Varieties of Chiasmus in 68 Plays

This is an expanded version of the paper that I delivered at the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Society meeting in Portland, Oregon on 21 October 2017. You can download the slideshow in PDF. Two earlier posts in this series address the problem, and the programming methods I used to address it.

This paper had the more ambitious title, originally, of “Motives for Rhetorical Figuration in the EEBO-TCP Corpus.” Now it’s focused on just one figure, and in fewer texts.

I’ll use 68 plays as a proving ground for my methods (described in two earlier posts: here’s the first, and here’s the second ) before I apply them to the larger EEBO-TCP corpus . These plays are a good place to test and refine my methods because they contain language in a range of registers on a variety of subjects.

And I’m focusing on chiasmus because it repeats words in close proximity — but truthfully, it’s also because there’s already an excellent tool to find it. (None of this research would have been possible without Marie Dubremetz’s chiasmus detector program .)

This paper has four parts: some reflections on why it’s worth searching for rhetorical figures; some examples to define antimetabole and chiasmus; some thoughts on the benefits of using a machine to find them; and finally some results from my methods.

Antimetabole can be defined as the literal form of chiasmus, the X-shaped figure of speech that repeats ideas or synonyms in inverse order. The difference between the two is that antimetabole repeats words, while chiasmus repeats ideas. So all antimetaboles are chiasmic, but not all chiasmi are antimetabolic. (See that? I explained the difference using the figure itself.)

Here is a Shakespearean example of each: the first, from Macbeth, is an antimetabole; the second, from Othello, is a chiasmus. (If you want more examples, take a look at my first post in this series.)

Okay, so why look for figures? There are two answers: because they are beautiful, and because they are cognitively significant.


Figures are beautiful, or at least compelling, because they lodge themselves in the memory. They are displays of the speaker’s virtuosity, or skill with words — and hence with ideas. Figures are the patterns of repetition and variation that make language memorable, compelling, and beautiful.

They are, for instance, the part of a political speech most likely to be excerpted as a sound bite. Consider an example from this very week: on 24 October 2017, Arizona senator Jeff Flake’s impassioned speech denouncing the tone and character of political discourse used an anaphora, or a figure in which the speaker repeats a word at the beginning of successive clauses: “I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because … Regret because … Regret because … Regret because … Regret for ….” It’s a compelling structure, underscoring how many things there are to regret.


Figures are also cognitively significant, which means they reflect habits of thought in both the speaker and the audience. Senator Flake thinks in lists; you can imagine the bullet points in his drafts of this speech. And when listening to a speech, audiences like lists, too: they give us purchase on ideas; they reinforce what we heard a moment ago but might have forgotten. (“I rise today …” is a conventional opening, but Flake’s sentence ends with the word at the core of his message.)

Raphael Lyne, in his 2011 book Shakespeare, Rhetoric and Cognition, discusses anaphora in Shakespeare. (For example, “Some glory in their birth, some in their skill, | Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,” from Sonnet 91.) Lyne writes:

“Even something as mechanical as anaphora – [a figure] where the same words are repeated to begin successive clauses – might testify to some sort of exploratory or categorical structure, wherein thoughts are managed and perhaps also instigated.⁠”

You might say that my goal in this project is to turn Lyne’s “might” into something more decisive. Even a “mechanical” figure, complicated by repetition and variation, can testify to a speaker’s cognitive processes: listing, elaborating, enumerating.

Or in the case of antimetabole, the speaker is reversing and inverting received ways of thinking.

How so? Consider the famous line from President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” Everyone can recite the end of that sentence, as I wrote in my first post in this series. It’s not just a stylish, compelling, elegant inversion; its substantial purpose is to make you think differently. Simply by inverting his words, Kennedy tells his fellow Americans to ask a public-spirited question, rather than a private-interest question. And it worked: the 1960s witnessed the rise of the Peace Corps, the Apollo program, and the Great Society.

What about the characters of early modern drama? They have all kinds of different motives, but most of them are also trying to make you see things differently. (Okay, one last plug: I discussed motives in my first post.)

