosing what he perceives is best for him. Suppose, for example, that two persons each have a toothache and a fear of dentists. After reviewing the alternatives, the first person decides to go to the dentist to have the tooth extracted because he perceives that the latter course will cause him less pain and distress in the long run. The second person, after reviewing the alternatives, decides to pull the tooth himself because he perceives that this course of action—despite the pain and greater risk of complications that self-treatment poses—will cause him less mental trauma than a dentist’s treatment. In both cases, there is no real "decision." What the persons do is dictated by their genetic makeup and other determining factors, according to proponents of this theory.The rational egoists Dostoevsky criticizes—most notably Chernyshevsky—maintained that one always acted in his own self-interest, as in psychological egoism, but also ought to investigate the available alternatives or options in order to make the most informed choice. However, there is a conflict here. On the one hand, psychological egoism presumes that a person has no free will. On the other hand, normative egoism implies that a person has at least a modicum of free will and, after educating himself, acts with "enlightened self-interest." Nevertheless, Chernyshevsky believed that a person had no free will regardless of how he went about making his choice.
Elegy A somber poem or song that praises or laments the dead. Perhaps the finest elegy in English literature is Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."
Elizabethan Pertaining to the time when Elizabeth I reigned as queen of England. Elizabeth, born in 1533, reigned from 1558 until her death in 1603. Elizabethan may be used to describe the literature of the period (for example, Elizabethan poems and Elizabethan plays) or anything else associated with the age (such as Elizabethan costumes, Elizabethan customs, Elizabethan music, and so on).
Encomium (Plural: Encomia).(1) In ancient Greece, a poem in the form of a choral song praising a victor in the Olympic games. (2) In modern usage, any speech, essay, poem, etc., that praises a person.
Enjambment.Carrying the sense of one line of verse over to the next line without a pause. In the first four lines of "My Last Duchess," by Robert Browning, enjambment joins the second and third lines (I call / That) and the third and fourth lines (Pandolf's hands / Worked):
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Epic Long poem in a lofty style about the exploits of heroic figures. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, as well as the Old English poem Beowulf, are examples of epics.
Epic Conventions Literary practices, rules, or devices that became commonplace in epic poetry. Among the classical conventions Milton used are the following:
.......(2) Telling a story with which readers or listeners are already familiar; they know the characters, the plot, and the outcome. Most of the great writers of the ancient world–as well as many great writers in later times, including Shakespeare–frequently told stories already known to the public. Thus, in such stories, there were no unexpected plot twists, no surprise endings. If this sounds strange to you, the modern reader and theatergoer, consider that many of the most popular motion pictures today are about stories already known to the public. Examples are The Passion of the Christ, Titanic, The Ten Commandments, Troy, Spartacus, Pearl Harbor, and Gettysburg.
.......(3) Beginning the story in the middle, a literary convention known by its Latin term in media res (in the middle of things). Such a convention allows a writer to begin his story at an exciting part, then flash back to fill the reader in on details leading up to that exciting part.
.......(4) Announcing or introducing a list of characters who play a major role in the story. They may speak at some length about how to resolve a problem (as the followers of Satan do early in Paradise Lost).
.......(5) Conflict in the celestial realm. Divine beings fight and scheme against one another in the epics of Homer and Vergil, and they do so in Paradise Lost on a grand scale, with Satan and his forces opposing God and his forces.
.......(6) Use of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a figure of speech in which a character in a story fails to see or understand what is obvious to the audience. Dramatic irony appears frequently in the plays of the ancient Greeks. For example, in Oedipux Rex, by Sophocles, dramatic irony occurs when Oedipus fails to realize what the audience knows–that he married his own mother. In Paradise Lost, dramatic irony occurs when Adam and Eve happily go about daily life in the Garden of Eden unaware that they will succumb to the devil's temptation and suffer the loss of Paradise. Dramatic irony also occurs when Satan and his followers fail to understand that it is impossible ultimately to thwart or circumvent divine will and justice.
Epigram Wise or witty saying expressing a universal truth in a few words. Following are examples of epigrams from Shakespeare:
A goodly apple rotten at the heart, O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!–The Merchant of Venice: Act I, Scene III.
They are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing.–The Merchant of Venice: Act I, Scene II.
How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.–The Merchant of Venice: Act V, Scene I.
Every cloud engenders not a storm.–Henry VI, Part III: Act V, Scene III.
Words pay no debts.–Troilus and Cressida: Act III, Scene II.
O! it is excellent to have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.–Measure for Measure: Act II, Scene II.
Epilogue In Shakespeare, a short address spoken by an actor at the end of a play that comments on the meaning of the events in the play or looks ahead to expected events; an afterword in any literary work.
Epinicion (Plural: Epinicia): In ancient Greece, a choral ode celebrating an athletic victory. For additional information, click here.
Episode Scene or incident in a literary work.
Epistle Letter written by an apostle in the New Testament of the Bible; any letter, especially an informal or instructive one.
Epistolary Novel Novel in which a character (or characters) tells the story through letters (epistles) sent to a friend, relative, etc. For example, in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Captain Robert Walton writes letters to his sister to bring her up to date on his expedition in the Arctic. After his ship takes Victor Frankenstein aboard, he listens to Frankenstein’s story and writes it down in letter form.
Epitaph Inscription on a tomb or a written work praising a dead person; any commemoration, eulogy, or remembrance.
Epitasis The part of a stage play that develops the characters, plot, and theme. The epitasis follows the protasis.
Epithalamion (or Epithalamium, Epithalamy) Poem or song honoring the bride and groom on the day of their wedding. The term is derived from Greek words referring to the bedroom of a woman. In ancient times, an epithalamion was performed in front of the bridal chamber. However, epithalamion can also refer to a song performed during the wedding ceremony. Surviving fragments of the Greek poetess Saphho (610-580 B.C.) indicate that she wrote wedding songs called epithalamia. In Rome, the great lyric poet Catullus (84-54 B.C.) wrote epithalamions. In the Renaissance, English poets such as John Donne, Sir Philip Sydney, Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, and Richard Crashaw wrote epithalamions. Many critics believe Edmund Spenser's "Epithalamion"–written in 1595 on the occasion of his second marriage–is the greatest English poem in this genre. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) wrote a famous epithalamion, which used as its title the Latin word for the term–epithalamium.
Epithet One of the hallmarks of the style of the Greek epic poet Homer is the epithet, a combination of a descriptive phrase and a noun. An epithet presents a miniature portrait that identifies a person or thing by highlighting a prominent characteristic of that person or thing. In English, the Homeric epithet usually consists of a noun modified by a compound adjective, such as the following: fleet-footed Achilles, rosy-fingered dawn, wine-dark sea, earth-shaking Poseidon, and gray-eyed Athena. The Homeric epithet is an ancient relative of such later epithets as Richard the Lion-Hearted, Ivan the Terrible, and America the Beautiful. Homer repeated his epithets often, presumably so the listeners of his recited tales could easily remember and picture the person or thing each time it was mentioned. In this respect, the Homeric epithet resembles the leitmotiv of opera composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). The leitmotiv was a repeated musical theme associated with a character, a group of characters, an emotion, or an idea.
Epitome (1) Statement summarizing the content of a book, essay, report, etc. (2) Person or object that embodies all the qualities of something
Esprit d'escalier (es PRE duh SKAL yay): Slow wit. Used to characterize a person who thinks of the ideal reply or retort after leaving a conversation and going upstairs (escalier). On the stairs, the ideal reply occurs to him.
Essay Short, nonfiction composition on a single topic. The typical essay contains 500 to 5,000 words, although some essays may contain only 300 words and others 10,000 or more words. Examples of essays are newspaper or magazine articles that inform readers about current events, newspaper or magazine editorials that argue for or against a point of view, movie reviews, research papers, encyclopedia articles, articles in medical journals, and articles in travel magazines. There are four types of essays: those that inform the reader without taking a position; those that argue for or against a point of view; those that describe a person, place, thing, or idea; and those that tell a true story. Essays often require extensive research to support claims made by the writer of the essay.
Eulogy Speech or written work paying tribute to a person who has recently died; speech or written work praising a person (living, as well as dead), place, thing, or idea.
Euphemism Word or phrase that softens the hard reality of the truth, such as senior citizen for old person, passed away for died, misstatement for lie, previously owned car for used car, collateral damage for civilian deaths during war, and pleasingly plump for fat. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency once used the euphemism Health Evaluation Committee for assassination team. In general, good writers avoid euphemisms.
Euphuism Ornate, high-flown style of speaking or writing.
