Antanaclasis is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used several times and the meaning changes.
The repetition of the word or phrase emphasizes the various states it represents and should positively impact the sentence as a whole. If someone cleverly arranges words in a speech, poem, or work of prose so that the reader is forced to use multiple definitions for the same word, it’s more likely their writing is going to be interesting and entertaining.
Antanaclasis is a type of pun. It occurs within one sentence and involves the repetition of a word or phrase. Similarly, a pun refers to a word with two different meanings, so too does antanaclasis. The latter is just usually used more seriously, in addition to being used often in slogans.
Readers of Shakespeare’s literary canon will likely already know that the Bard was fond of using antanaclasis. It can be found throughout his writing, for example, in these lines from Twelfth Night. Viola, or Cesario in disguise, and the Clown are speaking to one another and using antanaclasis with their use of the word “live.” Here are the lines:
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.
The first sentence uses “live” to describe how the Clown makes his living, while the following lines are more entertaining and use “live” as a way of referring to where he physically lives. It takes Cesario a moment to understand what the Clown is saying. This is a great example of how antanaclasis can be used humorously as well.
Examples of Antanaclasis in Literature
The Works of William Shakespeare
Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s history plays, contains the following lines, as spoken by King Henry himself:
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down,
Here, the bolded word “mock” is repeated over and over again. In this passage, it means “to cheat” and “to taunt” and alludes to the negative outcome of the dauphin’s or prince’s actions.
The following lines are a good example of antanaclasis and can be found at the end of Othello. They read:
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light.
This example describes literal “light” and then refers to Desdemona’s life. It’s a very dark example of how the technique can be used to dramatic effect. The second “light” is easily replaced with “life.” He says these lines as he enters her bedroom to kill her. He’s been convinced over the length of the play by Iago that she’s been unfaithful to him.
Frost’s well-loved poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ contains the following famous four-line passage:
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 iteration of “sleep” feels like an obvious reference to rest. The speaker’s a traveler, and they’re tired from their long walk. But, with the use of the phrase a second time, most readers and scholars agree that now the speaker is thinking about death. “Sleep” takes on two meanings.
Epizeuxis and Antanaclasis
Both of these literary techniques are a type of repetition. The first refers to the repetition of a word or phrase in succession in the same line. With antanaclasis, the same word or phrase is repeated and had a different meaning when used. There is a great example of epizeuxis in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ The lines read:
Alone, alone, all all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea
Here, Samuel Taylor Coleridge repeats the same words in succession to create epizeuxis. The meaning of the words doesn’t change.
Pun and Antanaclasis
Antanaclasis is a version of a pun that has a few features that set it apart from a traditional pun. It has to occur in one sentence and involves the repetition of a word or sometimes a phrase. Puns don’t have to use repetition. In a pun, one uses a word in an unusual and humorous way, but it’s not usually repeated. Both depend on the reader’s knowledge of the word/words and the different meanings they can have. Puns also play with sound in a way that antanaclasis doesn’t. The latter is always homographic, meaning that the word’s sound doesn’t affect its meaning or interpretation by the reader.
Why Do Writers Use Antanaclasis?
Writers use antanaclasis for a wide variety of reasons. It might be used to make a joke, create a slogan or memorable catchphrase, create rhythm in verse or prose, or even to create a witty statement. Writers might also want to emphasize how words have different meanings depending on how one is using them.
Related Literary Terms
- Pun: a literary device that’s defined as a play on words.
- Anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.
- Epistrophe: the repetition of the same word or a phrase at the end of multiple clauses or sentences.
- Repetition: an important literary technique that sees a writer reuse words or phrases multiple times.
- Anadiplosis: the repetition of words or phrases in clauses so that the second clause starts with the same word/s that appeared at the end of the first.