‘Hendiadys’ is not a common word in English studies, partly because it is relatively rare in the English language, and therefore in English literature. But it does turn up as an important and subtle literary device in the work of some major English writers, including William Shakespeare. But what is hendiadys? How do you even pronounce the word? What follows might be regarded as a brief introduction to this rather specific literary device.
Hendiadys (pronounced ‘hen-DIE-a-DIZ’) is from the Greek meaning literally ‘one-through-two’. Put simply, hendiadys is a figure of speech whereby one idea is expressed by two ‘substantives’ (specifically, nouns or adjectives). These two substantives are joined by the word ‘and’. A good example from Latin (used by both George T. Wright and Nicholas Royle, who have both written well about hendiadys in Shakespeare’s work) is found in Virgil’s Georgics: ‘pateris libamus et auro’ which translates literally as ‘we drink from cups and gold’.
Here, ‘we drink from cups and gold’ doesn’t mean that the drinkers are quaffing from cups (made of silver or pewter or some other substance) and from separate vessels shaped from gold: the speaker means ‘we drink from golden cups’, i.e. cups and gold are not two separate entities, despite the phrasing creating that appearance, with ‘and’ usually being employed to join two distinct things. Instead, the ‘and’ here is working to join the two substantives in a more curious way, a closer way, than we usually expect from the formation ‘x and y’. Imagine if Virgil’s speaker had said, ‘we drink from cups and bowls’, rather than ‘we drink from cups and gold’. The second is hendiadys; the first is stating that two different vessels are being drunk from.
Hendiadys is, as we remarked in our introduction, rare in English speech, which is why we reached for a Latin example in the previous paragraph. However, there are some examples of hendiadys from English which we can dwell upon. Consider, for instance, the statement ‘this room is nice and warm’ or ‘it’s nice and warm in here’. The meaning is clear: the room is nice because it’s warm, and a comment is being made on the room’s (nice) temperature. The niceness of the room, separate from its temperature, is unknown: it might be ugly, decorated with gaudy drapes or horrible curtains, so in every other respect it isn’t ‘nice’ at all. But the speaker doesn’t mean ‘this room is nice [i.e. all round, in terms of its appearance and general comforts] and [by the way, as a separate issue] warm’: instead, they mean it’s nice because it’s warm. So ‘nice and warm’ is an example of hendiadys in an everyday English phrase.
Similarly, it’s been argued that a phrase like ‘they turned up, despite the rain and weather’ is an example of hendiadys, because by ‘rain and weather’ the speaker means ‘rainy weather’. This example is a little more controversial, because ‘weather’ here might be a stand-in for other kinds of weather, e.g. wind, so the meaning might be ‘despite the rain and wind’, which isn’t hendiadys.
Another example comes courtesy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage: the formulation ‘try and’ instead of ‘try to’. When we stop and think about it, ‘try and’ means essentially the same as ‘try to’, so ‘and’ is not being used to link two separate things here. Instead, if we say ‘try and lift that heavy crate’, we mean ‘try to lift it’, rather than ‘try to do it’ and ‘lift it’, which wouldn’t make any sense, since the word ‘try’ casts doubt on the person’s ability to lift the crate. Similarly, saying ‘I’m going to try and pass this exam’ doesn’t make sense as anything but hendiadys, since you can’t guarantee you will pass it; all you can do is try.
But such examples as these are rare in English speech. However, there is one writer for whom hendiadys became something of a signature figure of speech: William Shakespeare. The figure isn’t found in Shakespeare’s early plays, but at some point he appears to have encountered it somewhere and developed a fondness for it, before exhausting its potential and abandoning it in his later work. George T. Wright, in his article ‘Hendiadys and Hamlet’, and Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language, have shown how Shakespeare’s use of hendiadys peaks in his play Hamlet, written in around 1600 or 1601. For Kermode, hendiadys is an apposite literary device for Hamlet because of the play’s ambivalence towards some of its key themes, and its fondness for exposing ‘the conjunction of what is ordinarily disjunct’.
Time and again in Hamlet, Shakespeare conjoins two things which we do not expect to be joined together: ‘voice and yielding’, for instance, means either ‘yielding voice’ or ‘vocal yielding’, while ‘morn and liquid dew’ means ‘liquid morning dew’. Other examples in the play, such as Hamlet’s own reference to ‘the book and volume of my brain’, are more problematic: does ‘volume’ here refer to the part of a book (e.g. volume 1, volume 2), or does it, as Nicholas Royle suggests in The Uncanny, refer to ‘amount’ or ‘voluminousness’, i.e. ‘the voluminous book of my brain’? And is that perhaps the point? In a play plagued by ambiguity and uncertainty, Hamlet’s very use of ‘book and volume’ hovers between being an example of hendiadys and an example of not-hendiadys.
We can find other examples of this elusive figure in Shakespeare’s work. One of the most famous is from a slightly later play, Macbeth, written in around 1606 when Shakespeare had become more sparing with his use of hendiadys: Macbeth’s own reference to ‘sound and fury’ can be regarded as hendiadys because the meaning is ‘furious sound’, rather than ‘sound’ and ‘fury’ as two distinct ideas. Similarly, ‘act and valour’ from earlier in the same play is hendiadys, because Lady Macbeth is referring to a ‘valorous act’, i.e. a brave action. Or is she? One of the most compelling and suggestive things about Shakespeare’s use of hendiadys is how often, as with the ‘book and volume’ example, his examples hover between simple conjoining and more complex hendiadys. After all, one may act in a less than valorous way, but still be valorous or brave in other things. One may make a lot of noise when not furious, but conveying a feeling of fury at other times.
In summary, then, hendiadys is a rare literary device in English, but when it is used, most famously by Shakespeare, it is often employed ambiguously and contentiously to join two things, where we cannot be sure whether they are simply being juxtaposed or joined in a more complex, unnerving way. And that, in short, is where the rhetorical power of hendiadys can be found.