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What Is a Stichomythia?

By Franklin Jeffrey
Updated May 23, 2024
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A stichomythia is a form of dramatic dialogue that dates to the verse drama of ancient Greece. Alternating lines of dialogue are used to heighten intensity or provide a spirited exchange between characters. Each character's lines are typically brief and might consist of only two or three words.

During the classical age, Greek playwrights such Aeschylus and Sophocles made frequent use of stichomythias. One example can be found in the exchange between Oedipus and Teiresias in Oedipus Rex. Oedipus, believing that his father has been killed by bandits, tries to get Teiresias, a seer, to reveal the identity of the murderers. The seer's refusal to elaborate angers Oedipus, allowing the audience a glimpse of the king's true character.

The Roman writer Seneca adapted the stichomythia to his works. His approach to verse drama was more rigidly structured than the Greek form. Seneca is credited with influencing future writers, including Shakespeare, in both the use of stichomythias and the plot device known as the revenge tragedy.

Shakespeare made irregular — but effective — use of stichomythias throughout his writing career. Love's Labour's Lost, Richard III and Henry VI contain numerous passages of dialogue in the form of stichomythia. A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew and Richard II have fewer examples. Some of Shakespeare's plays, including Macbeth and The Tempest, have no stichomythias at all.

Love's Labor's Lost features an excellent example of stichomythia in verse form and includes several puns. In the first act of Richard III, Shakespeare uses the technique to show the friction between Anne and Richard. Later on, the playwright employs stichomythias to emphasize the disapproval of Anne's mother, Elizabeth. The heated exchange between Richard and Elizabeth is laced with sarcasm, and the audience is left with no doubts about Elizabeth's true feelings.

Filmmakers have used the technique in comedies to produce a witty, humorous exchange or to heighten the tension between characters. Movies from the 1940s and 1950s featuring detectives such as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade applied stichomythias liberally. Another example can be found in Double Indemnity, during and exchange between Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck's characters, when he first begins to flirt with her.

In addition to dramatists, songwriters have employed stichomythias, particularly in musicals and operas. The film, Gigi featured the song "I Remember it Well," in which the characters portrayed by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold remember their shared history quite differently. Irving Berlin used the technique in the song "Anything You Can Do," which was featured in Annie Get Your Gun. In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the exchange between Judas and Jesus in "The Last Supper" is another example of stichomythia.

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