Beyond Context

It’s also worth moving past these contexts, past the early 1960s or late 2010s, past the circumstances of characters addressing other characters and audiences. I want to understand, more broadly, how Shakespeare and his contemporaries use antimetaboles. What forms do antimetaboles take, both normally and exceptionally? For instance, do they more commonly repeat nouns, verbs, or other parts of speech? Do they ever invert more than three words? How dissimilar can those words be? And finally, how does antimetabole interact with other figures?

Answering these questions means I’ll have to find as many instances of antimetabole as possible, and that means I’ll have to use machines to do it. I could, of course, read through texts looking for them, or look through compilations of examples. And there’s no shortage of resources on Shakespeare, including Mariam Joseph’s classic Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language (1947; repr. 2008).

In other words, I could begin by making lists, the way scholars begin every literary-critical project. What difference does it make whether I read plays to compile our lists, or trust sources like Joseph, or use a machine? There’s little reason to choose; I could use all three methods. But if I can set reliable criteria, there’s no reason not to trust machines to do the list-making for me. Or to put it another way, what do I have to lose?

What I lose

Context, for one. I won’t know (necessarily) what characters are talking about, or what motives inform their words. But there’s no reason I couldn’t simply read the plays, if I need to know this. So context is lost in the first instance, but not precluded in the second.

Authority, for another. I won’t be able to point to Miriam Joseph or Frank Kermode, or Brian Vickers or Raphael Lyne, as authoritative critical sources of the antimetaboles I discuss. Or to manuals by Henry Peacham or George Puttenham or Thomas Wilson, as authoritative early modern sources; the word ‘primary’ doesn’t really suit these compilations.

But does the value of precedents matter more than the authority of a list gathered with a machine? It comes down to your preconceptions: are you more or less willing to trust a machine, or a human, to find linguistic patterns in texts? If it’s a solitary, canonical text (say, Macbeth), then I’m for Kermode. If it’s 68 texts, then I’m ready to distribute the burden equally between Kermode and the machine. If it’s 70,000 texts, then there’s no contest.

The good news is, robots are not targeting our endowed chairs in literature. Not yet, anyway. Human experts will have to assess the outputs of any machine process, particularly when it scans large text corpora for more complex figures. Humans will have to verify the results and pronounce them sound, before we compare them and synthesize them into plausible claims and convincing arguments.

But like word processing or database searching or even just Googling, machines’ capabilities can augment our thinking and extend our abilities.

What I gain

My premise is that rhetorical figures are limited variations on a simple theme. They are linguistic structures of repetition and variation.

At least, the simple figures are: the ones we hear from the witches in Macbeth, or the senator from Arizona; these are the ones Raphael Lyne calls “mechanical.” I can start there, because simple figures will test my premise. If I can reliably set, and adjust, the criteria for antimetabole, then I can trust the process.

(It’s worth mentioning that an even deeper premise is that ‘setting the criteria’ is the right approach. This is rule-based, not evidence-based, processing — a distinction with ramifications for any computational problem, including literary criticism of this kind.)

So: set the criteria, run the process, make arguments from the outcomes. Simple enough, right? The hard problem here is that I’m triangulating criteria (e.g. the formula for a figure) with questions (e.g. how do figures operate?) with arguments (e.g. figures are interesting and significant). If I can reach toward all three corners of the triangle, at least partway, I’ll have a successful argument.

It begins with plain texts of all 68 plays. Here’s what one looks like, stripped of its apparatus like speech prefixes or stage directions or act-scene divisions. These are just the words from Act 1, scene 3 of Richard III, when the king implausibly convinces his victim’s widow to view him favourably.

Sharp-eyed readers, or those who simply click on the image, will see that there’s actually an antimetabole in this passage; I’ve highlighted the repeated words for you. It’s possibly problematic because it’s exchanged between two characters, but set this problem aside for now.

