Definition of Equivocation

Equivocation is a way of intentionally speaking without clarity to confuse and hide the truth. Etymologically, equivocation is a derivative of aequivocus, an archaic Latin term, which later transformed into aequivocat that means “name in the same way” or “called by the same name.” The English word, equivocal, is a derivative of this term. It means ambiguous or confusing that does not easily come to mind in terms of clarity in meanings.

Equivocation is used in logic as well as in literature. In logic, it is an informal fallacy the result of which is that a specific word demonstrates multiple meanings or nuances or shades of meanings. In literary terms, it creates ambiguity in such a way that readers could deduce their own meanings.

Examples from Literature

Example #1

From 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 has 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 wise. Both words seem to present irony in the use of these terms, having contradictory meanings.

Example #2

From 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

From 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 upon lying, dead and quick.

Example #4

From 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 to 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 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

From 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. The play upon the words “known” and “unknown” in such a way that even the reporters got confused. These questions were about the presence of the 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

From 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

An equivocation plays several functions in literary writings. It depends on the type of the text, the intention, the audience, and the purpose. On the one hand, it makes the text meaningful, beautiful, and ambiguous, while on the other hand, it also shows mastery of the writer in writing. Moreover, its impacts on the audience and their purpose of reading show that equivocation is the hallmark of literary writing, as the two above-cited examples from William Shakespeare highlight this fact.

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