Excursion Stage direction in a play manuscript indicating that a military attack is taking place. The opening of Scene II in Act III of Shakespeare's King John contains such a stage direction.
Exemplum..Short narrative in verse or prose that teaches a moral lesson or reinforces a doctrine or religious belief.
Exeunt..[EX e unt] Stage direction in a play manuscript indicating the departure of two or more characters from the stage.
Exeunt Omnes..[EX e unt] Stage direction in a play manuscript indicating the departure of all the characters from the stage.
Exit Stage direction in a play manuscript indicating the departure of a character from the stage.
Exodos (EX uh doss): In a drama of ancient Greece, the exit scene; the final part of the play
Expressionism In literature, expressionism is a writing approach, process, or technique in which a writer depicts a character’s feelings about a subject (or the writer’s own feelings about it) rather than the objective surface reality of the subject. A writer, in effect, presents his interpretation of what he sees. Often, the depiction is a grotesque distortion or phantasmagoric representation of reality, for the character or writer must reshape the objective image into his mind's image. However, there is logic to this approach for these reasons: (1) Not everybody perceives the world in the same way. What one person may see as beautiful or good another person may see as ugly or bad. Sometimes a writer or his character suffers from a mental debility, such as depression or paranoia, which alters his perception of reality. Expressionism enables the writer to present this altered perception. An example of a character who sees reality through his mind's eye is Joseph K., the protagonist of Franz Kafka's novel The Trial.
Exposition In a story, the part of the plot that introduces the setting and characters and presents the events and situations that the story will focus on. Exposition also refers to an essay whose primary purpose is to inform readers rather than to argue a point.
Fable Story that teaches a lesson or rule of living. The characters are usually animals that speak and act like humans. The most famous fables are those attributed to Aesop, a Greek, Thracian, Phrygian, Babylonian, or Lydian storyteller or a group of storytellers who assigned the name Aesop to a collection of fables popularized in Greece. Aesop's fables are sometimes referred to as beast fables.
Fabliau Short verse tale with coarse humor and earthy, realistic, and sometimes obscene descriptions that present an episode in the life of contemporary middle- and lower-class people. The fabliau uses satire and cynicism, along with vulgar comedy, to mock one or several of its characters. Not infrequently, the ridiculed character is a jealous husband, a wayward wife, a braggart, a lover, a proud or greedy tradesman, a doltish peasant, or a lustful or greedy clergyman. Plot development often depends on a prank, a pun, a mistaken identity, or an incident involving the characters in intrigue. The fabliau was popular in France from 1100 to 1300, then went out of fashion. Chaucer revived the format in The Canterbury Tales to write “The Miller’s Tale,” “The Reeve’s Tale,” “The Cook’s Tale,” “The Shipman’s Tale,” and The Summoner’s Tale.” It is not entirely clear whether the fabliau was a pastime of the upper classes as a means to ridicule their social inferiors or of the middle and lower classes as a means to poke fun at themselves.
Fair Copy In Shakespeare's time, a play manuscript after it has been edited.
Farce Type of comedy that relies on exaggeration, horseplay, and unrealistic or improbable situations to provoke laughter. In a farce, plotting takes precedence over characterization.
Figure of Speech Word, phrase or sentence that (1) presents a “figure” to the mind of the reader, (2) presents an imaginative or unusual use of words that the reader is not to take literally, or (3) presents a special arrangement or use of words or word sounds that create an unusual effect. Ordinary language that does not contain a figure of speech is called literal language. Language that contains a figure of speech is called figurative language. Figurative language is also sometimes called imagery because it presents an image to the mind. Consider the following sentences:
The leaves danced across the lawn. (Figurative language)
Peter Piper picked four pecks of peppers. (Figurative language)
Flashback Device in which a writer describes significant events of an earlier time or actually returns the plot to an earlier time. Flashback enables the author to inform the reader of significant happenings that influence later action. Vehicles that writers use to return to earlier times include dreams, memories, and stories told by the narrator or a character.
Flourish Stage direction in a play manuscript for music introducing the entrance or exit of a king or another important person. The music may consist of a short trumpet passage.
Foil (1) A secondary or minor character in a literary work who contrasts or clashes with the main character; (2) a secondary or minor character with personal qualities that are the opposite of, or markedly different from, those of another character; (3) the antagonist in a play or another literary work. A foil sometimes resembles his or her contrasting character in many respects, such as age, dress, social class, and educational background. But he or she is different in other respects, including personality, moral outlook, and decisiveness. In Sophocles’ play Antigone, Ismene is a foil of Antigone, her sister. Ismene is easygoing, soft-spoken, and willing to keep her place. Antigone, on the other hand, is headstrong, outspoken, and unwilling to keep her place. Creon is also a foil of Antigone, and Antigone is a foil of Creon. Creon represents government law and male dominance; Antigone represents the moral law and female rights. They clash. In so doing, one foil sets off the other. Their quarreling helps to reveal their personality traits.
Folio A folio is a sheet of printing paper folded once to form four separate pages for printing a book. To better visualize a folio, hold before you a standard sheet of typing paper and fold it as you would a letter..You now have a rectangular piece of paper. Hold it so it opens from right to left. What you are looking at is Page 1. Now turn the flap from right to left to open the rectangle. You are now looking at Pages 2 and 3 separated by a crease. When you close the right flap over the left, you will be looking at Page 4. A folio was considerably larger than a quarto.In 1623, friends and admirers of Shakespeare compiled a reasonably authentic collection of 36 of Shakespeare's plays in a folio edition of more than 900 pages that was entitled Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. The printer and publisher was William Jaggard, assisted by his son Isaac. This edition became known as The First Folio. Because of the authenticity of this collection, later publishers used it to print copies of the plays. Other folios were printed in 1632, 1663 and 1685. In 1664, a second printing of the 1663 folio included the first publication of Pericles, Prince of Athens.
Folklore Stories, songs, and sayings transmitted by memory (that is, orally) rather than by books or other printed documents, from one generation to the next. Folklore thrives indepently of polished, sophisticated literature in the form of ballads, fairytales, superstitions, riddles, legends, fables, plays, nursery rhymes, and proverbs. Englishman William Thoms invented the term folklore in 1846. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German scholars who studied folklore in the early 1800's, compiled many tales based on their research, including the stories of Briar-Rose (Sleeping Beauty) and Rumpelstiltskin.
Fool In the courts of England in Shakespeare's time, a fool was a comic figure with a quick tongue who entertained the king, the queen, and their guests. He was allowed to–and even expected to–criticize anyone at court. Many fools were dwarfs or cripples, their odd appearance enhancing their appeal and, according to prevailing beliefs, bringing good luck to the court. Actors William Kempe and Richard Armin became London celebrities for their performances as fools in Shakespeare's plays. Armin wrote a book about fools entitled Foole Upon Foole; or Six Sortes of Sottes.Egypt's pharaohs were the first rulers to use fools, notably Pygmies from African territories to the south.
Foot and Feet (Meter) See Meter.
Foreshadowing Device a writer uses to hint at a future course of action. The words a heart trouble in the first line of “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin, refer to a condition of the main character, Mrs. Mallard, and foreshadow the story's ironic ending, in which Mrs. Mallard dies from shock when her husband–whom she thought dead–walks through the front door. Because of foreshadowing in the opening paragraph of the story, the ending becomes believable. Shirley Jackson also uses foreshadowing in the second paragraph of her outstanding short story “The Lottery” in the following sentence: Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones. . . . This sentence foreshadows the stoning scene at the end of the story. Another example of foreshadowing occurs in the prologue of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. An actor called “the chorus” recites a sonnet in which he describes the bitter hatred separating the Montagues and Capulets and identifies Romeo and Juliet as lovers who had the misfortune to be born into warring families: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes [the Montagues and the Capulets] / A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life" (Lines 5-6). Take their life appears to have a double-meaning: first, that they come into existence; second, in a foreshadowing of events to come, that they go out of existence by taking their own lives.
Foul Papers In Shakespeare's time, the original manuscript of a playwright which was later edited.
Frame Tale Story with a plot structure in which an author uses two or more narrators to present the action. The first narrator sets the scene and reports to the reader the details of a story told by a character. (In some frame tales, the first narrator reports the details of several stories told by several narrators.) In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Captain Robert Walton–a minor character–is the first narrator. He sets the scene and listens to the story told by Victor Frankenstein, the main character. All of the information Walton reports to the reader is in the form of letters written to his sister. Thus, Frankensteinis a frame tale in that it is like a framed painting: Walton's story is the frame, and Frankenstein's story is the painting. Some frame tales–such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's The Decameron–have several narrators telling stories "inside the frame." One famous frame tale–the Arabian Nights (also called The Thousand and One Nights)–has only one narrator, a sultan's bride named Scheherazade, who tells many tales "inside the frame," including the well-known stories of Sindbad the Sailor, Aladdin and his magic lamp, and Ali Baba and his magical command "Open sesame!"
