One of the catch-all phrases of the 21st century is “It is what it is.” On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but when you think about it, it’s a statement that can indicate acceptance, resignation, or simple acknowledgement of a thing or situation. It can communicate “that’s all you’re going to get” or “that’s the best I could do” or “that will have to do. Despite its apparent simplicity, it’s a versatile statement to keep up one’s sleeve.
The repetition in this phrase is known as ploce, pronounced plo-chay .
Ploce is a very old word which came into English from Latin from the Greek work plokē meaning complication or twisting, which came from the ancient Greek word plekein which means to plait or weave.
That in itself is fascinating, as it gives a clear impression of the words twisting or weaving around themselves as they are repeated. It’s quite a visual image of what the language is doing.
Ploce is a literary and rhetorical device by which a word is repeated for emphasis.
It can be simple repetition, like Popeye saying “I am what I am, and that’s all I am”.
It can involve a change in the meaning of the word: Examples: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” “I don’t want to hear you talk the talk, I want to see you walk the walk.”
Note: This is also called antanaclasis, but you’ll probably never need to know that unless you’re studying Rhetoric, Classics or Shakespeare.
It can involve a change in the form of the word. Example: “She cried until there was no crying left in her.”
This is also called polyptoton. You’ll probably never need to know that either, unless you’re studying… you get the idea.
Shakespeare made regular use of ploce in his plays, but my favourite examples are to be found in speeches by Queen Margaret in Richard III:
Margaret often makes use of elegant imagery and rhetoric in her speeches, and her use of ploce is certainly eloquent.
Often when I see a willow tree, I think of the desperately sad song sung by Ophelia as she prepares for bed in Act 4, scene 3 of ‘Othello’.
‘Willow’ is a folk song that tells of lost love and resulting tragedy, although Ophelia doesn’t quite get that far in the song before she stops to talk with her maid, Emilia. The song was not written by Shakespeare, and it seems to have been widely enough known for the audience to have understood the gravity and foreboding of it being sung by Ophelia.
Shakespeare did, however, make one significant change. The original song was about a man dying as the result of the cruelty of a woman, but when Ophelia sings it, the song is about a woman suffering at the hands of the man she loves.
The poignancy of the song is heightened by Ophelia’s revelation to Emilia that her mother’s maid, from whom she learned the song, died tragically while singing it.
The song takes another tragic twist when Emilia herself sings the song as she, too, dies from injuries inflicted by her own husband.
Shakespeare uses this song to evoke pathos, tragedy and foreboding in abundance.
It seems to me that he willow tree, graceful and mournful at the same time, is a most fitting image for achieving that effect.
This short speech by Macbeth is his response to the news that Lady Macbeth is dead. It is not as emotional as Macduff’s response to the death of his wife and children, but instead is quite poignant and philosophical. A soliloquy might have been more expansive on his thoughts and feelings.
It is a reflection on the brevity and meaninglessness of life. Every day we live is someone else’s last, and our stories are full of noise and bother, but ultimately pointless.
Perhaps he anticipated her death, given her descent into guilty madness. His observation that “She should have died hereafter; There would have been time for such a word” suggests that he thought he had bigger problems at that point, and he simply didn’t have time to grieve properly. Implying that her timing was inconvenient is the kind of self-interest that those who love to hate Macbeth might find satisfying.
Either way, Macbeth’s musings on the futility of life contrast profoundly with his belief in his own invincibility and his headstrong determination to fight to keep the kingdom he usurped by killing Duncan and blaming it on his bodyguards.
It just goes to show that you can not encapsulate a character in one quotation or by examining one event. Shakespeare’s leading characters are complex, conflicted individuals designed to provoke thought and conscience. Macbeth is no exception.