What are some examples of the use of allusions in William Shakespeare's Hamlet?

1 Answer

vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

In Hamlet as in so many of his other works, William Shakespeare uses allusions enrich and complicate the meaning of the play.  Three examples of such allusions are the following:

  • In the first speech of Act 3, scene 2, Hamlet, when discussing bad actors and overblown acting, says,

I would have such a fellow whipp'd for o'erdoing 
Termagant. (3.2.10-11)

Philip Edwards’ Cambridge edition of Hamlet notes that “Termagant” may refer to an imaginary god venerated by Muslims, but Edwards reports no record of such a figure appearing in any known English play before Shakespeare. He does refer to a usage by John Bale, in 1550, referring to “termagants in a play,” but Edwards notes that this usage may simply refer to violent persons, as that word is used in Shakespeare’s own 1 Henry IV (5.4.114). Finally, Edwards reports that “Termagant” is used as another name for Jove or Zeus in a 1598 poem by John Marston.

  • Immediately after uttering the words quoted above, Hamlet remarks (again about bad acting), “It out-herods Herod” (3.2.11).

Here the allusion is much easier to understand. In medieval religious plays, Herod was often presented as an insane, violent, and highly emotional character; he was depicted as a histrionic mad-man. Actors who played Herod apparently enjoyed going “over-the-top” in their performances. Hamlet prefers a subtler approach to acting.

  • Later, speaking to Ophelia, Hamlet uses the phrase “For O, for O, the hobby-horse is forgot!” (3.2.119-20). According to the notes in Edwards’ Cambridge edition, this phrase was a common one during the Elizabethan period. Apparently the phrase alludes to the hobbyhorses that often appeared in country festivals but which had been suppressed thanks to pressure from Puritans. They objected to the sexual connotations of hobbyhorses in such contexts. Edwards notes that hobbyhorses almost always had sexual connotations and that they were also known to come back to life when such revival was least expected – much like Hamlet’s father.