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What are the major literary devices used throughout Hamlet?

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djardinez | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted December 19, 2007 at 6:25 PM via web

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What are the major literary devices used throughout Hamlet?

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malibrarian | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted December 24, 2007 at 10:06 AM (Answer #2)

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Shakespeare used a wide variety of literary devices in all of his plays, and I would have to write a very lengthy essay in order to discuss all of them that he used in Hamlet (far exceeding my limit allowed in this space). However, I can explain a few of them, as well as provide a link that will help you further understand them. Each example below is from Hamlet's famous speech in Act III, scene 1 (To be or not to be):

antithesis: contrary ideas expressed in a balanced sentence
ex: "To be, or not to be, that is the question:" (opposite ideas of being or not being, living or dying, are expressed in this sentence)

alliteration: repetition of an initial sound in two or more words of a phrase, line or sentence
ex: "With a bare bodkin?" (the "b" sound beginning bare and bodkin)

allusion: a reference to a person , event, or condition thought to be familiar (but sometimes actually obscure or unknown) to the reader
ex: "The fair Ophelia.--Nymph, in thy orisons/Be all my sins remembered." (a nymph is a mythological reference, or allusion)

soliloquy: a speech delivered by a character in a play or other literature while alone
ex: Hamlet's entire "To be or not to be" speech is a soliloquy

Check the link below for a great list of these devices (that is where I got the above definitions)!


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lmetcalf | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted May 25, 2011 at 12:32 PM (Answer #4)

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In addition to the devices listed above, you could also consider such elements of the play itself such as structure, methods of characterization, and theme.  You could also brainstorm examples of irony and motif.

The play is a typical five-act structure with Act 1 being primarily for exposition, Act 2 is the rising action and further complication, Act 3 brings that climax (point of no return), Act 4 is the falling action, and Act 5 is the resolution of the conflicts.  It is always interesting to consider which exact action or choice by the main character marks the climax of the play.  In this case is it Hamlet's decision not to kill Claudius when he has a chance? or is it the killing of Polonius?

When you consider methods of characterization you think about how the author uses a blend of what characters say, do and think as well as what others say about them in order to craft the complete character.  This is certainly a valuable study for many of the characters in the play.

There are many themes in the play: life/death - what happens after death, fate/providence, love/marriage, revenge, kingship, friendship, action vs. inaction, to name a few.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted August 22, 2011 at 11:35 AM (Answer #5)

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In Shakespeare's Hamlet, I think that the Bard uses double-entendres (double-speak, word games), metaphors (even extended ones) and allusion. These are things that Shakespeare uses a great deal in many of his plays.

When Claudius demands to know where Polonius' body is hidden, Hamlet explains that he is at supper. When questioned, Hamlet explains that it is not about what Polonius eats, but what eats HIM. (This is "double-speak.") Hamlet does this quite a bit of this with the innocent Ophelia. Because he believes he cannot trust her, he torments her with insults and feigned madness. Then when Polonius dies, she loses her mind.

I find it entertaining that when Hamlet arranges to have the players present a play to "catch the conscience of a King," he tells the members of the court that the play is entitled Mousetrap—what a clever way to infer that he is searching out a "rat" or some other vermin: namely Claudius.

One simple metaphor is when Hamlet explains that he has little fear of losing his life. When Horatio worries about his friend approaching Old Hamlet's ghost, Hamlet notes:

Why, what should be the fear?

I do not set my life in a pin's fee; (I.iv.67-68)

In other words, the cost of a pin is worth more than Hamlet's life, or so he says. And he proceeds to seek the ghost haunting the battlements.

As an allusion, Polonius ironically notes that he once acted the part of Julius Caesar, and was stabbed by Brutus. It will be, in fact, the way that Polonius dies: hiding in Gertrude's room behind a curtain (arras), Hamlet stabs him (which is irony), believing it is Claudius in Gertrude's room.

I did enact Julius Caesar; I was killed i' the Capitol;

Brutus killed me. (III.ii.98-99)

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emmasmith79 | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted October 17, 2011 at 5:17 PM (Answer #6)

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Here's a few really really simple literary techniques :)

“Hamlet” is a great example of how the uncertainty of the truth leads to the confusion between what is real and what isn’t. The repetition of the word ‘seems’ throughout the play reinforces this idea that not everything and everyone is who they appear to be.

He compares his father to his once uncle, as "Hyperion to a satyr". Therefore, Hamlet views his father as having possessed king like qualities, and Claudius as a beast who married his mother for lust and power.

“Frailty, thy name is woman”. Hamlets attitude toward women is notoriously sexist and sterns from his disgust at his mother’s sexuality and seeming unfaithfulness to his dead father. Hamlet also compares himself to a “promiscuous woman” when he finds himself unable to avenge his father’s death. This metaphor circles back to Hamlet’s association between women and deception.

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nchauca | Student, College Freshman | eNotes Newbie

Posted October 25, 2011 at 12:05 PM (Answer #7)

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hin hamlet william shakespear uses a a series of pareadoxies when the witches forsake what will happen to hamlet

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bobdarwish | High School Teacher | eNoter

Posted January 8, 2012 at 7:10 PM (Answer #8)

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This is an extremely broad question. I would probably help if I knew what exactly you were looking for. Nonetheless, I am going to make some general remarks. I hope this helps. You could discuss the importance of language, especially Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. You could discuss symbols like Yorick's skull and the ghost. You could discuss day and night and how the shift in time plays an important role in understanding what is in fact "rotten in the state of Denmark". You could also focus on puns (play on words), litotes, irony, repitition and alliteration.

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