I used two main text corpora: the Folger Digital Texts for Shakespeare’s plays; and the Folger’s Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama’s subset of 30 featured plays. These were more than ample for my purposes; in fact, I’m hardly able to do their figures justice in this paper.

The direction I want to take this research is outward to the EEBO-TCP corpus, containing every text printed in English before 1700. That’s about a billion words altogether. Somewhere between that billion and the 2.7 million words (or 2,714,018 to be precise) in these 68 files, there might be an in-between stage.

The Folger’s EMED anthology features 30 plays, listed here, that have been edited with regularized spellings (of the 403 in total).

That’s one reason I chose them; the other is that Mike Poston at the Folger generously prepared files of just the speeches in these 30 plays for me, which is something I can’t do myself yet. My next step is to download more files from their Corpus Download page and see what their contents afford. Then, for instance, I could compare plays from the 1580s with those in other decades; or plays by John Webster with those by Thomas Middleton; or tragedies with comedies.


Now for part 4 of this paper. Enough with the preliminaries; what were my results?

Not surprisingly, Shakespeare’s antimetaboles just the head of the proverbial Leviathan. When I ran this program, I got the whole Leviathan — and if you consider Thomas Hobbes’s frontispiece, the figures who make up that large, ungainly body made me see antimetabole in all of its messy, manifold, overlapping variety. They made me see how antimetabole is (to quote the sententious Oscar Wilde) “rarely pure and never simple”; it often overlaps with other figures of speech.

Let’s look at ten slides of results. In these images, curly brackets denote the words that the program identified as units making up antimetabole: that is, the words being repeated. I’ve added some coloured text to highlight those units, and sometimes to identify units in other, overlapping figures.


This instance from Shakespeare’s Richard III overlaps with a figure called gradatio or climax (AB>BC>CD), which effectively ignores the repetitions of ‘several’ before ‘tongues’ and ‘tale’ that the machine is identifying. It’s not wrong, but here the gradatio is more dominant than the antimetabole, which feels incidental.

Here’s another, from John Lyly’s Gallatea. The gradatio is dominant; the antimetabole incidental.

How do you tell which figure is more or less dominant? I’m not sure, but in each of these cases at least one of the units (‘several’ and ‘have’, respectively) is a word that modifies another, or takes another as its object. So the hierarchy is perhaps grammatical.

Also, not how neither antimetabole has units with the same part of speech (noun, verb, or what you will); whereas the gradatios do: tongue, tale, and villain are all nouns; as are sea, fish, and wine. That seems significant, but how?

Textbook Cases

Let’s see if some of the more famous or textbook examples of antimetabole have consistent parts of speech.

This one doesn’t; it’s a memorable line from Shakespeare’s Richard II, and its pronoun-verb-noun/noun-verb-pronoun construction makes a satisfying epigrammatical sentence.

It’s also a three-part antimetabole: ‘I’ and ‘me’ are also units of repetition. (Because the program’s parameters are set to find only two-part antimetaboles, it identified this line three times, as shown.)

How about these two textbook cases? The first is from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. The antimetabole’s inversion of ‘dangers’ and ‘pleasures’ is subsumed into a parallel figure called symploce, which repeats words at the beginnings (‘on’) and ends (‘ensue’) of successive clauses. I say it’s a parallel figure because unlike in the preceding two examples, I don’t feel like one overpowers the other. They are so intertwined that not a single word in the second line is original.

The second example is the most straightforward, uncomplicated antimetabole thus far. From Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, it nicely rebounds the malice of others back onto themselves. It has a pronoun-verb/verb-pronoun structure.

Here’s two more from Shakespeare. The first, from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is another three-part antimetabole; for simplicity I’ve selected just one. The second, from The Taming of the Shrew, is only a two-part because of the placement of ‘my.’ Its immediate and direct inversion of the two descriptors suggests that they are interchangeable, upholding the play’s misogyny.

