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Rhetorical Question in Literature: Definition, Effect & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of a…
  • 1:02 Purpose & Effect in Literature
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

You want to learn about rhetorical questions, don't you? This lesson will explore the purpose and use of rhetorical questions in literature, through its examination and literary examples.

Definition of a Rhetorical Question

Have you heard anyone say to you, 'Nice weather, isn't it?' You may agree, but the implication is that you're supposed to agree, because they have already told you the answer - that the weather is nice. This is a basic example of a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is a device used to persuade or subtly influence the audience. It's a question asked not for the answer, but for the effect.

Oftentimes, a rhetorical question is used to emphasize a point or just to get the audience thinking. Sometimes, a rhetorical question is asked with the asker already knowing the answer, such as the weather example. Other times, the question asked is unanswerable, such as 'Will corruption ever cease?' However, according to the asker, it should be obvious that corruption will never cease.

Here's a fun fact: A famous printer from the 16th century, Henry Denham, invented the rhetorical question mark, which was a question mark facing the opposite direction. However, it never became a permanent punctuation mark in the English language.

Rhetorical Question Mark image

Purpose and Effect in Literature

In literature, rhetorical questions can be a very powerful persuasive or thought-provoking tool. They can be humorous, obvious, or reflective. For example, in William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, there is a very famous speech given by the character Shylock, who is trying to fight against the anti-Semitism he faces as a Jew. He says:

'... I am a Jew. Hath

not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,

dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with

the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject

to the same diseases, healed by the same means,

warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as

a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison

us, do we not die?...'

Shylock poses a lot of questions, but they are asked with purpose and intention. He begs to understand why he is treated so cruelly for being Jewish, because, as a Jew, he is still human. And as a human, we are all equals, susceptible to death and hurt and passion alike. These questions are rhetorical because their answers are obvious (presumably to everyone), and also because the dramatic effect they have to make the audience think about the nature of his suffering and injustice.

Let's look at another example from Shakespeare, this time from the play Romeo and Juliet. In the play, Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed lovers, forbidden to be together because of the fighting between their families. Juliet says:

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

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