Free Verse Form of poetry that ignores standard rules of meter in favor of the rhythms of ordinary conversation. In effect, free verse liberates poetry from conformity to rigid metrical rules that dictate stress patterns and the number of syllables per line. French poets originated free verse (or vers libre) in the 1880s, but earlier poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and other writers exhibited characteristics of free verse. Although free verse generally contains no metrical patterns it may contain other types of patterns. For examples, see "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd."
Gasconade Excessive boasting; incessant bragging. Perhaps the most famous braggart in all of literature is Sir John Falstaff, the rotund knight (Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II) who is brave in words but timid in deeds.
Genre Type or kind, as applied to literature and film. Examples of genres are romance, horror, tragedy, adventure, suspense, science fiction, epic poem, elegy, novel, historical novel, short story, and detective story.
Gleeman Anglo-Saxon minstrel who sang or recited poetry. Gleemen traveled from place to place but sometimes found employment in the court of a monarch.
Gnomic (NO mik) Adjective describing writing that contains wise, witty sayings (aphorisms)
Goliard (GAWL yerd) Wandering student of Medieval Europe who made merry and wrote earthy or satiric verses in Latin. Goliards sometimes served as jesters or minstrels
Gothic Fiction Literary genre focusing on dark, mysterious, terrifying events. The story unfolds at one or more spooky sites, such as a dimly lit castle, an old mansion on a hilltop, a misty cemetery, a forlorn countryside, or the laboratory of a scientist conducting frightful experiments. In some Gothic novels and short stories, characters imagine that they see ghosts and monsters. In others, the ghosts and monsters are real. The weather in a Gothic story is often dreary or foul: There may be high winds that rattle windowpanes, electrical storms with lightning strikes, and gray skies that brood over landscapes. The Gothic genre derives its name from the Gothic architectural style popular in Europe between the 12th and 16th centuries. Gothic structures–such as cathedrals–featured cavernous interiors with deep shadows, stone walls that echoed the footsteps of worshippers, gargoyles looming on exterior ledges, and soaring spires suggestive of a supernatural presence. See also Southern Gothic.
Hagiography Book on the lives of saints; scholarly study of the lives of saints.
Hamartia Serious character flaw of the main character (protagonist) of a Greek tragedy. Often, this flaw is great pride, or hubris. But it may also be prejudice, anger, zealotry, poor judgment, an inherited weakness, or any other serious shortcoming.
Hautboys [OH bwah] Stage direction in a play manuscript indicating that entering characters are playing hautboys, which are Elizabethan oboes.
Heptameter See Meter.
Heroic Couplet.Unit of two rhyming lines in iambic pentameter. Following is an example:
What mighty contests rise from trivial things
(Lines 1 and 2, The Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope)
High Comedy Comedy that relies on wit and subtle irony or sarcasm. High comedy usually focuses on the everyday life of upper classes. It is generally verbal rather than physical. See also Low Comedy.
Homily A clergyman's talk that usually presents practical moral advice rather than a lesson on a scriptural passage, as in a sermon.
Hubris or Hybris Great pride that brings about the downfall of a character in a Greek drama or in other works of literature.
Huitain: Eight-line stanza (French).
Hyperbole Exaggeration; overstatement. Examples: (1) He [Julius Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his...huge legs.–Shakespeare. (Caesar has become a giant.) (2) Ten thousand oceans cannot wash away my guilt. (3) Oscar has the appetite of a starving lion.
Idyll Poem focusing on the simplicity and tranquillity of rural life; prose work with a similar focus. Idyll is derived from the Greek eidýllion (little picture or image). The Greek poet Theocritus (300-260 B.C.) developed this genre.
Iamb and Iambic See Meter.
Induction In a Shakespeare play, an introductory event that precedes Act 1. For additional information, see The Taming of the Shrew.
In Medias Res Latin phrase for in the middle of things. It means that a story begins in the middle of the plot, usually at an exciting part. The writer of the story later uses flashback to inform the reader of preceding events. The Greek poet Homer originated this technique in his two great epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Internal Conflict See Conflict.
Inversion See Anastrophe.
In everyday conversation, a person would say, "I plucked a rose for Huey in the green and dewy garden."
Invocation of the Muse In ancient Greece and Rome, poets generally requested a muse (goddess) to fire them with creative genius when they began long narrative poems, called epics, about godlike heroes and villains. This request appeared in the opening lines of their poems. In Greek mythology, there were nine muses, all sisters, who were believed to inspire not only poets but also historians, flutists, dancers, singers, astronomers, philosophers, and other thinkers and artists. If one wanted to write a great poem, play a musical instrument with bravado, or develop a grand scientific or philosophical theory, he would ask for help from a muse by “invoking the muse.” The muse of epic poetry was named Calliope [kuh LY uh pe].
Ipse Dixit Dogmatic or arbitrary statement made without supporting evidence. This Latin term means He said [it] himself.
Irony (1) Saying the opposite of what is meant, or verbal irony; (2) result or ending that is the opposite of what is expected, or situational irony; (3) situation in which the audience attending a dramatic presentation grasps the incongruity of a situation before the actors do, or dramatic irony. Examples: (1) "What a beautiful day," Maxine said, opening her umbrella. (2) In the movie Planet of the Apes, an astronaut who lands on another planet where intelligent apes rule discovers a startling irony at the end of the movie: When looking over a vast wasteland, he sees the head of the Statue of Liberty and realizes he was on earth all the time. Apparently, a nuclear war had destroyed humankind while he was time-traveling. While in his Einsteinian time warp, the apes had evolved to an almost human level. (3) In Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, Oedipus is unaware that he has married his own mother even though the audience is well aware of the incestuous union.
Jeu d'esprit (Pronounce the eu like the oo in wood; pronounce esprit as uh SPREE) Witty writing; clever wording; jest; pun, ingenious turn of phrase. A literary work with jeu d'esprit is quick-witted but not necessarily profound. The literal English translation of this French term is play of the spirit or play of intelligence.
Jeu de mots (Pronounce the eu like the oo in wood; pronounce de as duh; pronounce mots as moh) Pun; play on words.
Jongleur Itinerant minstrel in medieval England and France who sang songs (his own or those written by others) and told stories.
Kenning Compound expression, often hyphenated, representing a single noun. For example, the Old English epic Beowulf uses the two-word term whale-road to refer to the sea or ocean. Other examples of kennings include devil's helper for sinner and widow-maker for gun.
Laurel Wreath Wreath woven of the large, glossy leaves of the laurel tree. It was customary in ancient Greece to crown a champion Olympic athlete, poet, or orator with a laurel wreath for outstanding achievement. Over the years, other nations and cultures adopted this custom. Today, the phrase to win one's laurels is often used figuratively to indicate that an athlete, scholar, or stage performer has earned distinction in his or her field.
Lay Medieval narrative poem, written in couplets, for singing by a minstrel to the accompaniment. A lay had eight syllables in each line.
Leitmotiv See Epithet and Motif.
Lexis The complete vocabulary of a language or a field of study.
Litotes Creation of a positive or opposite idea through negation. Examples: (1) I am not unaware of your predicament. (2) This is no small problem. (3) I'm not forgetful that you served me well.–John Milton.
Low Comedy Comedy that relies on slapstick and horseplay. It often focuses on the everyday life of lower classes. Low comedy is generally physical rather than verbal. See also High Comedy.
Lyric Poetry (1) Poetry that presents the deep feelings and emotions of the poet as opposed to poetry that tells a story or presents a witty observation. Sonnets, odes, and elegies are examples of lyric poems. William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake are among the writers of lyric poetry. Shakespeare's sonnets are lyric poems, although his verse plays are not; they tell a story. Lyric poetry often has a pleasing musical quality. (2) Poetry that can be set to music. The word lyric derives from the Greek word for lyre, a stringed instrument in use since ancient times.
