In Shakespeare's Hamlet, what are some rhetorical devices used in Hamlet's famous speech about death as an "undiscovered country"?

Expert Answers
vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In a famous passage in Act 3, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet considers how fear of what may happen after death makes us willing to endure the burdens of life.

Who would these fardels bear, 
To grunt and sweat under a weary life, 
But that the dread of something after death- 
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn 
No traveller returns- puzzles the will, 
And makes us rather bear those ills we have 
Than fly to others that we know not of? 
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, 
And thus the native hue of resolution 
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, 
And enterprises of great pith and moment 
With this regard their currents turn awry 
And lose the name of action.

These words employ a number of literary devices, including the following:

  • Alliteration, as in the repeated hard “c” sounds of “conscience does make cowards.”
  • Assonance, as in the similar vowel sounds of “sweat,” “dread,” and “death.”
  • Metaphors, as in the reference to what comes after death as an “undiscovered country.”
  • Enjambment, as in all the lines here that do not end with punctuation.
  • A rhetorical question, as in the opening sentence here.
  • Balanced verbs, as in “grunt and sweat.”
  • Iambic pentameter rhythm, as in the following line:

But that the dread of something after death

Such regularly patterned lines help call attention to the departures from regular iambic pentameter rhythm in other lines, such as the following:

To grunt and sweat UNDer a weary life

In this line, the departure from the expected rhythm helps emphasize the burden Hamlet feels.

In these lines as so often elsewhere in his writings, Shakespeare shows himself to be a master of many rhetorical resources of the English language. Practically every line he writes reveals some interesting rhetorical element, but it is, of course, the smooth, seemingly instinctive combination of all these elements that typically makes his verse so memorable.