“The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve:
Lovers, to bed; ’tis almost fairy time.”
(Theseus in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1)

“Iron tongue of midnight?”


prosopopoeia  (proso-po-pe-uh) is a rhetorical device in which a speaker or writer communicates to the audience by speaking as another imaginary or dead person. Prosopopoeia comes from two words in ancient Greek. Prosopon translates to face or person. Poiein means to make or to do. Thus, prosopopoeia literally means to assume someone else’s face.

Dramatists have used prosopopoeiae to take some blame off their characters by placing an unfavorable point of view on the shoulders of an imaginary person or object but communicated through their characters. Their characters speak but the audience reactions (which may be negative) are predisposed to go toward this imaginary person or object rather than the communicator.

We use this device in our everyday lives. The other day my friend imitated her mom, “In my times . . . .” The friend took on her mother’s voice and her way of talking when talking about her.

A little boy might say, “I am Buzz Light Year and I come from outer space.” Neither is he Buzz nor does he come from outer space but he is playing make-believe.

A wisecracker may assume the character of another person and take jibes at someone else, keeping him or her safe from attacks.

An attorney may tell the jury, “the dead girl is speaking to you to give her justice.” 

What is the difference between prosopopoeia and personification?

Personification is the representation of abstract quality as human. So it is very closely related to prosopopoeia. “Menacing clouds,” “threatening ideas” etc. are everyday examples.

Personification is the act in speech and writing of giving inanimate objects, abstract concepts or actions, human or near-human characteristics but prosopopoeia is more extensive in its signification.

When a writer uses prosopopoeia, he or she can provide a different perspective in an artistic way, thereby strengthening arguments or making their writing more memorable.

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