What literary devices are used in the ghost's speech in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In act 1, scene 5, of Hamlet, the Ghost's speech features alliteration, which refers to starting words that are close to each other with the same sound. The Ghost says he is doomed "to fast in fires." The repetition of the "f" sound is an example of alliteration.

The Ghost later says that he could tell a tale whose "lightest word," or least frightening word, would "harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood." These are examples of personification, or making something that is not alive into something animate. A word cannot by itself slice up one's soul or freeze one's blood, but the personification used by the Ghost makes it sound as if words can accomplish these types of acts.

The Ghost also uses similes, or comparisons that use the word "like" or "as." For example, he says that his tale will make Hamlet's hair stand up "like quills upon the fearful porcupine." In this simile, the Ghost says that Hamlet will be so frightened by the tale the Ghost has to tell that Hamlet will look like a porcupine because his hair will stand up like quills. He later uses a metaphor, or a comparison that does not use "like" or "as," to refer to his brother, Claudius, as "a serpent that did sting thy father's life." In other words, he likens Claudius to a serpent who killed him by stinging him and who now wears the crown.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The ghost of Hamlet's father says,

My hour is almost come
When I to sulfurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.

Here, the ghost substitutes the word "hour" to refer to time, using a figure of speech called metonymy. Metonymy occurs when a writer substitutes a detail associated with a thing for the thing itself. An hour is a measurement of time, and so we understand what the ghost means when he says that his "hour" to return to Purgatory is near.

Later, the ghost says to Hamlet that, if he could tell his son about Purgatory, the tale

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fearful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

In this passage, the ghost uses a metaphor comparing Hamlet's soul to land that has been plowed and broken up (harrow can also mean to cause distress to, but not typically with the word "up"), conveying the idea that the story of Purgatory would be so awful that it would tear up Hamlet's soul. Further, the ghost says that the tale would freeze his blood; now, it wouldn't actually freeze Hamlet's blood, but it would make Hamlet feel very frightened. Therefore, he's created another example of metonymy, using the idea of blood running cold to stand in for simply saying that it would be frightening (consider that the expression, "My blood ran cold," means to be scared). Further, Hamlet's blood, in isolation, is not young; it is his whole self that is young, and so this is an example of synecdoche (when a part of something stands in for the whole thing).

Next, the ghost uses a simile to compare Hamlet's eyes to two stars; he means that they would come out of their sockets as stars that shoot across the sky. Next, another simile compares Hamlet's hair to the quills of a porcupine because his individual hairs would seem to separate from each other and then stand straight up. Finally, he says that people with "ears of flesh and blood" are not meant to hear about Purgatory; this is another example of synecdoche: flesh and blood are part of what makes up the whole human ear.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When the ghost of Hamlet's father meets his son, he explains the circumstances of his murder and commands Hamlet to avenge it. In doing so, the ghost's lines include:

  • Inversion:  "My hour is almost come, /When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames/Must render up myself."

This inverted syntax was likely employed for metrical purposes.

  • Simile:  And each particular hair to stand on end,/Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

Here, the ghost tells Hamlet that if he could speak freely, what he would have to say would make Hamlet's hair stand on end, like quills on a startled porcupine.

  • Allusion:  "And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed/That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,"

Lethe was, in Greek myth, the spirit of forgetfulness, often associated with a river in the underworld.  

  • Metaphor:  "The serpent that did sting thy father's life/Now wears his crown."

The ghost uses a metaphor to identify Claudius, his murderer.  Claudius is the late King Hamlet's brother, and he has taken the throne of Denmark, along with his wife, Gertrude.

  • Repetition:  "List, list, O, list!" and "O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!"

These repetitions, the first to command Hamlet to listen, and the second to express the outrage of Claudius's fratricide and regicide, emphasize the pathos of the cruel and unnatural circumstances of the end of the ghost's earthly life.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial