The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Stichomythia: A form of dramatic dialogue, also called “cut-and-parry” or “cut-and-thrust” dialogue, in which two actors alternately exchange barbed and pregnant one-liners. Stichomythia is characterized by the use of antithesis and repetition, particularly in turning an opponent’s words to one’s own advantage in argument or repartee. It originated in classical Greek drama and features prominently in tragedies by Aeschylus and Sophocles, such as Agamemnon (c. 458 B.C.) and Antigone (c. 441 B.C.), respectively. First-century A.D. Roman playwright Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca) also used the device, as did Elizabethan playwrights, particularly in Senecan tragedies but also in comedies such as William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1597—98).

EXAMPLE: The following lines from act IV, scene IV, of Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard III (1597), in which King Richard attempts to convince his sister-in-law Queen Elizabeth, whose sons he murdered to ascend to the throne, to help him woo her daughter:

King Richard: Say, I, her sovereign, am her subject love.

Queen Elizabeth: But she, your subject, loathes such sovereignty.

King Richard: Be eloquent in my behalf to her.

Queen Elizabeth: An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.

King Richard: Then, plainly to her tell my loving tale.

Queen Elizabeth: Plain and not honest is too harsh a style.

King Richard: Your reasons are too shallow and too quick.

Queen Elizabeth: O, no, my reasons are too deep and dead; —

Too deep and dead, poor infants, in their graves.

King Richard: Harp not on that string, madam; that is past.

Queen Elizabeth: Harp on it still shall I till heart-strings break.