Guide to Literary Terms

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Rhetorical question

Rhetorical question - one asked solely to produce an effect or to make a statement, but not expected to receive an answer. The purpose to such a question, whose answer is obvious, is usually to make a deeper impression upon the hearer or reader than a direct statement would.

The etymology of rhetorical is the same as that of rhetoric, as discussed above. The second word of the term, “question,” is from the Latin quaestio derived from quarere, meaning “to seek or ask.”

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock uses rhetorical questions in his famous speech:

Hath not
a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? . . .
If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Act III, scene i : lines 55 – 63