Machine Armlike device in an ancient Greek theater that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the "heavens." The Greek word for machine, mechane, later gave rise to a pejorative Latin term, deus ex machina (god from a machine), to describe a contrived event in a literary work or film. A contrived event is a plot weakness in which a writer makes up an incident–such as a detective stumbling upon an important clue or a hero arriving in the nick of time to save a damsel in distress–to further the action. The audience considers such events improbable, realizing that the writer has failed to develop the plot and the characters in such a way that their actions spring from their motivations. The term (pronounced DAY ihs ex MAHK in uh orDE ihs ex MAHK in uh) is usually used adverbially, as in The policeman arrived deus ex machina to overhear the murderder admit his guilt to his hostage. However, it can also refer to a character who becomes the "god from the machine."
Macrocosm The world as a whole; the universe. See also Microcosm.
Magnum Opus Great work; masterpiece; an author's most distinguished work. Latin: magnum, great; opus, work.
Malapropism Unintentional use of an inappropriate word similar in sound to the appropriate word, often with humorous effect. The word derives from the name Mrs. Malaprop, a character in The Rivals, a 1775 play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Sheridan invented her name from the French words mal à propos, loosely translated as badly chosen, not right for the occasion, or not appropriate. Mrs. Malaprop has the habit of using near-miss words. For example, she observes that she does not have much affluence over her niece and refers to contiguous countries as contagious countries. However, almost two centuries before Sheridan presented a character who mixed up words in this way, Shakespeare introduced characters who did so–most notably Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. Examples of Dogberry's malapropisms are the following:
Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons." (apprehended, suspicious)
O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this. (perdition)
Master of Revels In Shakespeare's time, a government censor who examined all plays for offensive material.
Melodrama Literary work or film that uses maudlin sentimentality and stereotypical characters.
Memoir Type of autobiography in which the writer focuses primarily on the people (often famous personages) with whom he or she came into contact.
Metaphor Comparing one thing to an unlike thing without using like, as or than. Examples: (1) The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve.–Shakespeare. (The striker or clapper of the bell is being compared to the tongue of a speaking human being.) (2) The sea being smooth, how many shallow bauble boats dare sail upon her patient breast .–Shakespeare. (The sea is being compared to a woman with a "patient breast.") (3) I am a man whom Fortune hath cruelly scratched.–Shakespeare. (Fortune is being compared to an entity that can be cruel.) (4) In battle, the soldier is a tiger. (5) Michael Casey's face is a map of Ireland.
Metaphysical Poetry See "To His Coy Mistress" on this web site.
Meter In verse and poetry, meter is a recurring pattern of stressed (accented, or long) and unstressed (unaccented, or short) syllables in lines of a set length. For example, suppose a line contains ten syllables (set length) in which the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed, the third is unstressed, the fourth is stressed, and so on until the line reaches the tenth syllable. The line would look like the following one (the opening line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18") containing a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. The unstressed syllables are in blue and the stressed syllables in red.
Shall I..|..comPARE..|..thee TO..|..a SUM..|..mer’s DAY?
.......Some feet in verse and poetry have different stress patterns. For example, one type of foot consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one. Another type consists of a stressed one followed by an unstressed one. In all, there are five types of feet:
The length of lines–and thus the meter–can also vary. Following are the types of meter and the line length:
.......Meter is determined by the type of foot and the number of feet in a line. Thus, a line with three iambic feet is known as iambic trimeter. A line with six dactylic feet is known as dactylic hexameter. Consider now the following two lines from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger”:
In the forests of the night
Metonymy Substitution of a word or phrase to stand for a word or phrase similar in meaning. Examples: (1) In Shakespeare's time, the crown was anti-Catholic. ("Crown" stands for Queen Elizabeth I.) (2) The White House was severely criticized for its opposition to the tax increase. ("White House" stands for the president or the president and his advisers.) (3) Wall Street welcomes the reduction in interest rates. ("Wall Street" represents investors.) (4) Sweat, not wealth, earned her the respect of her peers. ("Sweat" stands for hard work.)
Microcosm A tiny world within the macrocosm. Often a microcosm represents ideas and activities present in the macrocosm. In Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, the whaling ship The Pequod is a microcosm. In William Golding's novel The Lord of the Flies, the island on which children take on the negative characteristics of adults in the world at large is a microcosm. In Shirley Jackson's short story “The Lottery,” the village is a microcosm representing backward ideas in the world at large, or macrocosm. In the movie Titanic, the ship is a microcosm carrying the same kind of people–heroes and cowards, saints and sinners–present in the macrocosm.
Minstrel Roving medieval musician who sang and recited poetry.
Mise en Scène [meez on sen] In a stage play, the stage set (including the walls, furniture, etc.) and the arrangement of the actors; the process of arranging the set and the actors.
Monometer See Meter.
Motif Recurring theme in a literary work; recurring theme in literature in general. Maltreatment of women is a motif that appears in “Hills Like White Elephants,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour,” a short story by Kate Chopin; and “The Chrysanthemums,” a short story by John Steinbeck.The love of money as the root of evil is a motif that occurs in many works of literature. See also Epithet.
Mock-Epic Work that parodies the serious, elevated style of the classical epic poem–such as The Iliad or The Odyssey, by Homer–to poke fun at human follies. Thus, a mock-epic is a type of satire; it treats petty humans or insignificant occurrences as if they were extraordinary or heroic, like the great heroes and events of Homer's epics. Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" is generally considered the finest example of the mock-epic in the English language.
Morality Play Allegorical drama of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It teaches a lesson about how Christians should live and what they must do to save their souls. A morality play is, in effect, a sermon that is acted out. The characters of a typical morality play include personifications of virtues (such as hope and charity), vices (such as pride and sloth), or other qualities, as well as personifications of objects (such as money) or activities (such as death or fellowship). In addition, God and angels may appear as characters. Everyman is generally considered the finest work of this type.
Motivation Reason or reasons behind a character's action; what induces a character to do what he does; motives. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, love motivates the title characters. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, ambition (lust for power) motivates the title character and his wife to murder the king.
Narrator One who tells a story.
Naturalism In literature, an extreme form of realism that developed in France in the 19th Century. It was inspired in part by the scientific determinism of Charles Darwin, an Englishman, and the economic determinism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both Germans. Four Frenchmen–Hippolyte Taine, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, and Emile Zola–applied the principles of scientific and economic determinism to literature to create literary naturalism. According to its followers, literary naturalism stresses the following beliefs:
(2) Human beings have no free will, or very little of it, because heredity and environment are so powerful in determining the course of human action.
(3) Human beings, like lower animals, have no soul. Religion and morality are irrelevant. (Strindberg, an atheist when he wrote Miss Julie, later converted to Christianity under the influence of the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.)
(4) A literary work should present life exactly as it is, without preachment, judgment, or embellishment. In this respect, naturalism is akin to realism. However, naturalism goes further than realism in that it presents a more detailed picture of everyday life. Whereas the realist writer omits insignificant details when depicting a particular scene, a naturalist writer generally includes them. He wants the scene to be as “natural” as possible. The naturalist writer also attempts to be painstakingly objective and detached. Rather than manipulating characters as if they were puppets, the naturalist writer prefers to observe the characters as if they were animals in the wild and then report on their activity. Finally, naturalism attempts to present dialogue as spoken in everyday life. Rather than putting “unnatural” wording in the mouth of a character, the naturalist writer attempts to reproduce the speech patterns of people in a particular time and place.
Neologism [ne ALL uh jizm] Word or phrase–or a new meaning for an existing word or phrase–that is accepted into a dictionary. For example, the word sandwich was a neologism in 1762 when John Montagu–a British nobleman who had served as First Lord of the Admiralty–placed slabs of meat between two pieces of bread as a snack to sustain him while he was seated at a table in a 24-hour gambling marathon. His snack caught on and, because he held the rank of Earl of Sandwich, it was named after him. Examples of neologisms that have entered the dictionary in the last 50 years include designated hitter, beatnik, nerd, e-mail, cyberspace, and 9/11. Thousands of words and phrases enter the English language each year to name an invention, a development, a process, a trend. For example, the word parachute was coined upon the invention of a device that enabled a person to jump from an airplane and fall slowly to the earth. Cellular phone and cellphone entered the dictionary after the invention of a telephone that enabled a person to communicate over long distances through a wireless device. Robot (from the Czech word robota, meaning forced labor) was coined to describe mechanical "beings" that could perform tasks normally carried out by humans. In 2003, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary accepted the word pleather to describe a plastic material resembling plastic. William Shakespeare has been credited with coining many words because no word existed in his day to express what he wanted to say. Among these words are dauntless, fashionable, alligator, bedroom, pander, outbreak, laughingstock, the naked truth, amazement, leapfrog, madcap, frugal, articulate, immediacy, advertising, investment, puke, and zany.
New Comedy See Old Comedy.
