In Shakespeare's Hamlet, please identify symbolism and imagery and explain the difference is between the two. 

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the Bard used both symbolism and imagery to make his plots more interesting and his characters more believable. 

Look at imagery. It is defined as...

...the author’s attempt to create a mental picture (or reference point) in the mind of the reader.

Imagery describes; it generally is geared toward creating a visual picture in one's mind by the use of highly effective language; however, sensory details in this kind of writing can also appeal to the other senses as well. It is figurative language, and literary devices used can include similes, metaphors, etc. One source gives an excellent example of basic, but beautiful and impactful imagery, as shown in poet William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow:"

...which involve[d] the appearances of everyday, ordinary objects like a "red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water..."

The color "red" stands out, as does the "glazed" surface, shiny with the rainwater.

Shakespeare also uses imagery in a highly effective way. In Act One, scene two, Hamlet is terribly depressed. His father is dead; within only a few months' time, his mother has remarried—Hamlet's uncle, which the Elizabethans (and Hamlet) believed was incestuous. Gertrude and Claudius are telling him, after only months, to get over his father's death. Hamlet hates his life. In this speech, he wishes he could die: he says he wishes his solid flesh would just disintegrate, or "melt" and turn into "dew," that would simply then disappear or evaporate.

O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew... (132-133)

The imagery here is more powerful than: I wish I were dead. Hamlet wants to disappear, and his pain is all the more apparent in that death is not enough: he wants it to be as if he had never existed at all.

Symbolism is not used to describe, as imagery is. Symbolism generally supports a theme the author is trying to convey to the reader. Symbols in our daily lives are easy to recognize: the "$" for money; the peace sign for...peace; a dove is symbolic of peace. Colors can be symbolic: in cartoons, if a character is mad, his face turns bright red—red is symbolic of anger, passion and even jealously.
A symbol is defined as:
A word, place, character, or object that means something beyond what it is on a literal level.
It is something that stands for something else beyond its own meaning. The dove is just a bird, but it can represent the theme of freedom when used with ideas of freedom in a piece of literature.
Hamlet is called an "Elizabethan revenge play" (because Hamlet is directed by the ghost of his father to avenge his murder), and death is a central motif. The theme is that "death is inevitable to all." Another symbol may be the flowers that Ophelia gives out after she has gone mad: the plants are nothing more than sticks and dead weeds, but in her insanity she believes they are flowers, and each has its own symbolic meaning—as she explains. The dead plants symbolize the love she and Hamlet once shared, that is now gone. We could find several themes supported here, but in particular I would suggest that evil has many victims. Had Claudius not killed his brother, most likely Hamlet and Ophelia would have married—certainly Gertrude had hoped as much.
So an image describes something so clearly that the reader can envision what is being written about. A symbol, however, represents something else beside itself, dealing with a theme.