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Poetry Guide: Stichomythia

Stichomythia is a technique in drama or poetry, in which alternating lines, or half-lines, are given to alternating characters, voices, or entities. The term originated in the literature of Ancient Greece, and is often applied to the dramas of Sophocles. Etymologically it derives from the Greek stichos ("rows") + mythos ("speech").

Stichomythia is particularly well suited to sections of dramatic dialogue where two characters are in violent dispute. The rhythmic intensity of the alternating lines combined with quick, biting ripostes in the dialogue can be quite powerful.

Stichomythia Example

A short example of stichomythia from the R.C. Jebb translation of Antigone: the scene is an argument between Ismene and her sister Antigone. For further examples from Antigone, consult the text at the Internet Classics Archive: [1].

Stichomythia example 1:

I  And what life is dear to me, bereft of thee? 
 A Ask Creon; all thy care is for him. 
I  Why vex me thus, when it avails thee nought? 
 A Indeed, if I mock, 'tis with pain that I mock thee. 
I  Tell me,-how can I serve thee, even now? 
 A Save thyself: I grudge not thy escape. 
I  Ah, woe is me! And shall I have no share in thy fate? 
 A Thy choice was to live; mine, to die. 
I  At least thy choice was not made without my protest. 
 A One world approved thy wisdom; another, mine.

Stichomythia example 2:

William Shakespeare is also well known as a more recent master of this technique. A good example of stichomythia is the argument between Elizabeth and Richard in Act IV, scene 4 of Richard III. Richard seeks to marry Elizabeth's daughter in order to legitimize his claim to the crown. Elizabeth objects, understandably since she holds Richard responsible for murdering her two sons (also in his pursuit of the crown).

R  Infer fair England's peace by this alliance.
 E Which she shall purchase with still-lasting war.
R  Tell her the king, that may command, entreats.
 E That at her hands which the king's King forbids.
R  Say she shall be a high and mighty queen.
 E To wail the title, as her mother doth.
R  Say I will love her everlastingly.
 E But how long shall that title 'ever' last?
R  Sweetly in force unto her fair life's end.
 E But how long fairly shall her sweet life last?
R  As long as heaven and nature lengthens it.
 E As long as hell and Richard likes of it.
R  Say I, her sovereign, am her subject low.
 E But she, your subject, loathes such sovereignty.
R  Be eloquent in my behalf to her.
 E An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.
R  Then plainly to her tell my loving tale.
 E Plain and not honest is too harsh a style.
R  Your reasons are too shallow and too quick.
 E O, no, my reasons are too deep and dead - 
   Too deep and dead (poor infants) in their graves.
R  Harp not on that string, madam; that is past.
 E Harp on it still shall I till heartstrings break.
R  Now, by my George, my garter, and my crown -
 E Profaned, dishonored, and the third usurped.