One of my favorite rhetorical devices is anthimeria, the substitution of one part of speech for another. What makes this figure of speech so fascinating is that its use demonstrates the continued evolution of the English language. Today, anthimeria comes naturally to most speakers of English – and much of it is connected to technology, where the thing and the action have become inseparable. We no longer transmit textual messages; we text. We don’t look something up on the search engine Google; we google it. You probably verb nouns, noun verbs, and verb adjectives several times a day, without ever thinking about the grammatical implications.
This wasn’t always the case, however. It’s one of the instances where you can really see how the way English-speakers craft language has changed over the centuries. For the Elizabethans, this was not a common rhetorical device; it was a sign of high verbal dexterity – and thus, usually, of high intelligence. In an era of flourishing poetics and surging literacy, verbal creativity was a highly prized trait, and the ability to transform a word to a new use indicated the ability to think inventively and dexterously. Shakespeare had this trait himself, and he gifts it to some of his smartest characters.
One great example is Cleopatra. In 5.2 of Antony and Cleopatra, after her negotiation with Octavius Caesar, Cleopatra comments that “he words me, girls, he words me, that I should not be noble to myself.” By turning “word” from a noun into a verb, she underscores how Octavius operates. No warrior by nature, his battles won by Agrippa rather than by his own valor, he makes a weapon out of speech. He intends to out-maneuver Cleopatra verbally – and in doing so, keep her from taking action he doesn’t want (specifically, killing herself and thus robbing him of his triumph). When Dolabella confirms that Octavius to parade her as a prisoner of war, she warns her handmaid:
Nay, ‘tis most certain, Iras: saucy lictors
Will catch at us, like strumpets; and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’tune: the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ the posture of a whore.
The device takes on a bitter poignancy here, as Cleopatra speaks of the things that will be done to them – the nouns that will be verbed upon them, a reflection of her lack of agency in defeat. (Of course, Shakespeare is also making a theatrically-self-referential joke here as well, since the actor playing Cleopatra would have been, in fact, a boy.)
Other notable users of anthimeria include Antony himself, Henry V, and Duke Theseus. The device is not restricted to noble blood, however; in Measure for Measure, Licio comments that, though Duke Vincentio is (supposedly) absent, “Lord Angelo dukes it well in his absence.” In this case, the anthimeria paints a vivid picture – and the actor can help it along. What does it look like to “duke”? An actor can show you ask he speaks. How is it different that Angelo “dukes it well” as opposed to “governs well”, which would still fit the scansion? With that choice, Shakespeare is telling us something about Licio – he’s verbally dexterous, but also irreverent. He plays fast and loose with the word “duke” just as he plays fast and loose with the duke’s reputation in the stories he tells. Unfortunately for Licio, his cleverness in words will later land him in hot water, since he’s talking to the selfsame duke-in-disguise.
Anthimeria, like all rhetorical figures in Shakespeare, offers information to an actor. Some questions to ask yourself if you see anthimeria in-use:
○ What was the original part of speech of the transformed word?
○ Does the word change meaning at all in transition?
○ What does the character imply by the transition?
○ Who is the intended audience? How capable are they of appreciating the speaking character’s verbal dexterity?