Nihilism Nihilism (a term derived from the Latin word nihil, meaning nothing) is a philosophy that calls for the destruction of existing traditions, customs, beliefs, and institutions and requires its adherents to reject all values, including religious and aesthetic principles, in favor of belief in nothing. The term was coined in the Middle Ages to describe religious heretics. It was resurrected in mid-19th Century Russia to describe radicals and revolutionaries. Supporters of this philosophy saw it as a stage in the struggle against tyranny and injustice. Ivan Turgenev made nihilism a household world in Russia with the publication of Fathers and Sons in 1861. Its main character–the nihilist Bazarov–became the most famous nihilist in the world, even though he was fictional.
Nine Worthies Mythological, legendary, biblical, or historical personages alluded to in literature because of their heroic qualities. The Nine Worthies include (1) Hector, the Trojan hero slain by Achilles; (2) Alexander the Great, the Macedonian general who conquered the Persians and marched through Asia; (3) Joshua, the successor of Moses; (4) David, the slayer of Goliath and second king of Israel and Judah; (5) Judas Maccabeus, a great Jewish general who defeated Syrian armies and purified and restored the temple in Jerusalem; (6) Julius Caesar, the great Roman general and political leader; (7) King Arthur, ruler of Camelot in the Arthurian legends; (8) Charlemagne, king of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor; and (9) Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First Crusade in the Holy Land. In Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare presents an entertainment in which characters take the parts of the Nine Worthies.
Noble Savage Since ancient times, writers have often depicted aboriginal or uncivilized people as noble–untainted by the corrupt ways of civilization. Greek and Latin authors, such as Homer and Ovid, were sympathetic to some primitive peoples in their writings. In 1672, the English poet, critic and dramatist John Dryden coined the term noble savage in a play called The Conquest of Granada. Between 1760 and 1780, the French writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau popularized the concept of the noble savage in his writings. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville developed this motif with three “noble savages”: the harpooners Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo. For example, he depicts Queequeg–a tattooed savage who sells shrunken heads–as being more tolerant and benevolent than the civilized Christian whalers.
Nom de Plume Pen name; pseudonym. Writers often use noms de plume to hide their identity or their sex–or to simplify a hard-to-remember or hard-to-pronounce name. Among writers who used noms de plume were Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain), William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), Eric Blair (George Orwell), Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (Q), François Marie-Arouet (Voltaire), and Amandine-Aurore Lucile Dudevant (George Sand).
Novel Long fictional story told in prose. Novels typically have more characters than a short story and a more complicated plot that might take place in various settings, sometimes over a period of months or years. Examples of novels are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, David Copperfield, Babbitt, Crime and Punishment, and The Scarlet Letter.
Novella Short prose tale that often has satire and a moral. Sometimes novellas were collected into a single work that used a frame tale to establish a theme common to all of them. The stories then were told "inside the frame" and became part of it. Boccaccio's Decameron contains novellas.
Novelette Prose work shorter than a novel but longer than a short story. Examples of novelettes are Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Objectivity Ability of an author to keep his opinions and preachments out of a poem, a play, a short story, a novel, or any other literary work that he writes. Modern readers tend to admire objectivity in an author.
Ockham's Razor Principle expressed by William of Ockham (1285-1349), a German Franciscan priest, that the simplest solution is the best.
Octameter See Meter.
Octave First eight lines of a Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet. Petrarch's sonnets each consist of an eight-line stanza (octave) and a six-line stanza (sestet). The first stanza presents a theme, and the second stanza develops it. The rhyme scheme is as follows: (1) first stanza (octave): ABBA, ABBA; (2) second stanza (sestet): CDE, CDE.
Ode In ancient Greece, a lyric poem on a serious subject that develops its theme with dignified language intended to be sung.
Ode, Romantic: Dignified but highly lyrical (emotional) poem in which the author speaks to a person or thing absent or present.
Oeuvre (OO vrah) The complete works of an author, a composer, a painter, etc. Oeuvre is a French word for work. See also Canon.
Old Comedy In Greece of the Fifth Century, BC, a genre of comedy that displayed great imagination and used cutthroat satire, caricature, and sometimes vulgar dialogue to ridicule public figures, politics, ideas, trends, and institutions. Aristophanes was the unsurpassed master of old comedy. In the Fourth Century, old comedy was succeeded by a lighter, less caustic form of comedy that centered on fictional characters drawn from everyday life rather than on public figures, politics, and so on. This genre was appropriately labeled new comedy.
Old English Versification Unrhyming verse, without stanzas, with a caesura (pause) in the middle of each line. The lines contain caesuras to represent the pauses that speakers normally use in everyday speech. Thus, each line is divided into two parts. Each part is called a hemistich (HEM e stick), which is half a line of verse. A complete line is called a stich. Each hemistich contains two stressed (accented) syllables and a varying number of unstressed (unaccented) syllables. Following are the opening three lines of Beowulf in Old English, with the space in the middle representing the caesura.
Onkos Headdress worn by some actors in ancient Greece to increase their height and, thus, visibility to theater audiences.
Onomatopoeia Figure of speech in which (1) a word mimics a sound or (2) an arrangement of words in a rhythmic pattern suggests a sound or an image. Examples of No. 1: burp, varoom, oink, crackle, moo, hiss, gong, thud, splash, zip, creak, boom, slurp, crunch, quack, twitter, honk, hoot, squeak, buzz, and zoom.
Opera Plural of opus, Latin for work. An opera is a play set to music. The words are sung and sometimes presented in dialogue that resembles conversation but sounds like singing.
Opus See Opera.
Oration Speech delivered with great emotion to spur listeners to action.
Otiose Writing [OH she ohss] Extremely wordy writing in which the author is too lazy to edit for conciseness.
Oxymoron Combining contradictory words to reveal a truth. Oxymoron is a form of paradox. However, unlike paradox, oxymoron places opposing words side by side. Examples: (1) Parting is such sweet sorrow.–Shakespeare. (2) Working in a coal mine is living death. (3) The hurricane turned the lush island retreat into a hellish paradise.
Pantomime Use of body movements and facial expressions by actors to convey a message without speaking.
Papyrus See Quill.
Parabasis (puh RAB uh sis) In the drama of ancient Greece, an ode in which the chorus addresses the audience to express opinions of the author, including his views on politics, social trends, and other topics.
Parodos (PAIR uh doss) In the drama of ancient Greece, a song sung by the chorus when it enters; also, the moment when the chorus enters.
Paradox Contradictory statement that may actually be true. Paradox is similar to oxymoron in that both figures of speech use contradictions to state a truth. However, paradox does not place opposing words side by side, as oxymoron does. Examples: (1) They called him a lion. But in the boxing ring, the lion was a lamb. (2) For slaves, life was death, and death was life.
Paranomasia (PAIR uh no MAY zhuh) Pretentious term for pun.
Parody Imitation of a literary work or film–or the style used by a writer or filmmaker–in order to ridicule the work and its writer or producer. The Austin Powers movies are parodies of spy films.
Pastoral Poem Poem focusing on some aspect of rural life. It may center on the love of a shepherd for a maiden, on the death of a friend, or on the quiet simplicity of rural life. The writer of a pastoral poem may be a highly educated city dweller who longs for the peace and quiet of the country or who extolls the virtues of a shepherd girl. Pastoral is derived from the Latin word pastor, meaning shepherd.
Pen Name See Nom de Plume.
Periakti In the drama of ancient Greece, a prism having surfaces painted with pictures. When it revolved, it changed the scenery on a stage.
Peripeteia (also peripetia or peripety) In a stage tragedy in ancient Greece, a sudden reversal of fortune from good to bad.
Persona In a literary work, a narrator or speaker who presents the work to the reader. The persona may be an active character in the work, or he may be an unidentified narrator or commentator. The persona may or may not represent the views of the author. In the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the persona--the person describing the action in first-person point of view--is often a madman.
In some cases, the persona is not even human.
Peroration (1) Concluion of a speech in which the speaker summarizes the main points. (2) Long, pompous speech; bombastic speech.
Personification Giving humanlike qualities or human form to objects and abstractions. Personification is a form of metaphor. Examples: (1) Thou has done a deed whereat valor will weep.–Shakespeare. (Notice that valor, an abstraction, weeps.) (2) Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered–Shakespeare. (3) Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me. –Emily Dickinson. (4) The house pleaded for a new coat of paint.
Philippic Speech that bitterly denounces, blames, accuses, or insults a person; speech that viciously attacks a person or his ideas. The word Philippic is derived from the Greek Philippikos (belonging to Philip). In 351 BC, the Athenian orator Demosthenes (384-322 BC) began making speeches against the encroachment of King Philip of Macedon (382-336) on Greek territory. These speeches became known as "Philippics."
