Rhetorical Question

“Rhetorical Question: Basically a question not expecting an answer, or one to which the answer is more or less self-evident. It is used primarily for stylistic effect, and is a very common device in public speaking—especially when the speaker is trying to work up the emotional temperature. For example (a politician on the hustings:

‘Are we going to tolerate this intrusion upon our freedom? Are we going to accept these restrictions? Are we to be intimidated by time-serving bureaucrats? Are we to be suppressed by sycophantic and supine jackals waiting for dead men’s shoes?’

Or the writer may argue with himself (and in a different way work on the emotions of the reader) as Sir Philip Sidney does in the 47th sonnet of the sequence Astrophel and Stella:

‘What, have I thus betrayed my libertie?

Can those blacke beames such burning markes engrave

In my free side? Or am I borne a slave,

Whose necke become such yoke of tyranny?

Or want I sense to feel my miserie?

Or sprite, disdained of such disdaine to have?’

Another fundamental form of rhetorical question (both having something in common with the above) are: (a) a series of questions in quick succession for emphasis (e.g. “Can we make it? If so, will it work? Where can we market it? Can we market it cheaply?” and so on); (b) a question put to another person or oneself which expresses surprise, astonishment, or anger and which is not easily answered. A good example is Bolingbroke’s outburst in Richard II (I, iii, 294) after he has been banished:

‘O, who can hold a fire in his hand,

By thinking of the frosty Caucasus?

Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite

By bare imagination of a feast?

Or wallow naked in December snow,

By thinking on fantastic summer’s heat?'”

Excerpted from: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. New York: Penguin, 1992.

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