What imagery is used in Act Three, scene one, during Hamlet's soliloquy in Shakespeare's Hamlet?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act Three, scene one, during his soliloquy, Shakespeare uses several threads of imagery as Hamlet considers why more people do not commit suicide, as he wishes he could.

Imagery is a mental picture that words create in the reader's mind. Often sensory details are used, for the more in-depth the details, the sharper the image that the writer creates. These images capture the imagination of the reader (or audience), making the writing more meaningful.

The first image that Shakespeare uses compares death to sleep and dreams.

To die, to sleep—

To sleep—perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub!

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause—there's the respect

That makes calamity of so long life. (71-76)

Hamlet wonders if it would not be easy just to enter into the sleep we call "death." However, it is the dreams that might come to one after death that frightens him, and obviously others. For if people had nothing to fear if death were nothing more than sleep, the ending of one's life would not make so many think twice and decide to suffer in this life.

In the next section (77-83), Hamlet uses images of conflict and injustice:

  • whips
  • oppressor
  • proud man's insults (contumely)
  • the insolence of office
  • the law's delay
  • a dagger

Hamlet argues that if one were sure of what to find on the other side, in "the undiscovered country," no man would suffer the unfairness, repression and undeserved punishment he is afflicted with in life.

Finally, Hamlet presents the image of cowardice—something else that prevents one from taking his own life. It is a man's fear that leaves him to suffer in this life rather than ending his misery in this life. Fear appears in the form of...

...dread of something after death... (85)

And fear binds us to continue to suffer in this life (so says Hamlet).

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all... (90)

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Images (imagery) express ideas primarily by using the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Hamlet's soliloquy, in which he contemplates and rejects suicide as a solution to his troubles, is replete with imagery.

Hamlet visualizes his troubles--chiefly, what to do about avenging his father's death--in physical terms, describing them as slings (meaning the rocks shot from a sling shot) and arrows hitting him. If we think about the image, it's painful--who wants to be shot with arrows or hit with stones? Hamlet, in other words, feels his mental anguish as physical pain. He then visualizes his troubles as a "sea," meaning that they are large and all encompassing, perhaps drowning him. 

In contrast to the pain of his problems, Hamlet uses images of sleep to describe death. Like sleep, death is an escape from pain, an oblivion. But then Hamlet realizes that death is different from sleep--it is not oblivion, but a physical place, an "undiscovered country." Nobody returns from this country, Hamlet realizes, so he cannot know what he would face there. 

Hamlet uses the imagery of paleness and sickliness to liken too much thought to cowardliness--as someone cowardly and frightened turns pale with fear, so Hamlet's thoughts make him pale and sickly. They destroy his resolutions to act. He says: 

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

Hamlet also likens Ophelia, who enters at the end of his soliloquy, to a "nymph." A nymph is a minor Greco-Roman nature goddess who freely indulges her sensual and sexual side. This image shows that Hamlet continues to be worried, because of his mother's marriage to Claudius, that women in general might be sexually suspect or impure.