Picaresque Novel Novel that presents the episodic adventures (each a story in itself) of a roguish character as he travels from place to place and meets a variety of other characters, some of them also travelers. The episodes often center on feats of derring-do and romantic escapades.
Plaint Expression of grief or sorrow in a poem. Such an expression is said to be plaintive, a word that is a cousin of the word plaintiff, a legal term for a person who brings a suit, or complaint, in a court of law against a defendant.
Plot The events that unfold in a story; the action and direction of a story; the story line.
Poetics Important work by Aristotle written about 335 B.C. It analyzes Greek theater and outlines its origin and development. One of its theses is that literature and other forms of art imitate the activity of humans. Tragedy is the higher form of the playwright's craft, Aristotle says, because it imitates the action of noble persons and depicts lofty events. Comedy, on the other hand, focuses on ordinary humans and events.
Poetry Language that expresses powerful emotions and ideas in a stanza or stanzas that may use rhythm and rhyme, as well as other rhetorical devices. For a full discussion of prose, poetry, and verse, click here.
Prologue Introduction to a play or another literary work. In Shakespeare's Henry V, a chorus (one person) speaks a prologue that encourages the audience members to use their imaginations to create what an Elizabethan stage cannot: battlefields, clashing swords, the might of warriors. Shakespeare writes, "Think when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth."
Prologos In the drama of ancient Greece, a prologue that begins the play with dialogue indicating the focus or theme of the play.
Promptbook or Prompt Copy In Shakespeare's time, the edited version of a play in which an acting company inserted stage directions.
Proscenium (1) The stage of a theater; (2) the part of the stage extending out toward the audience; (3) the arch over the stage that separates the stage from the audience. The proscenium arch helps create the illusion that the audience viewing a play is looking into real world just as the frame around a television screen helps TV viewers do the same.
Prose Language of everyday speech and writing. For a full discussion of prose, poetry, and verse, click here.
Protagonist (Greek Play) Main character in an ancient Greek play who usually interacts with the chorus. In a tragedy, the protagonist is traditionally a person of exalted status–such as a king, a queen, a political leader, or a military hero–who has a character flaw (inordinate pride, for example). This character flaw causes the protagonist to make an error of judgment. Additionally, the typical protagonist experiences a moment of truth in which he or she recognizes and acknowledges his or her mistakes, failures, or sins.
Protagonist (Modern Sense) Main character of a novel, play, or film.
Protasis Opening part of a stage drama that introduces the characters and focus of the play.
Pseudonym See Nom de Plume.
Pun Play on words; using a word that sounds like another word but has a different meaning. Examples: (1) Marriage is a wife sentence. (2) They went and told the sexton and the sexton tolled the bell.–Thomas Hood.
Quarto A quarto is sheet of printing paper folded twice to form eight separate pages for printing a book. To better visualize a quarto, hold before you a standard sheet of typing paper and fold it as you would a letter. You now have a rectangular piece of paper. Fold the paper again to form it into a square (or near square). Now unfold the paper and lay it flat before you. Notice that the sheet of.paper now has four sections on one side and four on the other. In Shakespeare's time, printing paper was folded in this way. Each of the four sections on one side became a page, and each of the .four sections on the other side became page. Thus, there were eight pages in all. Each of these pages was about a foot high. William Shakespeare's plays were first published in quarto and folio texts. Some of the quarto texts are based on inferior, unauthorized copies of Shakespeare's plays. For example, an unscrupulous publisher named John Danter, hoping to make money by selling Romeo and Juliet, used notes taken during a performance of the play to piece together a copy of it for sale in a 1597 quarto edition. What resulted was Shakespeare "as you hate him"–full of errors and inconsistencies.
Quatrain Stanza or poem of four lines. A quatrain usually has a rhyme scheme, such as abab, abba, or abcb.
Quill Writing instrument used before the invention of the fountain pen, the ballpoint pen, and other writing instruments. A quill was the hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The word “pen” is derived from the Latin name for “feather”–“penna.” Shakespeare and other writers of his day used a variety of quills that they dipped in an ink container (inkwell) on a stand (standish) that held all the writing materials. If a writer’s pocket lacked jingle, he invested in a goose quill. If he could afford something better, he invested in a swan quill. Writers or artists who needed quills to produce fine lines purchased crow quills. Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks and owls also served as “word processors,” producing plays, poems, and sometimes revolution. Quills were the writing instruments of choice between 500 A.D. and 1850 A.D. (In the ancient world, writers used a variety of other instruments to write history, literature, announcements, bureaucratic records, and so on. These instruments included shaped twigs or branches that impressed words into clay, mallet-driven chisels that etched words in stone, brushes that wrote on pottery and other smooth surfaces (such as plaster and animal skins), sharpened bone or metal that inscribed words on wax surfaces, and sharpened reed stems dipped in ink that wrote on papyrus, an Egyptian water plant whose pith (the soft center of a stem) was dried and pressed to make thin sheets suitable for receiving impressions. The introduction of the quill in the 500's (an event recorded by St. Isidore, a Spanish theologian) greatly eased the task of writers, much as personal computers did when they replaced typewriters in the last half of the 20th Century.)
Redundancy Writing flaw in which unnecessary wording is used. Examples: Wrong: Her dress was green in color. Right: Her dress was green. Wrong: The president will arrive at 3 p.m. this afternoon. Right: The president will arrive at 3 p.m. Wrong: Please repeat that statement again. Right: Please repeat that statement.
Re-Enter Stage direction in a play manuscript indicating the re-entrance onto the stage of a character or characters.
Refrain Group of words repeated at key intervals in a poem, such as Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
Realism In literature, a movement that stressed the presentation of life as it is, without embellishment or idealization. However, it was not as extreme in this presentation as Naturalism.
Repartee Quick, witty, often amusing reply; a conversation full of witty replies; verbal fencing or sparring.
Rhetoric Art of effectively using words in speech and writing; the study of language and its rules. Rhetoric can also refer to insincere or deceptive language, as in this sentence: The senator promised to tell the truth, but in his news conference he spouted nothing but political rhetoric.
Rhyme, Consonant A special type of rhyme (consonance) in which pairs of words with different vowel sounds have the same final consonants. Example: best, first.
Rhyme, End Rhyme in which the final syllable (or syllables) of one line mimic the sound of the final syllable (or syllables) of another line.
Rhyme, Eye Form of rhyme in which the pronunciation of the last syllable of one line is different from the pronunciation of the last syllable of another line even though both syllables are identical in spelling except for a preceding consonant. For example, the following end-of-line word pairs would constitute eye rhyme: cough, rough; cow, mow; daughter, laughter; rummaging, raging.
Rhyme, Feminine Rhyme in which the final two syllables of one line mimic the sound of the final two syllables of another line. Examples: repeat, deplete; farrow, narrow; scarlet; varlet.
Rhyme, Internal Rhyme that occurs inside a line. Example: The knell of the bell saddened me.
Rhyme, Masculine Rhyme in which the final yllable of one line mimics the sound of the final yllable of another line. Examples: black, back; hell, well; shack, black.
Roman à Clef [ro MAH na KLEH] Novel in which real persons are thinly disguised as fictional characters with fictional names. For example, if an author wrote a roman à clef about the private lives of movie stars, he would base the novel on the lifestyles of real actors and actresses but give them fictitious names.
Romance, Medieval Long poem resembling an epic in its focus on heroic deeds. Unlike an epic, however, a medieval romance is light in tone, and its content is at times fantastic and magical. In a medieval romance chivalrous knights pay homage to lovely ladies. The knights are often pure in heart and soul, although sorely tempted by the wiles of beautiful women. There may be merriment and singing. An example of a medieval romance is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Romanticism In literature, a movement that championed imagination and emotions as more powerful than reason and systematic thinking. “What I feel about a person or thing,” a romantic poet might have said, “is more important than what scientific investigation, observation, and experience would say about that person or thing.” Intuition–that voice within that makes judgments and decisions without
Rondeau Lyric poem consisting of three stanzas with a total of fifteen lines. Lines 9 and 15 are the same--that is, they make up a refrain. Line 9 occurs at the end of the second stanza and line 15 at the end of the third stanza. These lines are very short and rhyme only with each other and not with any other lines. In a rondeau, all lines except 9 and 15 generally contain eight syllables each. Click here to see an example of a rondeau.
