he HyperTexts

Understatement Examples from Shakespeare and Elsewhere

Understatement Definition: The presentation of something as being smaller, worse, or less significant than it actually is.
Understatement Example: Neil Armstrong saying "One small step ..." when in fact it was the biggest step of his life, or any individual's life, to step onto the moon.

Meiosis Definition: Witty understatement that belittles or dismisses something or someone. The term derives from the Greek meioo, which means “to diminish” or “to make smaller.” 
Meiosis Example: "Before Elvis, there was nothing."—John Lennon, belittling every artist prior to Sir Swivel Hips

Litotes Definition: Understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary.
Litotes Examples: "Not the worst day ever." "Not too shabby." "She's no spring chicken." "He's not exactly thin himself."

This page contains examples of understatement, meiosis and litotes from the master of the genre, William Shakespeare, and elsewhere from poetry, literature, movies and television.

These examples of understatement from the poems and plays of William Shakespeare will be discussed in more detail below ...

"To be or not to be ..."  — from Hamlet by William Shakespeare, as Hamlet contemplates ending his life
“A little more than kin, and less than kind.”  — from Hamlet by William Shakespeare, as Hamlet describes his murderous uncle
"My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.” — from "Sonnet 130" by William Shakespeare
"No, 'tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve." — Mercutio describing the size of his death-wound in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
"I fear I am not in my perfect mind." — from King Lear by William Shakespeare, when the king had clearly gone mad

compiled by Michael R. Burch

I created this page after discovering it was surprisingly difficult to find examples of the best uses of understatement via Google searches, even in the works of Shakespeare. The greatest understatements of all time in film, television and literature, in one person's opinion, include:

"One small step ..."

“Houston, we have a problem …”

"You're gonna need a bigger boat." — After Brody sees the monster shark in Jaws.

“I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse” is an example of classic mobster understatement from The Godfather.

Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock on the original TV version of Star Trek was the master of ironic, laconic understatement:

“Curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.” — Mr. Spock on the subject of “unwanted” war.

Kor: You have done well to get this far through my guards.
Mr. Spock: I believe you'll find that several of them are no longer in perfect operating condition.

Captain Kirk: So we're stranded here, in the middle of a Klingon occupation army.
Mr. Spock: So it would seem. Not a very pleasant prospect.
Kirk: You have a gift for understatement, Mr. Spock.

Here are more examples of understatement from poetry and literature:

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” by journalist H. M. Stanley, at a time when David Livingstone was the only white man in deepest Africa, beside Stanley.

“I’ve got a nice place here.” — Jay Gatsby describing his mansion in The Great Gatsby.

“I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.” — Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

“… and death i think is no parenthesis” — E. E. Cummings (since death is a full stop)

Here are some of my favorite examples of meiosis:

Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.—Mark Twain

I believe God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability.—Oscar Wilde 

If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning.—Catherine the Great

There is no glory in outstripping donkeys.—Marcus Valerius Martial

I regard you with an indifference bordering on aversion.—Robert Louis Stevenson

Sometimes I need what only you can provide: your absence.—Ashleigh Brilliant

But the all-time master of irony and understatement was … as one might expect … William Shakespeare …

"My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.” — Shakespeare in his "Sonnet 130" argues against hyperbole and “false compare” in love poetry

In Hamlet, the young prince describes his uncle the king as “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” But Hamlet actually believes that his uncle murdered his beloved father and Hamlet will seek revenge at the cost of his life and others.

Later, Hamlet contemplates ending his life by beginning on a famous but subdued note, “To be or not to be …”

In Romeo and Juliet when Mercutio is stabbed he says, "Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough. Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon."

In the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a knight challenges King Arthur to a duel. Arthur hacks off one of the knight's arms, but the knight says, "Tis but a scratch." When the knight loses his other arm, he calls it "just a flesh wound." When Arthur has hacked off all four limbs, the knight says, "All right, we'll call it a draw."

Another Monty Python use of understatement occurs when a peasant tells King Arthur: “You can’t expect to wield supreme power because some watery tart threw a sword at you!”

Litotes is understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary. Once again, Shakespeare is the master, as in these lines where Mercutio describes the size of his wound: “No, 'tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130" contains several examples of litotes ...

Sonnet 130
by William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare.

Another poem that seems "understatement entire" is this Robert Frost classic:

Fire and Ice
by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”

Bio: Michael R. Burch is an American poet who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Beth, their son Jeremy, and three outrageously spoiled puppies. His poems, epigrams, translations, essays, articles, reviews, short stories and letters have appeared more than 6,000 times in publications which include TIME, USA Today, The Hindu, BBC Radio 3, CNN.com, Daily Kos, The Washington Post, Writer's Digest—The Year's Best Writing and hundreds of literary journals, websites and blogs. Mike Burch is also the founder and editor-in-chief of The HyperTexts, a former columnist for the Nashville City Paper and, according to Google's rankings, a relevant online publisher of poems about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Trail of Tears, Gaza and the Palestinian Nakba. He has two published books, Violets for Beth (White Violet Press, 2012) and O, Terrible Angel (Ancient Cypress Press, 2013). A third book, Auschwitz Rose, is still in the chute but long delayed. Burch's poetry has been translated into fourteen languages and set to music by twelve composers. His poem "First They Came for the Muslims" has been adopted by Amnesty International for its Words That Burn anthology, a free online resource for students and educators. Burch has also served as editor of International Poetry and Translations for the literary journal Better Than Starbucks.

For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the poet, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.

Related Pages: "Davenport Tomorrow" Analysis, "Epitaph" Analysis, "Neglect" Analysis, "Passionate One" Analysis, "Something" Analysis, "Self Reflection" Analysis, "Will There Be Starlight" Analysis

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