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Antanaclasis draws on the fact that several English words have contain multiple different meanings. For example, the written word "wind" could refer both to a gust of air and to cause a living creature to have difficulty breathing. Alternatively pronounced, it could also refer to (for example) winding a spring. An antanaclasis would occur if the speaker were to make use of several of these meanings within the same passage of text.

What is antanaclasis?

Antanaclasis is a rhetorical and literary device in which the meaning of a repeated word or phrase changes with each use. Antanaclasis can be used in speech as a sort of code that may only be understood by the speaker and the listener. It is often used in plays and stage productions because of its relation to an aside. Through antanaclasis, a character or speaker may convey a hidden meaning or additional information to another character or a listener and remain unobserved by onlookers or other characters. This type of verbal play on words may result in a comedic or amusing sentence or comparison, and is considered a homonymic pun.

Shakespeare's use of antanaclasis

Shakespeare frequently used antanaclasis in his plays to convey double meanings, hypocrisy, and subtle clues to the identities and actions contained within. A line in Othello uses two different meanings of the phrase “to put out the light”; “Put out the light, then put out the light…” The first phrase means Othello will extinguish the candle by putting it out, and the second rendition of the phrase means that Othello will end Desdemona’s life.

Shakespeare’s use of antanaclasis was often intended to make his audience laugh or become amused. He used antanaclasis in characters’ conversation and dialogue to deliver humorous results. The following example of a Twelfth Night banter between Viola and a Clown is demonstrative of this: 

Viola: Save thee, friend, and thy music! Dost thou live by thy tabour?

Clown: No, sir, I live by the church.

Viola: Art thou a churchman?

Clown: No such matter, sir: I do live by the church; for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.

Various misunderstandings and misinterpretations can be detected in this example of Shakespearean dialogue, most promoted through the use of antanaclasis.

Usage in different types of literature

Other writers such as Walter Savage Landor used antanaclasis in their writings, as in the following example: “Death, tho I see him not, is near and grudges me my eightieth year. Now I would give him all these last for one that fifty have run past. Ah! He strikes all things, all alike, but bargains: those he will not strike…” In this instance, strike at its first use means to kill, or strike down; in the second use it means to strike or make a bargain. 

Poets such as Robert Frost often use antanaclasis as well, as in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” The first instance of sleep refers to an actual night’s sleep the speaker or write expects that very night, and the second refers to the eternal sleep of death.

Antanaclasis creates contrast between word meanings, and its use can be missed by the unobservant in many cases. As such, antanaclasis draws attention to the specific words and their meanings within writing, whether plays, prose, or poetry. Antanaclasis can increase drama by emphasizing hidden meanings of words and using persuasiveness to engage the audience. The repetition inherent in antanaclasis also makes sentences or phrases in literary pieces or speeches memorable, as the attention of the audience becomes focused on the meanings of words used. Among orators, political speakers used antanaclasis to gauge the attention paid to their words by an audience.

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