I have said enough in this blog about the pluses and minuses of passive voice in an 11-part series, which you can read by searching the term in the search bar on the right of this page, or by searching in the blog archive the dates below: October 11, 2010 – December 2, 2010. Topics include why active voice is not necessarily better than passive voice, when active voice works, and when passive voice works, as well as techniques for changing passive to active and active to passive.
For this final post on style, I would rather remind you that passive voice definitely does have a place in good writing—no matter what uninformed writing teachers tell you. To prove this point, I use quotes from four great speeches of Shakespeare’s classic plays: Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Richard III.
“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” – Marc Antony to the Roman populace, in Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2Who would dare change this line from Marc Antony's ingenious eulogy of Caesar beginning with "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ear," a masterpiece in the psychology of persuasion? The passive clause is oft interred with their bones sounds infinitely better than We oft inter the good men do with their bones because of the clause that precede it about the evil men do.
"My life were better ended by their hate than death prorogued wanting of thy love." – Romeo to Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2At this moment, Romeo is brushing off Juliet’s appeal for him to flee, lest one of her family members discovers them together and in a fit of anger kills him. But the spotlight here belongs to the purpose of Romeo’s life now that he has fallen in love with Juliet. That purpose is far more important than anything anyone other than Juliet can do to Romeo's life. A far weaker active version would be, “Let their hate end my life rather than my death come without your love.” Clearly the passive is breathtaking. This romantic quote still gets chills hearing that Shakespearean line.
"Conscience does make cowards of us all ... thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." – Hamlet soliloquy in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act 3, Scene 3In what is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest speech, Hamlet, searches the vast wisdom of the world in vain to choose between decisive action and suicide. The active version "The pale cast of thinking weakens our natural resolve," cannot measure up to the original.
"Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York." – Richard soliloquy in Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1In this first sentence of the play, Richard immediately reveals an intense jealousy of his brother, Edward IV, for his success as king of England. His absolute anguish at being physically disabled and in the shadow of Edward is too much for him to bear. If the sentence had been in active, “Now this sun of York makes glorious summer of the winter of our discontent,” the idea of the sentence, the poetry of the verse, and the ugliness of Richard’s ambitions are lost.
You get the point: passive voice can be just as graceful, poetic, and clear as active voice, and even when it lacks clarity, its ambiguity may suit the occasion. Voice is a terrific diction tool for improving style. Use it wisely.