While researching examples of the two literary devices for this installment of Intersections, metonymy and synecdoche, I came across the line “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the user comment “How is that not a synecdoche? Ears are a part of humans.”
I’ll tell you how, GolfXray22.
This scene features Antony attempting to deliver an oration for Julius Caesar’s funeral to a rowdy crowd of plebians who are glad for Caesar’s death. The phrase “lend me your ears” is literally a request for ears to be lent, but it is the fact that (spoiler alert) this is not what is actually being asked that makes this metonymy and not synecdoche.
GolfXray22 is correct in that Antony’s request has the potential to be synecdoche, a reductive label-making rhetorical device. Since ears are a part of humans, and synecdoche refers to a whole something by the name of one of its parts, synecdoche makes sense if we infer that “Lend me your ears” is a literal request for the plebians to give Antony their whole beings, of which their ears are a part.
But is this actually what Antony wants? Let’s consider the context: Antony delivers the line right before giving his oration to an audience that is unruly, to say the least. Giving a speech is rendered useless if your audience isn’t paying attention, and since Antony’s one goal for being in this scene is to give this speech, we can infer he’d like to captivate his audience.
Synecdoches are most successful when they use the most obvious, well known, or specific part of your chosen whole, since one of their purposes is to draw so much attention to a part that this part becomes the only thing worth noting when considering the whole.
But be careful: for example, referring to rabbits as “tails” is technically synecdoche, but this only satisfies the “specific part” criteria of what makes a good synecdoche. Lots of animals have tails, so you’ll probably have to use something unique to rabbits, like their skittish dispositions or 360˚ field of vision.
Of course, it would be difficult to find a part of a whole that is exclusive to that whole, but what helps synecdoches stick to their whole is continued, widespread use. For example, “wheels” could be a synecdoche for anything that includes that circular caveman technology, but more than likely refers to cars.
Antony asking the plebeians to give their bodies, minds, and souls to him by telling them to give him their ears is plausible, but Shakespeare saved this kind of metaphor for his tragedy, Titus Andronicus, and severed ears can’t be the solution for getting Antony’s audience to listen to him, as severed ears don’t hear so good.
But what are ears associated with? Listening.
“Lend me your ears” translates to “give me your attention,” which makes sense in a scene where a character is attempting to give a speech. This shows us that Antony is using the word “ears” to represent attention. Because the whole in this instance is attention, and ears are not part of attention but merely associated with it, this phrase is metonymy, a reductive labeling device that uses association, not part of a whole.
On the SAT…
When facing questions involving either synecdoche or metonymy on the SAT, be suspicious! Authors use these non-literal label-making devices to add intrigue and originality to their narratives by avoiding plain, direct language, so it’s up to you to detect when a character is not speaking literally.
Does this character seem like they’re hiding something, or does the situation they’re in warrant this coded language? Does a character’s literal topic fit within the context of the rest of the passage?
Finding hidden meanings can be tricky at first, but uncovering those secrets depends on your unique knowledge of extra-textual factors, which solidifies your personal connection with an author who may also don a collection of hardware used to help people see: