Figures of Speech: Epiplexis (Rhetoric)

Image of Joseph N. Welch, head counsel for the U.S. Army at the Army-McCarthy Hearings, June 1954
"Have you no decency, sir? Epiplexis employed by Joseph N. Welch, head counsel for the U.S. Army at the Army-McCarthy Hearings, June 1954.  Getty Images

In rhetoric, epiplexis is an interrogative figure of speech in which questions are asked in order to rebuke or reproach rather than to elicit answers. Adjective: epiplectic. Also known as epitimesis and percontatio.

In a broader sense, epiplexis is a form of argument in which a speaker attempts to shame an opponent into adopting a particular point of view.

Epiplexis, says Brett Zimmerman, is "clearly a device of vehemence. . . . Of the four kinds of rhetorical questions [epiplexis, erotesis, hypophora, and ratiocinatio] . . ., perhaps epiplexis is the most devastating because it is used not to elicit information but to reproach, rebuke, upbraid" (Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style, 2005).


From the Greek, "strike at, rebuke"

Examples and Observations

  • "Epiplexis a more specific form of [a rhetorical question] where a lament or an insult is asked as a question. What's the point? Why go on? What's a girl to do? How could you? What makes your heart so hard? When, in the Bible, Job asks: 'Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?' it's not a real question. It's epiplexis. Epiplexis is the puzzled grief of 'Why, God? Why?' in Miss Saigon; or it is the bemused disdain in the film Heathers that prompts the question: 'Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?'"
    (Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. Penguin, 2013)
  • "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
    (Joseph Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy at the Army-McCarthy Hearings, June 9, 1954)
  • "Are we children of a lesser God? Is an Israeli teardrop worth more than a drop of Lebanese blood?”
    (Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, July 2006)
  • "O how little a thing is all the greatness of man, and through how false glasses doth he make shift to multiply it, and magnifie it to himselfe?"
    (John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624)
  • "You think what I do is playing God, but you presume you know what God wants. Do you think that's not playing God?"
    (John Irving, The Cider House Rules, 1985)
  • "Ah, sorry to interrupt you there, Bobbo, but I gotta ask you a quick question. Now, when you were born, nay, spawned by the Dark Prince himself, did that rat bastard forget to give you a hug before he sent you along your way?"
    (Dr. Cox in the television program Scrubs, 2007)
  • "Canst thou with impious obloquy condemn
    The just Decree of God, pronounc't and sworn,
    That to his only Son by right endu'd
    With Regal Scepter, every Soule in Heav'n
    Shall bend the knee, and in that honour due
    Confess him rightful King?"
    (Abdiel addressing Satan in Paradise Lost by John Milton)

Epiplexis in a Restaurant Review

"Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? Have you pulled up one of the 500 seats at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations?
"Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex? When you saw the burger described as 'Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,' did your mind touch the void for a minute? . . .
"How did nachos, one of the hardest dishes in the American canon to mess up, turn out so deeply unlovable? Why augment tortilla chips with fried lasagna noodles that taste like nothing except oil? Why not bury those chips under a properly hot and filling layer of melted cheese and jalapeños instead of dribbling them with thin needles of pepperoni and cold gray clots of ground turkey? . . .
"Somewhere within the yawning, three-level interior of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, is there a long refrigerated tunnel that servers have to pass through to make sure that the French fries, already limp and oil-sogged, are also served cold?"
(Pete Wells, "As Not Seen on TV." The New York Times, November 13, 2012)

Epiplexis in Shakespeare's Hamlet

"Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age The heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this? Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure, that sense
Is apoplex'd; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne'er so thrall'd
But it reserved some quantity of choice,
To serve in such a difference. What devil was't
That thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.
O shame! where is thy blush?"
(Prince Hamlet addressing his mother, the Queen, in Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

​​The Lighter Side of Epiplexis

  • "What's with you, kid? You think the death of Sammy Davis left an opening in the Rat Pack?"
    (Dan Hedaya as Mel in Clueless, 1995)
  • "Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?”
    (Judd Nelson as John Bender in The Breakfast Club, 1985)
  • "Have you no shame, coming in as Gandhi and stuffing yourself with Buffalo wings? Why didn't you come as FDR and go around with crazy legs?"
    (George Segal as Jack Gallow in "Halloween, Halloween." Just Shoot Me! 2002)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Figures of Speech: Epiplexis (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Figures of Speech: Epiplexis (Rhetoric). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Figures of Speech: Epiplexis (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).