Definition and Examples of Hypocrisis in Rhetoric

man holding a microphone being comedic to a crowd

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Hypocrisis has multiple definitions:

(1) Hypocrisis is a rhetorical term for mimicking or exaggerating the speech habits of others, often in order to mock them. In this sense, hypocrisis is a form of parody. Adjective: hypocritical.

(2) In Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses hypocrisis in the context of the delivery of a speech. "Delivery of speeches in plays," notes Kenneth J. Reckford, "as in assemblies or law courts (the term, hypocrisis, is the same), requires the right use of qualities like rhythm, volume, and voice quality" (Aristophanes' Old-and-New Comedy, 1987).

In Latin, hypocrisis can also mean hypocrisy or feigned sanctity.

Etymology: From the Greek, "reply; (orator's) delivery; to play a part in the theater."

Examples and Observations

"In the terminology of Latin rhetoric both actio and pronuntiatio apply to the realization of a speech by vocalization (figura vocis, which covers breath and rhythm) and accompanying physical movements. . . .

"Both actio and pronuntiatio correspond to the Greek hypocrisis, which relates to the techniques of actors. Hypocrisis had been introduced into the terminology of rhetorical theory by Aristotle (Rhetoric, III.1.1403b). The dual histrionic and oratorical associations of the Greek word reflect the ambivalence, perhaps even hypocrisy, about the relationship between speech-delivery and acting that pervades the Roman rhetorical tradition. On the one hand, rhetoricians make untold pronouncements against oratory that bears too strong a resemblance to acting. Cicero in particular takes pains to distinguish between the actor and the speaker. On the other hand, examples abound of orators, from Demosthenes through to Cicero and beyond, who hone their skills by observing and imitating actors. . . . 

"The equivalent of actio and pronuntiatio in modern English is delivery."

(Jan M. Ziolkowski, "Do Actions Speak Louder Than Words? The Scope and Role of​ Pronuntiatio in the Latin Rhetorical Tradition." Rhetoric Beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages, ed. by Mary Carruthers. Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Aristotle on Hypocrisis

"The section [in Rhetoric] on hypocrisis is a part of Aristotle's discussion of diction (lexis), in which he painstakingly explains to his reader that, in addition to knowing what to say, one must also know how to put the right content into the right words. In addition to these main two considerations, two topics--what to say and how to put it in words--there is, Aristotle admits, a third topic, which he will not discuss, namely, how to properly deliver the right content put into the right words. . . .

"Aristotle's . . . agenda is quite clear from his quasi-historical account. In associating the increase of interest in delivery with the fashion for poetic texts (both epic and dramatic) to be recited by people other than their authors, Aristotle seems to be contrasting the performers' studied delivery with the authors' presumably spontaneous rendition of their own work. Delivery, he implies, is essentially a mimetic art that originally developed as a skill of actors imitating emotions that they did not experience. As such, delivery risks skewing public debates, offering an unfair advantage to speakers willing and able to manipulate their audience's emotions." (Dorota Dutsch, "The Body in Rhetorical Theory and in Theater: An Overview of Classical Works." Body-Language-Communication, edited by Cornelia Müller et al. Walter de Gruyter, 2013)

Falstaff Playing the Role of Henry V in a Speech to the King's Son, Prince Hal

"Peace, good pint-pot; peace, good tickle-brain. Harry, I do not only marvel where thou spendest thy time, but also how thou art accompanied: for though the camomile, the more it is trodden on the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted the sooner it wears. That thou art my son, I have partly thy mother's word, partly my own opinion, but chiefly a villainous trick of thine eye and a foolish-hanging of thy nether lip, that doth warrant me. If then thou be son to me, here lies the point; why, being son to me, art thou so pointed at? Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries? a question not to be asked. Shall the sun of England prove a thief and take purses? a question to be asked. There is a thing, Harry, which thou hast often heard of and it is known to many in our land by the name of pitch: this pitch, as ancient writers do report, doth defile; so doth the company thou keepest: for, Harry, now I do not speak to thee in drink but in tears, not in pleasure but in passion, not in words only, but in woes also: and yet there is a virtuous man whom I have often noted in thy company, but I know not his name." (William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, scene 4)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Hypocrisis in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Hypocrisis in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Hypocrisis in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).