Sarcasm Form of verbal irony that insults a person with insincere praise. For example, a cruel person might tell a homely woman wearing dowdy clothes, "I see, Miss America, that you are wearing the latest Dior ensemble."
Satire.Literary work that attacks or pokes fun at vices and imperfections; political cartoon that does the same. Satire may make the reader laugh at or feel disgust for the person or thing satirized. The TV program Saturday Night Live often uses satire to expose abuses and follies.
Satyr Play In the drama of ancient Greece, a play that pokes fun at a serious subject involving gods and myths; a parody of stories about gods or myths. Fragments of Sophocles's satyr play Ichneutae (Trackers) survive along with his seven complete tragedies.
Scenario Plot outline of a play, opera, motion picture, or TV program.
Scene (1) Part of an act of a play; (2) a settingin a literary work, opera, or film; (3) a theater stage in ancient Greece or Rome; (4) part of a literary work, opera, or film that centers on one aspect of plot development.
One of the main divisions of a play. Shakespeare's plays each have five acts. Each act is subdivided into scenes. An act generally focuses on one major aspect of the plot or theme. Between acts, stagehands may change scenery, and the setting may shift to another locale.
Science Fiction Literary genre focusing on how scientific experiments, discoveries, and technologies affect human beings for better or worse. Science fiction differs from pure fantasy in that it presents events that appear to be scientifically plausible. Traveling to another galaxy in a spaceship is scientifically plausible. Riding to the moon on a winged horse is not scientifically plausible.
Scop Old English poet often attached to a monarch's court. A scop composed and recited his own poetry.
Sennet Stage direction in a play manuscript to signal a trumpet flourish that ntroducess the entrance of a character, such as the entrance of King Lear (Act 1) in Shakespeare's play.
Sentimentality A flaw in a literary work or film in which the author relies on tear-jerking or heart-wrenching scenes rather than writing talent or cinematic skill to evoke a response in readers.
Sermon A clergyman's talk centering on a scriptural passage.
Sestet Final six lines of a Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet. Petrarch's sonnets each consist of an eight-line stanza (octave) and a six-line stanza (sestet). The first stanza presents a theme, and the second stanza develops it. The rhyme scheme is as follows: (1) first stanza (octave): ABBA, ABBA; (2) second stanza (sestet): CDE, CDE.
Sestina Poem with six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a stanza with three lines (tercet). A Provençal troubadour, Arnaut Daniel, developed the sesinta, which was written in unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Setting Setting is the environment in which a story unfolds. It includes (1) the time and period of history, (2) the place, (3) the atmosphere, (4) the clothing, (5) the living conditions, and (6) the social climate. Sometimes the setting is extremely important. For example, the atmosphere can influence characters in a ghost story; the living conditions can influence characters in a story about class conflicts or life in prison.
Shaped Verse See Concrete Poetry.
Sic Word inserted in a quoted statement in a research work (essay, magazine article, doctoral thesis, book, etc.) to indicate that the quotation contains an error. Sic appears in brackets after the error. Following is an example of the use of sic:
Soliloquy Recitation in a play in which a character reveals his thoughts to the audience but not to other characters in the play.
Solus Stage direction in a play manuscript indicating a character is alone on the stage.
Sonnet Form of lyric poetry invented in Italy that has 14 lines with a specific rhyme scheme. The Italian Petrarchan sonnet consists of an eight-line stanza (octave) and a six-line stanza (sestet). The first stanza presents a theme, and the second stanza develops it. The rhyme scheme is as follows: (1) first stanza (octave): ABBA, ABBA; (2) second stanza (sestet): CDE, CDE. The Shakespearean sonnet (also called the English sonnet) has three four-line stanzas (quatrains) and a two-line unit called a couplet. A couplet is always indented; both lines rhyme at the end. The meter of Shakespeare's sonnets is iambic pentameter (except in Sonnet 145). The rhyming lines in each stanza are the first and third and the second and fourth. In the couplet ending the poem, both lines rhyme. All of Shakespeare's sonnets follow the same rhyming pattern.
Sonnet, Curtal Shortened or contracted sonnet. A curtal sonnet consists of eleven lines instead of the usual fourteen for the standard Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet. An example of a curtal sonnet is "Pied Beauty," by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Soubrette In a comedy (a play or an opera), a maid or servant girl involved in intrigue affecting the central characters. She usually has a quick tongue, common sense, and a good sense of humor. One of the most famous soubrettes in the history of theater is Suzanne in The Marriage of Figaro (play by Beaumarchais and opera by Mozart).
Southern Gothic.Fictional genre with a setting in the Southern United States that vests its stories with foreboding and grotesquerie. Begun in the twentieth century, Southern Gothic replaces the romanticism of nineteenth-century Gothic works with realism. However, southern Gothic retains the disturbing elements of earlier Gothic works, whether in the form of a deranged character, a forbidding forest, or a sense of impending doom. Among the writers associated with this genre are Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams.
Spondee and Spondaic See Meter.
Spoonerism Slip of the tongue in which a speaker transposes the letters of words. Pee little thrigs is a spoonerism for three little pigs.
Spenserian Stanza A stanza with eight lines in iambic pentameter and a ninth line in iambic hexameter. Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) originated this format in his great allegorical poem The Faerie Queene. The rhyme scheme of the stanza is ababbcbcc.
Stasimon (pronunciation: STASS uh mon): In a Greek play, a scene in which the chorus sings a song, uninterrupted by dialogue.
Stationers' Register In Shakespeare's time, a book in which the English government required printers to register the title of a play before the play was published. The full official name of the Stationers' Register was the Hall Book of the Worshipful Company of Stationers.
Stanza Lines that form a division or unit of a poem. Stanzas generally have four lines.
Stereotype Character in a literary work or film who thinks or acts according to certain unvarying patterns simply because of his or her racial, ethnic, religious, or social background. A stereotype is usually an image that society projects or imposes on every member of a group as a result of prejudice or faulty information. Examples of stereotypes are the Irish drunk, the Italian mobster, the dishonest car salesman, the plain-Jane librarian, the shyster lawyer, the Machiavellian politician, and the dumb blonde.
Stichomythia (stik uh MITH e uh) In a stage play brief, alternating lines of dialogue spoken in rapid-fire succession. It occurs frequently in Greek drama, especially when characters are arguing or expressing strong emotions. Following is an example of stichomythia in The Clouds, by Aristophanes, in which two characters–Unjust Cause and Just Cause–are insulting each other:
Just You are debauched and shameless.
Unj. You have spoken roses of me.
Just And a dirty lickspittle.
Unj. You crown me with lilies.
Just And a parricide.
Unj. You don't know that you are sprinkling me with
Just Certainly not so formerly, but with lead.
Unj. But now this is an ornament to me.
Just You are very impudent.
Unj. And you are antiquated.
Style Style is the way an author writes a literary work. It manifests itself in the author’s choice of words and phrases, the structure of sentences, the length of paragraphs, the tone of the work, and so on. Just as painters, singers, and dancers have different styles, so too do authors. One author may use a great deal of dialogue while another author uses little. Some authors use difficult vocabulary; others use simple vocabulary. Ernest Hemingway uses simple words, but the story they tell may be complex. Charles Dickens describes people with unusual names and memorable characteristics. Uriah Heep has slimy hands; Mr. Murdstone, who is vicious and cruel, dresses in black. To describe people and places, the author of Beowulf uses a special figure of speech called a kenning. A kenning combines two nouns, usually separated by a hyphen, to create an image. Thus, sea becomes whale-road and boat becomes wave-traveler.
Subplot Secondary or minor plot in a story usually related to the main plot.
Suspense Anxiety about what will happen next in a story. In Poe's short story "The Pit and the Pendulum," the main character is strapped to a board in a dark cell while a pendulum in the form of a steel blade swings over him. With each swing, the pendulum descends closer to his body. The reader is kept in suspense about how the character will free himself.
Symbol In a literary work or film, a person, place, thing or idea that represents something else. Writers often use a snake as a symbol for evil, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown." Commonly used symbols include the eagle (strength), a flag (patriotism), and the sea (life).
Syncope Omitting letters or sounds within a word. The word bos'n as a shortened version of boatswain (a naval officer) is an example of syncope.
Synecdoche Substitution of a part to stand for the whole, or the whole to stand for a part. Examples: (1) The Confederates have eyes in Lincoln's government. (The word "eyes" stands for spies.) (2) Jack bought a new set of wheels. ("Wheels" stands for a car.) (3) The law pursued the bank robbers from Maine to Florida. ("Law" stands for police.)
