A prosopopoeia (Greek: προσωποποιία) is a rhetorical device in which a speaker or writer communicates to the audience by speaking as another person or object. The term literally derives from the Greek roots "prósopon face, person, and poiéin to make, to do".
Prosopopoeiae are used mostly to give another perspective on the action being described. For example, in Cicero's Pro Caelio, Cicero speaks as Appius Claudius Caecus, a stern old man. This serves to give the "ancient" perspective on the actions of the plaintiff. Prosopopoeiae can also be used to take some of the load off the communicator by placing an unfavorable point of view on the shoulders of an imaginary stereotype. The audience's reactions are predisposed to go towards this figment rather than the communicator himself.
This term also refers to a figure of speech in which an animal or inanimate object is ascribed human characteristics or is spoken of in anthropomorphic language. Quintilian writes of the power of this figure of speech to "bring down the gods from heaven, evoke the dead, and give voices to cities and states" (Institutes of Oratory [see ref.]). A classic example of this usage can be found in the book of Sirach in the Bible, where Wisdom is personified and made to speak to the people and to the reader:
Wisdom sings her own praises, before her own people she proclaims her glory; in the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, in the presence of his hosts she declares her worth: “From the mouth of the Most High I came forth, and mistlike covered the earth [...]”
- from Jeremiah 47, a dialogue between the sword of the Lord and the prophet
- 6. ‘Oh, sword of YHVH,
- until when will you not be quiet?
- Put yourself away into your scabbard;
- be calm and dumb.’
- 7. ‘How can you be quiet when YHVH has ordered her against Ashkelon and the sea shore?
- There is her assignment.’
- "The mere possibility of a Syriza victory has sent ripples of fear through markets around the world, and, again as is usual in such cases, ideological prosopopoeia is having a heyday: markets begin to talk like a living person, expressing their "worry" at what will happen if the elections fail to produce a government with a mandate to continue the EU - IMF program of fiscal austerity and structural reform". Slavoj Zizek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Verso Books 2012 p.14
- "The markets expect bold action from the central banks."
- "If Miller Huggins was alive today, he'd be turning over in his grave". —Yogi Berra, speaking of a former Yankees manager.
- In the second section of his "Cooper Union Address," Abraham Lincoln creates a mock debate between Republicans and the South, a debate in which he becomes spokesman for the party.
- In court a prosecutor may suggest to jurors that a homicide victim is "speaking to us through the evidence". Before becoming a Senator, John Edwards was reputed to have made such an argument in one of his most famous tort cases, representing the family of a girl who had been killed by a defective pool drain.
- "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait." -- William Shakespeare, Sonnet 129
- Literary Encyclopedia page on Prosopopoeia Broken link.
- Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory, Bk. IX Ch. II
- Adam Clarke, 1831, volume IV, page 121