Between Speakers

“But shall I live in hope? | All men I hope live so.” This example from earlier, in the conversation between Richard III and Lady Anne, provoked a question. Is there any difference between an antimetabole spoken by one, and spoken by two (or more)? Anne’s response to Richard makes these two lines an antimetabole only in conjunction. That’s normal between these speakers, particularly in this scene; and it’s normal for many of Shakespeare’s other speakers, who echo each other’s words to interrogate them.

Despite my hesitation I have to conclude that the only difference between antimetaboles spoken by one or two people is a difference of delivery or execution. If Shakespeare writes them as deliberate inversions, then it hardly matters whether he assigns them entirely or partially to individual characters.

Take these two examples, both from the same play (Love’s Labours Lost). The first is a character inverting the words of another; the second is a character echoing and then inverting the words of another. Is there a qualitative difference? In the second, Speaker B repeats Speaker A’s two units before inverting them (and adding a third in between), making the antimetabole; in the first, Speaker B’s inversion combines with Speaker A’s words to make the antimetabole. The delivery makes for a qualitative difference, but not a very significant one.

Finally, here’s a more mundane example, from Twelfth Night: a servant goes to the door to call in his lady’s gentlewoman. It’s not a clever inversion, but a dutifully direct repetition of his lady’s command, inverted only because of grammatical rules. Even if it’s less self-conscious or less deliberate than Richard and Anne’s, it’s an antimetabole along exactly the same lines.


That raises one last problem that will inform the next stage of my research. How do you treat those antimetaboles that just feel more accidental, less deliberate, than others? This one from Titus Andronicus has to fall into that category. Technically it meets the requirement of an AB|BA structure. While it’s subsumed within the epanalepsis (words repeated at the beginning and end of the sentence) of “Die, … die”, we’ve seen this before with symploce in The Spanish Tragedy; we know it doesn’t preclude antimetabole.

But “shame with … with thy shame”? Or “thy shame … shame thy”? Really? We’re not talking about “On dangers past, and pleasures to ensue” here. It’s more like “On pleasures past, and dangers to ensue”: the pleasure is gone, and the danger is that we’re getting distracted by conjunctions (‘with’) and pronouns (‘thy’).

If that sounds like a value judgement, it is. Thomas Kyd’s antimetabole is better than Shakespeare’s, here, because I prefer nouns to pronouns or conjunctions. That doesn’t make Shakespeare’s antimetabole less of an antimetabole; it’s just a bad antimetabole. If I wasn’t trained to distrust arguments about authorial intent, I would even claim that it was an inadvertent one.

One last unresolved question: is antimetabole limited to certain parts of speech? I can certainly imagine deliberate, even beautiful, antimetaboles that use pronouns or even conjunctions. But what about articles, like ‘a’ or ‘the’?

Gathering a long list of figures has helped me do three things.

  1. First, the machine works like an enormous butterfly net, collecting multiple rare and unknown specimens of beautiful language. Lots of them will overlap with other figures; sometimes they’ll subserve those figures; sometimes they’ll just overlap.
  2. Second, every specimen helps me expand and refine the definition of antimetabole: two or more units? excluding certain parts of speech? and so on.
  3. Third, and finally: the reason to use machines for evidence-gathering is because there’s a value to criticism that’s based on evidence beyond the limits of human readers. I don’t just mean the limits of time, or attention, or inclination; I mean the limits of arbitrariness, the limits of a critic’s limited experience and memory.

Were I to gather examples of antimetabole from Shakespeare’s plays, it would be from 36 at most, not 38 plays; I’ve never been able to finish Coriolanus, and I just can’t do The Merry Wives of Windsor. Even the title. Just, no. And the 30 featured EMED plays? I’ve read 13 of them, and I don’t plan on reading Love’s Cure, or The Martial Maid anytime soon.

So I’ll let the machine’s parameters, problematic as they may be, gather all of the examples that fit the standard definition. Even those with conjunctions, prepositions, or commingled articles and nouns. Even those that seem accidental, or overshadowed by other figures. They let me make arguments that are more varied — even more persuasive. Though you, gentle reader, will be the judge of that.

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