Dubitatio as a Rhetorical Strategy

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Man holding skull in Hamlet

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Dubitatio is a rhetorical term for the expression of doubt or uncertainty. The doubt that is expressed may be genuine or feigned. Adjective: dubitative. Also called indecision.

In oratory, dubitatio commonly takes the form of expressions of uncertainty about the ability to speak effectively.

From the Latin, "wavering in opinion"

Examples and Observations

  • "To be, or not to be, that is the question:
    Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
    And by opposing end them. . . ."
    (From Hamlet's soliloquy in Act III, scene 1, of William Shakespeare's Hamlet)
  • Comic Dubitatio
    "[E]ventually it became clear that the only thing to do was to go to Croyden, where [British Telecom's] offices are.
    "And that, gentlemen, is how I discovered the legendary Arsehole of the Universe, a sort of reverse Shangri-La where you age hundreds of years in a mere lunchtime. Can I speak of the mystical Telecom eyrie, the fabled Delta Point, with its solemn procession of whining, impotent, bearded men in brown Terylene suits? Can I tell of its burger bars, car parks, building society offices? Is my pen capable of painting its atmosphere of municipal sniveling and cheeseparing rapaciousness? Have I the tongue to sing its one-way system?
    (Michael Bywater, "Bargepole." Punch, August 24, 1990)
  • Dubitatio in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
    "I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:
    I am no orator, as Brutus is;
    But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
    That love my friend; and that they know full well
    That gave me public leave to speak of him:
    For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
    Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
    To stir men's blood: I only speak right on."
    (Marc Antony in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Act III, scene 2)
  • Dubitatio as the Ironic Expression of Doubt
    - "One device of which [Thomas Hobbes] makes frequent use is dubitatio, the ironic expression of doubt or ignorance. . . . Some English rhetoricians had assumed that the purpose of the device is to give voice to genuine uncertainties, in consequence of which they made no distinction between dubitatio and aporia. But others recognised that, as Thomas Wilson observes, the defining characteristic of dubitatio must be its disingenuousness. We are far from expressing any real uncertainty; we merely 'make the hearers believe that the weight of our matter causeth us to doubte what were best to speake.'"
    (Quentin Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes. Cambridge University Press, 1997)
    - "Dubitatio consists in the speaker's trying to strengthen the credibility (fides veritatis) of his own point of view by means of a feigned oratorical helplessness, which expresses itself in the appeal to the audience, made in the form of a question, for advice concerning the efficient and relevant intellectual development of the speech."
    (Heinrich Lausberg, Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A Foundation for Literary Study, 2nd ed.. Translated by Matthew T. Bliss and edited by David E. Orton and R. Dean Anderson. Brill, 1998)
  • Dubitatio and Intonation
    "Dubitatio is not always an oratorical device . . .. The speaker's intonation always conveys a high or low degree of assurance. Doubt is quite natural in interior monologue."
    (Bernard Dupriez, A Dictionary of Literary Devices, trans. by Albert W. Halsall. Univ. of Toronto Press, 1991)
  • The Lighter Side of Dubitatio
    - "[N]othing irks quite as much as the luvvie that takes to the stage and utters the big fat lie: 'I haven't prepared a speech, because I really didn't think I was going to win.'
    "What do they mean, they didn't think they were going to win? They are in a category of four nominees. And it's not like they haven't seen award ceremonies before where the result was unexpected. Of course they thought they might win, and of course they spent the whole week leading up to the ceremony rehearsing their speech again and again--in the shower; on the loo; walking up the stairs; walking down the stairs; staring in the fridge; squeezing their teabags; moisturising; doing their press-ups; taking out the recycling; changing a light bulb; chopping onions; flossing; tossing their socks in the laundry bin; loading the dishwasher; turning lights off; turning lights on; drawing the curtains; sniffing the milk--so you'd have thought they would have got it down pat by now. And you know what, they have. Because the speech they've been endlessly rehearsing is this:
    "'I haven't prepared a speech, because I really didn't think I was going to win.'
    (Rob Brydon, Lee Mack, and David Mitchell, Would I Lie To You? Faber & Faber, 2015)
    - "You know I'm not good at making speeches, especially when I don't have you to write them for me."
    (Dan Wanamaker, played by Alan Alda, in What Women Want, 2000)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Dubitatio as a Rhetorical Strategy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/dubitatio-rhetoric-term-1690485. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Dubitatio as a Rhetorical Strategy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dubitatio-rhetoric-term-1690485 Nordquist, Richard. "Dubitatio as a Rhetorical Strategy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dubitatio-rhetoric-term-1690485 (accessed March 27, 2023).