SynesthesiaUse of an adjective associated with one sensation to describe a noun referring to another sensation. Examples: (1) a cold voice; (2) The closer the roses got to death, the louder their scent (Toni Morrison, Beloved, Knopf, 1987).
Tautology Wordiness, needless repetition. See also prolixity and redundancy.
Tercet.In poetry, a unit of three lines that usually contain end rhyme. (Examples of tercets are the three-line stanzas of terza rima, defined below.)
Terza Rima Italian verse form invented by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). It consists of a series of three-line stanzas in which Line 2 of one stanza rhymes with Lines 1 and 3 of the next stanza. The rhyme scheme progresses in the following pattern: aba, bcb, cdc, ded, efe, ghg, and so on. The following English translation of the first lines from the Divine Comedy–with the original Dante lines on the right–demonstrate the rhyme scheme:
I found myself again in a dark wood.................mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Wherein the straight road no longer lay.............ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ah, tongue can never make it understood:........Ahi
quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
It is so bitter death is hardly worse....................Tant'è
amara che poco è più morte;
English translation: Dale, Peter. The Divine Comedy. London: Anvil Press, 1996.
Tetrameter See Meter.
Theater, Greek Open-air structure in which plays were performed. The stage faced the afternoon sunlight to illuminate a performance while allowing the audience to view the action without squinting. A Greek theater consisted of the following:
entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery.
Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
Proscenium: Acting area, or stage, in front of the skene.
Orchestra: Ground-level area where the chorus performed. It was in front of the proscenium.
Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra. (Also, a song sung by the chorus when it entered or the moment when the chorus enters.
Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
Theatron: Tiered seating area built into a hillside in the shape of a horseshoe.
Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.
Theme Main idea of a literary work; the thesis.
Thespian Actor or actress. Also, an adjective referring to any person or thing pertaining to Greek drama or drama in general. The word is derived from Thespis, the name of a Greek of the 6th Century B.C. who was said to have been the first actor on the Greek stage.
Tone Prevailing mood or atmosphere in a literary work. One may compare the tone of a poem, a novel, a play, or an essay to the tone of the human voice as it projects the emotions of the speaker or to the appearance of the sky as it dispenses rain or sunlight. Thus, the tone of a literary work may be joyful, sad, brooding, angry, playful, and so on. The tone of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is somber; the tone of Voltaire's Candide is mocking and sarcastic; the tone of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor is jocund and farcical.
Tiring House In Shakespeare's time, dressing rooms of actors behind a wall at the back of the stage. To tire means to dress–that is, to attire oneself. Sometimes, the wall of the tiring house could stand as the wall of a fortress under siege.
Torches Stage direction in a Shakespeare play indicating that entering characters are carrying lit torches.
Tragedy (Greek) Verse drama written in elevated language in which a noble protagonist falls to ruin during a struggle caused by a flaw (hamartia) in his character or an error in his rulings or judgments. Following are the characteristics of a Sophocles tragedy: (1) It is based on events that already took place and with which the audience is familiar. (2) The protagonist is a person of noble stature. (3) The protagonist has a weakness and, because of it, becomes isolated and suffers a downfall. (4) Because the protagonist's fall is not entirely his or her own fault, the audience may end up pitying him or her. (5) The fallen protagonist gains self-knowledge. He has a deeper insight into himself and understands his weakness. (6) The audience undergoes catharsis, a purging of emotions, after experiencing pity, fear, shock and other strong feelings. The people go away feeling better. (7) The drama usually unfolds in one place in a short period of time, usually about a day.
Tragicomedy Play that has tragic events but ends happily. Examples are Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
Transcendentalism Belief that every human being has inborn knowledge that enables him to recognize and understand moral truth without benefit of knowledge obtained through the physical senses. Using this inborn knowledge, an individual can make a moral decision without relying on information gained through everyday living, education, and experimentation. One may liken this inborn knowledge to conscience or intuition. American author Henry David Thoreau believed that this inborn knowledge served as a moral guiding force–that this inner knowledge was a higher, transcendent form of knowledge than that which came through the senses. Because Thoreau and his fellow transcendentalists trusted their own inner light as a moral guiding force, they exhibited a fierce spirit of self-reliance. They were individualists; they liked to make decisions for themselves. If the government adopted a policy or a law that offended their consciences, they generally reacted strongly. Thoreau's essay “Civil Disobedience” expresses his reaction and measured response to government dictums that legitimized slavery and the Mexican War. Transcendentalism did not originate with Thoreau or his fellow American transcendentalists but with the German philosopher Emanuel Kant. He used the German word for transcendental to refer to intuitive or innate knowledge–knowledge which is a priori rather than a posteriori.
Travesty (1) Play, novel, poem, skit, film, opera, etc., that trivializes a serious subject or composition. Generally, a travesty achieves its effect through broad humor and through incongruous or distorted language and situations. Examples of works that contain travesty are Cervantes’s Don Quixote de La Mancha and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the Act V staging of Pyramis and Thisbe by the bumbling tradesmen). Literary works that mock trivial or unimportant subjects are not travesties; travesties mock only serious, dignified, or noble subjects. (2) A work in literature, music, or art that is so poorly done that it fails to meet even the minimum standards for style, technique, form, etc. (3) Any gross distortion or misrepresentation of a procedure, a custom, an approach, a method, a system, or a course of action. For example, a trial in which the judge is incompetent and the jury is biased may be termed a travesty.
Trimeter See Meter.
Trochee and Trochaic See Meter.
Trope Figure of speech; figurative language.
Troubadour Lyric poet/musician of southern France or northern Italy; minstrel.
Ubi Sunt Ubi sunt is Latin for where are. The term is applied to poetry that laments the passing of people, places, things, or ideas by rhetorically asking where they are now in order to call attention to the inexorable passage of time and the inevitability of death, decay, and obsolescence. François Villon's "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" is a fine example of this genre.
Unities Three key elements of dramatic structure: time, place, and action. These unities, formulated in part by Aristotle in his commentary on Greek drama and in part by the Italian Renaissance humanist Lodovico Castelvetro, suggested that a play should have one setting with a single plot thread that unfolds in one short time period, about a day. However, some playwrights began ignoring these ancient rules. Shakespeare observed them in some of his plays but ignored them in others. For example, in The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare not only shifts the setting, but he also leaps ahead 16 years.
Universality Appealing to readers and audiences of any age or any culture. For example, although Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is set in London of the late 19th Century, its message–that each human being has a good side and dark side–applies and appeals to people today in every country. Likewise, the central conflict of Sophocles’s Antigone, the individual vs the state (or moral law vs man-made law), has remained relevant since its first performance more than 2,400 years ago.
Verisimilitude Having the appearance of truth; realism. In a fictional work, a writer creates unreal characters and situations and asks the reader to pretend that they are real. To help the reader in this task, the writer tells his tale in such a way that he makes it seem credible–that is, he gives it “verisimilitude.” Verisimilitude is derived from the Latin words veritas (truth) and similis (similar). Thus, verisimilitude in a literary work confers on it the quality of appearing true or similar to the truth.
Verse Collection of lines (as in a Shakespeare play) that follow a regular, rhythmic pattern. For a full discussion of prose, poetry, and verse, click here.
Villanelle Form of poetry popularized mainly in France in the 16th Century. It usually expressed pastoral, idyllic sentiments in imitation of the Italian villanella, a type of song for singers and dancers that centered on rural, peasant themes. When French writers such as Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560) and Philipe Desportes (1546-1606) began writing villanelles, these poems did not have a fixed format. However, when Jean Passerat (1534-1602) wrote a villanelle whose format caught the fancy of critics, that format became the standard for all future villanelles. The format is as follows:
Lines in Each Stanza: three in each of the first five stanzas, four in the last. A three-line stanza is called a tercet; a four-line stanza, a quatrain.
Refrains: two lines, the first and third of the first stanza, must be repeated in the other stanzas. Here is the pattern: Line 1 of the first stanza is repeated as Line 3 of the second stanza, as Line 3 of the fourth stanza, and as Line 3 of the sixth stanza. Line 3 of the first stanza is repeated as Line 3 of the third stanza, Line 3 of the fifth stanza, and Line 4 of the sixth stanza.
End Rhyme: aba in the first five stanzas; abaa in the last stanza. "Do not Go Gentle into That Good Night," by Dylan Thomas, is an example of a villanelle.
Zeugma Use of one word (usually an adjective or a verb) to serve two or more other words with more than one meaning. Example: The dance floor was square, and so was the bandleader’s personality. Explanation: Square describes the dance floor and the bandleader’s personality with different meanings.