You're a brave and outgoing public speaker, but your best friend clams up at the thought of talking on stage. They are your antithesis: someone or something with a contrary characteristic. Authors and speakers use antithesis between characters, concepts and situations to draw contrasts in their work — which can be a very effective way to persuade an audience to support a character, vote a certain way or even buy a particular product.
In Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Marcus Brutus and Mark Antony were painted in opposite colors. Interestingly, the contrast isn’t stark. Shakespeare takes a more subtle approach to antithesis here, portraying Brutus as an honorable man, if slightly naive. Antony was also an honorable man, but he possessed a certain ruthlessness and ambition that Brutus lacked.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens epitomized the very idea of antithesis with this line. How can anything be both good and bad? In truth, life is always a simultaneous balance of the two.
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, Dumbledore and Voldemort engage in a fiery and electric battle of the ages. They are both powerful wizards, with Dumbledore coming down on the side of good and Voldemort coming down on the side of evil.
John Milton writes that it is “better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n" in Paradise Lost. Milton draws this stark contrast to make the point is that it may be better to be in power, even if it’s in the darkest depths of the netherworld, than to serve at the feet of another.
Aslan and the White Witch are constantly at odds with one another in The Chronicles Of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Aslan represents the side of good, whereas the White Witch comes down on the side of evil, sometimes even being compared to Satan.
The “to err is human; to forgive divine" from Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism paints a striking image of two opposing forces. Mistakes are a part of what it means to be human. However, if you want to elevate yourself to a status higher than humankind, you’ll have to learn to forgive one another.
In Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White and the Wicked Witch possess antithetical character traits. Snow White wanted to be kind and helpful to her fellow man, while the Wicked Witch's bitter jealousy prompts her to poison Snow White with an apple, thus taking away her beauty and charm.
Even the title of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is based on antithesis. Belle is the quintessence of beauty and the Beast is the epitome of ugliness. However, even though they’re initially presented as polar opposites, they still find a way to each other. And what is the Beast’s reward in the end? His beastliness is turned into beauty.
The venerable William Shakespeare writes, “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice" in Hamlet. In a short statement, he uses antithesis to contrast talking with its opposite: listening. True to form, Shakespeare found an illustrative way to drive a simple point home.
Much like poetry, song lyrics use antithesis to create vivid mental images and to draw important contrasts. How better to paint a picture or tug on a heartstring than with an illustrative play on words?
- "It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry, / The sun so hot, I froze to death, Susanna, don’t you cry." - Oh Susanna! by Stephen Foster
- "You’re easy on the eyes, hard on the heart." - You’re Easy on the Eyes by Terri Clark
- "I close my eyes so I can see / I burn a fire to stay cool / Shut the door so I can leave." - Shut the Door by Fugazi
- "And even though the sun is shining / Well, I feel the rain." - Even in the Quietest Moments by Roger Hodgson
- "It's never too soon / It's never too late." - Quicksand by Bethany Joy Lenz
- "Give me some sunshine / Give me some rain / Give me another chance / I wanna grow up once again." - Give Me Some Sunshine by Swanand Kirkire
Speakers frequently use antithesis to sway a crowd. On the same note, advertisers also use this rhetorical device to persuade their audience to buy a product. Take a look at a few noteworthy examples of historic moments and marketing campaigns.
- “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” - Neil Armstrong
- "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
- "Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Sara Lee." - Sara Lee advertising slogan.
- “Unlike short-sighted, egocentric humans, God 'sees with equal eye' the fall of a hero and a sparrow, the destruction of an atom or a solar system.” - Alexander Pope.
- “Speech is silver, but silence is gold.” - Source unknown
- "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." - Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address
- "I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dryrot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time." - Jack London
- "Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing." - Goethe
- “Money is the root of all evil: poverty is the fruit of all goodness.” - Source unknown
- “Patience is bitter, but it has a sweet fruit.” - Aristotle
- “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.” - Samuel Johnson
- “Folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” - Abraham Lincoln
- "All the joy the world contains / Has come through wishing happiness for others. / All the misery the world contains / Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself." - Shantideva
Any time you make a decision between two options, you're comparing their characteristics and deciding which you prefer. In this way, antithesis can be a very effective persuasive tool. Use rhetoric to make decisions (or to persuade others to do so) in real life or in writing.