Definition of Equivocation

Equivocation is a shrewd linguistic art, like a hidden truth in deliberate obscurity, leaving minds bewildered and seeking clarity. Its origins are traced to the roots in ‘aequivocus’, an ancient Latin term ‘aequivocat’, signifying things “named in the same way.” The English word equivocal emerges, signaling ambiguity and confusion in meaning. Both logic and literature find the significance of equivocation. In the realm of logic, it becomes an informal fallacy, using specific words in a web of multiple meanings, shades, and nuances, leading to multiple interpretations.

In literature, equivocation adds an enigmatic touch. It brings ambiguity to both prose and poetry, letting readers explore their own interpretations with its subtle charm. Equivocation becomes a powerful force, captivating and freeing, concealing truths while revealing countless perspectives. There is an interplay of clarity and confusion, creating a fascinating portrayal of language’s limitless possibilities.

Examples from Literature

Example #1

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor. ‘Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; and how then shall I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.

This passage occurs in the novel, The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien used the word “advice” in such a way that it confuses the readers and creates ambiguities about its meanings. This is a good use of equivocation upon advice as well as wisdom. Both words seem to present irony in the use of these terms, having contradictory meanings.

Example #2

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Por: Knock,
knock! Who’s there, in the other devil’s
name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale;
who committed treason enough for God’s sake,
yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come
in, equivocator.

These lines occur in the third scene of the second act. It shows clearly that an equivocator does not let others know which side he is going to take as he swears for both sides and even in the matter of God he takes both sides. This shows that equivocation means to use words in such a way that they have double meanings; intended as well as unintended.

Example #3

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Ham. […] Whose grave’s this, sirrah?
Grave. Mine sir, […].
Ham. I think it be thine indeed, for thou liest in’t.
Grave. You lie out on’t, sir, and therefore ’tis not yours.
For my part, I do not lie in’t, yet it is mine.
Ham. Thou dost lie in’t, to be in’t and say ’tis thine. ’Tis for the dead, not for the quick:
therefore thou liest.
Grave. ’Tis a quick lie, sir, ’twill away again from me to you.

These lines occur in the masterpiece of Shakespeare, Hamlet. In these lines, Hamlet, the prince, plays upon the “grave” and the person who is going to be buried in it. Then both, Hamlet and Gravedigger, play upon different words to confound as well as confuse each other, though, they could have directly told everything to each other. The next play is about lying, dead, and quick.

Example #4

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

KING. […] But now my Cosin Hamlet, and my sonne.
HAM. A little more then kin, and lesse then kind.
KING. How is it that the clowdes still hang on you.
HAM. Not so much my Lord, I am too much in the sonne.

This passage, again, occurs in Hamlet where Hamlet and King Claudius are talking to each other. Both, the king and Hamlet play upon the word “kin” and “kind” in such a way that both demonstrate different meanings of these words. No reader can deduce what both the speakers mean, though, it seems ironic that both are hiding their real intentions from each other. The next play upon words is in the next two lines with the use of the words “cloud” and “the sun.” Both of these words further confound the readers as well as the king. Although all these words are puns, they demonstrate how Shakespeare uses equivocations using puns.

Example #5

Know and Unknown: A Memoir Donald Rumsfield

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

Although they appear in newspapers long before his memoir, these lines show the equivocation used in an excellent way. They play upon the words “known” and “unknown” in such a way that even the reporters got confused. These questions were about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that the US army could not find. Therefore, this is a good use of equivocation in political comments.

Example #6

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses. By degrees, I remember, a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes.

This passage occurs in the novel of Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, where Victor states that he has a multiplicity of sensations he experiences simultaneously which is not only confounding but also strange that he experiences all of them. This is a good use of equivocation, using several words that create confusion among the readers.

Function of Equivocation

In literature, equivocation takes on diverse forms influenced by the text type, writer’s intention, audience, and purpose. It adds depth and complexity to the writing, incorporating shades of uncertainty that invite readers to explore various interpretations. This artistic approach transforms the words into a symphony of possibilities, resonating uniquely with each reader.

Additionally, equivocation showcases the writer’s mastery of language, demonstrating skill and finesse in crafting the narrative. Its impact on the audience is profound, captivating their minds and emotions, as they dive deeper into the mysterious allure. Equivocation becomes a bridge connecting writer and reader, fostering a shared experience of exploration. As exemplified by William Shakespeare, equivocation has been used through the ages, captivating and engaging generations of readers. Its subtle power lies in its ability to evoke wonder and contemplation, enriching the literary landscape with boundless potential.

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